Developing and Planning Exhibitions - Step by Step

Volute specimens. Photo by Jessica Scholle.

Volute specimens. Photo by Jessica Scholle.

Image copyright WA Museum

Image from 'A behind-the-scenes look at our volute collection', from the Western Australian Museum's Aquatic Zoology collection.

Sound planning is essential if the museum is to develop a successful exhibition.  The following points provide an easy reference point for museum staff in the initial planning stages of an exhibition.


Form a project team and appoint a project leader


Define the objectives.  What outcomes are being aimed for?  Who is the target audience?


Define the main exhibition theme or subject and brainstorm the team’s ideas about what information, materials and other things could be used to communicate this subject.  Jot these down onto butchers paper or a whiteboard.


Assess the information and materials at your disposal, in addition to available resources, such as space, labour, time and money.  Consider which ideas from the brainstorm list can realistically be put into action.  Some ideas will require further research – can these be accomplished given the restrictions?


Draw up a schedule


Plan the storyline:

  • Break it down in sub-sections and decide what information, objects, images etc will go into which section;
  • Work out how these will fit into the available space;
  • Ensure that the storyline flows logically – give visitors a beginning, middle and maybe end;
  • An introductory panel to the exhibition is essential;Try to communicate via different senses – eg: visual, audio and touch.



  • A floor plan will help to plot out where each part of the storyline will go;
  • Plan flexibility into the exhibition for future turnover;
  • A simple sketch of each sub-section will ensure the whole team understands what labels, images, maps, diagrams etc will be used and where;
  • Remember – a picture tells a 1000 words;
  • Lighting


Labels – content:

  • Use simple, concise language.  Read them aloud to test readability;
  • Avoid jargon and technical terms;Aim for consistent style – tricky if the labels have been written by different people or over several weeks;
  • Use levels of information to suit visitor needs, similar to newspapers eg: a catchy heading; an introductory 2-3 sentences; a paragraph with more detailed information for those who want it;
  • Using questions in labels can be a good way to engage people;
  • Quotes are an effective way of breaking up text and injecting another voice;
  • Keep length to a minimum – do not put a book on the wall.  Some people aim for around 150 words per label;
  • Do at least one major review and rewrite – preferably by someone from outside the project.  This will help to spot gaps in the storyline


Labels – presentation:

  • Font print – size and style should be easily readable;
  • Colour is important eg. Not red print on black background;
  • Explore possibility of special labels for younger visitors




Hold an opening to celebrate the team’s achievement and promote the exhibition to the community.


Evaluation – what worked and what did not.  Have the original objectives been achieved?  Does the exhibition effectively communicate the subject?  What lessons have been learned for next time?