5. Exhibition basics

So you've got your objects and their stories, now what? Follow these basics to put together your museum or gallery setting.

Layout and design

A consistent overall look will tie the exhibition together, and help the visitors to focus on the content. You may want to choose some a key image to use on the title wall or introductory panel, and perhaps also for the invitation, booklet, and publicity. Think about how you can ‘set the scene’ or introduce the exhibition. A coloured wall or introductory panel can help draw visitors in and orient them in the exhibition space.

To plan the layout for an exhibition, group the elements of the exhibition, for both meaning and visual appeal. Consider visitor flow - is there a logical order to the display or can people wander freely?

Digital images in exhibitions

You may want reprint photographs, to display as enlargements or to include on exhibition labels. These could be from your own collection, or you may be collecting digital images from other organisations and individuals. For printing purposes, images will need to be high resolution images, at least 300-600 dpi, and ideally at least 1-2 MB.

Exhibition design tools

Mocking up your exhibitions before installation is recommended. Before a final choice of items is made you may need to undertake further research about the items, and source additional items, images or stories. Roughly working out the layout of the exhibition will help see how much material you can exhibit, and identify where you will need to cull items or any gaps that need addressing. Mocking up the exhibition first is safer for collection items, as there is less handling of items in a rush while installing.

If you have the items at hand, you can set them up in groups in the workroom, allowing the same space as they would have in the cabinet. For framed images, try lining them up against a wall to check how they look together.

If you only have digital images of the exhibition items, you can group them together and scale them so you can play around with layout, using word processing or design programs.

In terms of arranging the space, simple layouts can be worked out using a scale drawing of the space. There are also software programs which can assist with designing the floorplan or all elements of an exhibition.

Cases, plinths, pedestals and partitions

  • Should be stable, neat and clean, and suited to the objects on display.
  • Can be a good way of influencing people traffic.
  • Should be insect and rodent proof, and lit so as not to cast the exhibits in shadow.
  • Case lining can be fabric, but avoid wool.
  • If painting use low VOC water based paints, and air the cases for several weeks.
  • A heavy weight in the base of a plinth can ensure it is not top heavy.
  • Mylar (inert plastic) can be cut to size to provide a barrier underneath sensitive display items, to protect them from dye transfer or other damage from fabric or painted surfaces

Attaching items to the wall

Avoid presenting items or text less than 90cm or more than 200cm from floor level. Many galleries set the ‘eye level’ for hanging pictures at 155cm above floor level.

Light weight graphics, diagrams etc. can be fixed to walls with Velcro adhesive patches. Paintings should hang from D rings attached to two sturdy picture hooks firmly fixed to the wall, or from two wires suspended from a picture rail.

Object mounts

Some items will need supporting mounts (for example book cradles). Raising selected items can also highlight them, and provide more visual interest, particularly if there is a lot of unfilled vertical space within the exhibition cabinet. Object mounts can include:

  • Perspex ‘risers’ available from shop supply shops
  • Custom made supports, made from acid free board, with acid free tape or hot glue.
  • Painted or fabric wrapped wooden blocks (see information on display cases above for recommendations for painted or fabric surfaces within exhibition cases).
  • Items can be secured using wire wrapped in silicone tubing, or with museum wax (for example at the bottom of a vase).


Generally, exhibition information is layered – broken down into ‘bite-sized’ portions so that it easy to follow. Every item should be clearly identified with a label.

  • Label text should be very concise, but conversational in tone
  • First person quotes are engaging
  • Avoid jargon, unexplained specialist or abbreviated terms.
  • Expression should be in simple concrete language.

Layers of text may include:

  • Title panel – name of exhibition, can be something catchy followed by actual description, e.g. Firebrands, WWI Anti-Conscriptionists in Marlborough. The title sets the tone through words, colour and font. Approx. 400pt (10cm high)
  • Introductory panel – intrigues and outlines what exhibition is about. Approx. 200pt (5cm high), 50-150 words
  • Thematic text panels –story or context for a part of the exhibition. Approx. 36pt (1cm high) 50-150 words
  • Extended labels – presents story/context for highlighted items as well as explaining what an item is. Approx. 24pt, 50-100 words
  • Object labels - explains what a particular item is and when it was made. Approx. 18-22 pt., 15-25 words

Small displays may combine some of the first two or three panel types. For example, the title and introduction, or a single introductory panel, then straight to extended and object labels.

