Museum Display Designer
October 9, 2006 9:52 PM   Subscribe

I want to design museum exhibits. What is the recommended course of action to make this into a career? What schools offer such a program? Are there many jobs available in this field? Anyone have any experience with this? I know that this is my calling, please help me get started.
posted by foxinthesnow to Work & Money (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You probably have to become a subject matter expert in whatever kind of museum you're interested in (science, history, art, whatever). If you figure it out, let me know; my son might be interested in following suit.
posted by Doohickie at 9:58 PM on October 9, 2006

Looks like what you're looking for is a curator position, usually worked up to from employment as an archivist. The Smithsonian Institute appears to have quite an impressive Museum Studies program, as do many others. Some interesting descriptions of the various facets and requirements of the job.

I love it when you learn new things in the green.
posted by datacenter refugee at 10:06 PM on October 9, 2006

A curator is not an exhibit designer. They are completely different jobs. You also do not need to be a subject matter expert; an exhibit designer's talent lies in turning subject matter into compelling museum experiences.

My company had an exhibit designer talk about the field at our annual conference this year. The presenter teaches a course on the subject. I asked her how she got into it, and she said that most exhibit designers come from other backgrounds and are essentially self-taught.
posted by jjg at 10:15 PM on October 9, 2006

You want to be a museologist!

Or perhaps a museological technician (though I made that title up). I think a museologist studies how best to prepare exhibits; someone else has to actually do it. But I imagine the fields are pretty much one and the same.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:20 PM on October 9, 2006

Response by poster: Yes, no. I definitely do not want to be a curator. I thought I did at one point, and I went to library school to start on the archives track, but I ended up getting my MLIS with a specialization in public libraries. Archives bored me. I love everything about my job, but I love make displays more than anything. I suppose I was wondering if anyone here had any real experience with this. I assumed it was an art degree, but a very quick search led me to believe that this was some offshoot of some other degree.

Thank you for the link, jjg. It is interesting.
posted by foxinthesnow at 10:21 PM on October 9, 2006

Designing the exhibits and curating them are two different things. I took an exhibit design course at the Corcoran in DC last year and I loved it! The teacher(s) was the head of the exhibit design dept at the National Gallery and well...calling him knowledgable is an understatement. His background I believe was painting and according to him there really aren't any programs in exhibit design. You can't get a degree in it. But the good news is that you don't need a art history background or a PhD either.

The actual exhibit is split up into the design and build processes. And really the way to get into it is to go down to a museum and talk to the exhibit design director. Tell them you're interested in working in the field and you want to learn. You might be able to do an internship or something to get a feel for it, but if you're already in the workforce and you can't afford to do an internship, then you have to make sure you can get paid for it. It comes down to doing a lot of average things, like building sets, cases, painting etc....but in a more specialized way. You probably will not be allowed to touch the original artwork fyi. You'd need to be a curator for that.

Any more questions, let me know.
posted by eatcake at 10:21 PM on October 9, 2006

Museum design in both training and practice falls under exhibition design, which in turn often falls under the umbrella of industrial design and overlaps with interior architecture. The bulk of exhibition design is trade shows, but planning and executing a museum exhibit involves similar processes. The Pratt Institute offers courses (go here and type "exhibit" into "Course Title Keywords".) Parsons has an exhibition design elective (pdf link). ISDA is another resource for more school programs, but you'll have to do some homework to find which schools offer what you want. Strong drawing and computer skills, and spatial reasoning are huge assets.

Another route, as eatcake says, its to start at the build level. A friend of mine worked for the Field Museum as an exhibit tech. They mostly hired artists. (He's mostly self-taught, but he's got amazing skills.) Skilled cabinet makers were always in strong demand at the Field.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:42 PM on October 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Museum studies programs, yes. Look around and see which ones have the best focus in the area you're interested in (design, yes, but for art museums? Natural history museums?). For instance, the program at SF State, where I teach (although not in museum studies), is not, apparently, geared toward art museums particularly.

Museum studies programs are MA programs; hopefully you already have an undergraduate degree. If so, hie thee to a career center and look in one of those big books of graduate programs. Or, do the google thing.

Museum studies programs will make you do internships, but it would also be to your advantage, application-wise, to get one or more under your belt beforehand -- many museums, especially smaller or poorly-funded ones, will welcome volunteers with skills. (Do you have skills, like carpentry, AV experience, etc.?) I am a curator in a museum (simultaneously with teaching), but a big city one, and we appear to have union issues with volunteer labor in the exhibition design department. The Exploratorium, on the other hand, seems to welcome volunteers for precisely this type of thing.

Perhaps there's a similar opportunity in your area?
posted by obliquicity at 11:21 PM on October 9, 2006

a while back i did a work-study at the denver museum of nature and science. my friend eric did some displays for them and he has an art degree. my recommendation to you would be to contact a museum department and see if they would like some FREE help. later on ask to get paid.

or contact my friend at DMNS. he has a website with his artwork at zodpaint
posted by Paleoindian at 11:21 PM on October 9, 2006

What to study: I second design/interior architecture, at least one of my classmates from Design school works in the field.