Consider also if you need an acknowledgement panel, instructions for interactives or general signage (e.g. emergency exits / do not touch), as these also form part of the overall look.

Label design and placement

Labels should use a clear ‘sans serif’ font such as Helvetica, Geneva or Arial, with a font size of at least 18-22 points. 12-point text is common for written documents but is much too small for an exhibition setting. Extended spacing between lines can make text easier to read. Black text on a white background is the most readable for most people.

Designers can quickly create quality labels. If you do not have access to a design professional, you can create your own template labels in Word. Set a border with a pale grey line as a cutting guide, and set generous margins. The object name should be in bold. A standard size for a basic label for an individual item is around 15 wide and at least 10 cm high, with 1.5 cm or wider margin.

Place labels in consistent positions wherever possible, for example on the right side of item, bottom edge one metre from floor level. Small groups of items could be described on one label. To make it easy to see at a glance which label goes with which item you can use numbers, or visual cues such as images or outlines of shapes of items.

Digital exhibition content

Digital content, such as films, audio recordings, audio tours, interactive websites or apps can add extra depth and interactivity to exhibitions, and need not be expensive to incorporate in some way. Producing digital content needs to be considered and planned for in same way as other display content, and the communication of the exhibition key messages should be paramount.

Think carefully about which exhibition elements would work best as a screen based or audio experience, and which elements would work best as part of the physical display.

Guidelines for digital content creation

  • Both curatorial and digital content production skills will be needed, to select relevant and high quality source content such as images, oral histories etc., create scripts or conduct interviews, edit text, audio and/or footage, and design the flow and look of the end product.
  • Image and sound quality should be high
  • Copyright and image credits needs to be addressed as with other display content
  • Commonly used editing programs include Audacity, for sound, iMovie or Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro are common video editing tools.
  • Image series can be looped, for example using PowerPoint
  • Avoid fancy transitions between images or segments, they can be distracting

Tips for creating a short digital history can be found throughout our Making History resource

Where the museum or gallery provide the hardware for viewing digital content, such as a TV monitor, staffing resources will be required to turn devices on and off, troubleshoot operating issues and maintain the equipment over the course of the exhibition.


Plan lighting early in exhibition development, as it makes a huge difference to displays and is often left until the last minute, a lighting designer can be useful for major projects. It is always best to light works that are hanging on walls from an angle, positioning spotlights so that they pan over several exhibits.

No exhibit should be placed where it is in direct sunlight at any time of the day, this is particularly important for fabric, paintings, drawings, prints or original photographs. Any windows near exhibits should be being blocked out or fitted with UV filtering screens for the duration of the exhibition.


The AICCM recommended Interim temperature and relative humidity guidelines for acceptable storage and display conditions of general collection material are:

  • Temperature – between 15–25°C with allowable fluctuations of +/-4°C per 24 hr.
  • Relative Humidity – between 45-55% with an allowable fluctuation of +/- 5% per 24 hr.

No exhibits should be placed close to or over radiators, heaters or heating ducts. Ensure that exhibits are not placed near hot lights or electrical equipment.

Permission to reproduce creative content

Before re-using images, artworks, literature, dramatic works, or music, you will need to check if they are in copyright; even if the item belongs to you, the creator may still hold copyright.

Many copyrights holders are happy to provide permission for museums and galleries to reproduce their work, though professional artists and collecting organisations may charge fees, in which case you will need to plan ahead, as it can take weeks for an organisation to process a license request. Content licensing is always for a specific purpose (e.g. online for 5 years, print run in Australia of 1000 copies) so be clear what you intend to use it for, and include all planned uses in your request, so that you don’t need to go back for permission to re-use the content, e.g. to use a photograph to advertise the exhibition on Facebook.

Creating a table or spreadsheet to track the process of getting copyright and other relevant permissions is recommended, so that you can easily see where you are up to, and how to recontact the permission provider if needed.

You can also reproduce content that is out of copyright, or that has been shared online with a content sharing license such as Creative Commons license; you will not need formal permission to re-use this content, you will just need to follow the license restrictions (e.g. not for profit, can be modified) and credit requirements (e.g. creators name and link to website). For more information see creativecommons.org.au.

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