What school: Designing museum displays was not an official 'career goal', so he took all the Retail Space Design related classes (wood shop, metals shop, lighting, POP display design, modeling, plastics shop, and all the basic ergonomics stuff) Retail space design skills translate nicely to museum display design, most design schools have something.

General advice: As in many similar professions, a good portofolio is the most important asset you can have, a lot more than grades, make as many as your projects museum related. This will make it easier to get an internship at a museum, and then a job.

And if it really is your calling, it would not hurt to get a job in the field in any capacity. Volunteer.
posted by Dataphage at 11:28 PM on October 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

WHAT KIND OF EXHIBITS????!! There is no one kind of museum, or museum exhibit. Are you thinking of exploratorium-style interactive science devices? A children's museum? Or static "natural history museum" dioramas?

Me, I landed a tech-job at Museum of Science in Boston by being an Electrical Engineer willing to work at 1/2 the going salary. Then I spent much of my time working on physical science exhibit devices for the Exhibits department.

In any case, you probably want to join professional groups such as ASTC and AAM, and subscribe to email lists for exhibit designers:
posted by billb at 11:40 PM on October 9, 2006

They're good.
posted by lovejones at 12:00 AM on October 10, 2006

These guys are good people in the business. I don't suggest wasting their time, necessarily, but you might drop HR at this form or a similar one a line and ask them what they look for when hiring an exhibit designer. Many professionals aren't shy about sharing knowledge with passionate people, and simply asking "I'm here [list your current talents, degrees, etc] and want to get there, what path would you suggest following?" may get you started.
posted by maxwelton at 1:09 AM on October 10, 2006

You're looking for a museum studies program. I'm familiar with the excellent Museum Exhibition, Planning, and Design program at the University of the Arts in Philly. (You don't necessarily need an undergrad degree in graphic or industrial design to get accepted, by the way.)
posted by desuetude at 5:53 AM on October 10, 2006

I second cabinet makers, we always hire good furniture or cabinet makers, they turn out exhibits that last. One of the museum shops I worked at employed a metal working artist and that worked out well. We have also used a professional crew that did convention exhibits, I thought that looked cheesy.

So long story short, good with your hands and a good sense of design will get you far. I don't think we have ever looked at schooling, just experience. I would find a small museum and see if they need help laying things out or building mock-ups.

Yes, their are job is you are willing to move around. Most museums don't have a full time exhibit designer, so the money is really in traveling around consulting. However, if they are big enough to hire a designer they usually pay well. For example, a large aviation museum south of Macon Georgia, just advertised for an exhibit designer that paid mid 60's. (Which is a lot in the museum world and lot of rural Georgia)
posted by stormygrey at 6:01 AM on October 10, 2006

I have been around museums for a long time. At the smaller museums, most of the exhibit designers seem to come from outside any traditional academic track. They are qualified for the job by their artistic, carpentry, and shop skills. They actually build the exhibits and they work with a specialist (inside or outside the institution) to select the artifacts and write the text. Then they go off and construct the exhibits and do much of the design along the way.

At larger and/or wealthier museums the field is more professionalized and many of the staff have backgrounds in museum studies and/or public education. They do a lot more of the exhibit development, but usually with the assistance of area experts or curators. Sometimes at the wealthiest museums there is division of labor between the designers/writers and the builders.

You don't say your age, but like most related fields the best way to get into the business is to volunteer. Find a local museum and see if they are willing to take you on. You will learn some of the skills, learn about the field, and make the contacts that can help with getting into the right jobs and/or schools. I am an archaeologist and I spent every summer during my High School years volunteering or working for a local Museum. Those contacts and skills helped tremendously.
posted by Tallguy at 6:51 AM on October 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

A lot of the ones I know started as art handlers; that seems to be a good entry level to exhibition design. However, I'm going to second what everyone else is saying about being a good woodworker/cabinet maker - another friend of mine became an exhibition designer through that route.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:52 AM on October 10, 2006

Handler - preparator - fabricator - designer isn't an uncommon carreer track. The key is to get into a museum - your MLS should help. Look for collections-care positions as they are often more involved with the nuts and bolts of design and construction. Do this for a while and let opportunities come up. In several years if you need a degree of some sort, ask your senior colleagues what they think.
posted by jmgorman at 7:23 AM on October 10, 2006

Yes, their are job is you are willing to move around. Most museums don't have a full time exhibit designer, so the money is really in traveling around consulting.

Not necessarily -- most consults that I know are people who have made name for themselves and travel, yes, but operate from their home base.

There are also exhibit design firms. Some museums' exhibit design departments both handle exhibits for that museum -and- act as a firm for smaller museums.

It's a growing field. Science and other interactive museums are much more open to this field than fine art museums, which usually still do not have an exhibit design position -- just preparator and curator.
posted by desuetude at 8:09 AM on October 10, 2006

Here's a book: Exhibition Design
posted by hydrophonic at 8:36 AM on October 10, 2006

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