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Museum Exhibit Designer


Museums play crucial roles in our modern societies. Links to the past, explanations about science and technology, and visions of the future are all presented to us through museum artifacts, demonstrations, and, of course, displays. Displays can be found in all types of museums, from interactive energy games at science centers to elegant and mysterious mummies in glass cases held in the Egyptian room at a museum of natural history. Without these carefully planned exhibits, people would be far less inclined to visit museums. The exhibits control, explain, and elucidate information, making it more enjoyable and accessible for everyone.

The people who plan the exhibits are the exhibit designers. These creative individuals meet with museum directors and curators to discuss new and necessary displays. Sometimes the exhibits are permanent, while others are for visiting items or artifacts that are only being displayed for a short period of time. Ideas for exhibits are usually worked out by the exhibit designer and some assistants. They may only work with one other designer, or they may consult with a team, depending on the size of the project.

The museum exhibit designer must do a lot of research to ensure they have a full understanding of the subject matter that is going to be explored in the exhibit. If the art museum has acquired a new series of Maritime folk art for permanent display, the exhibit designer should try and thoroughly understand maritime culture and the origins of folk art. This is one job where it is crucial to have a sensitive and open-minded approach to other cultures and traditions, as the exhibit must present information in a clear, unbiased way.

The designer then sets about to plan the set up, keeping in mind things like space (should it fill a whole room, or only one small case in the lobby?), audience (is the exhibit for children or adults? Should there be seating, heaters, or wheelchair access?), safety (what are the fire regulations? How will the traffic flow?) and the budget allotted to the exhibit (is there money for the indoor waterfall?). They create sketches on paper or the computer, and, once those are approved, they may be required to create three-dimensional models by hand or the computer for further inspection by museum administrators.

In smaller museums and galleries, the exhibit designer may be involved in building the exhibit, but larger budgets mean they can hire a technical staff. They will supervise the construction of the exhibit space, to ensure the plans are being followed. They may also supervise design assistants, who will gather props, set up artifacts, create sound effects, and write detailed text explaining the exhibits. Sometimes, exhibit designers are responsible for organizing press kits, writing brochures, and creating posters and other promotional material. Again, they may do this themselves or supervise an assistant.

Museum exhibit designers are important to our society, because they help us understand the historical and natural worlds around us. Science, art, and humanity are presented to us in interesting, provocative ways, thanks to the innovation and creativity of museum exhibit designers.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Interested in becoming an exhibit designer? They are creative, and able to visualize designs and displays three-dimensionally. Museum exhibit designers have a good eye for color and composition, and have excellent communication skills. They must be able to work as a supervisor of technicians, and be open minded when it comes to cultural traditions and beliefs. An interest in science, history, and education, as well as design is also helpful to exhibit designers.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Meet with organization administrators and curators to gather information about exhibit space, proposed themes and content, timelines and budgets
  • Create sketches and three-dimensional models of the proposed displays
  • Supervise the work of the production team building the exhibits
  • Organize promotional material
  • Exhibit designers spend most of each day planning and outlining displays for science centers, historical museums, and galleries. They create sketches by hand and with computer designer programs. They also spend some of each day with exhibits, either supervising installation or helping with routine maintenance.
  • They don't travel much, unless they are working with a traveling exhibit.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Museum exhibit designers work wherever educational and culturally significant items are displayed and preserved for the public. Art galleries, museums, zoos, historical sites, architecture companies, science interpretation centers, cultural events all employ exhibit designers either on a full-time or contract basis. This means they work within government departments, as well as for private museums and non-profit organizations. When they work on contract, they may be part of a design firm, or they may be independent.
  • Museum exhibit designers work indoors, however, they sometimes have to visit outdoor sites. They may also travel the world with touring exhibits. The hours are generally regular, unless they are working towards an upcoming deadline.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Museum exhibit designers can find a permanent position with a museum, art gallery, or science center, or start up their own design firm. They can become theatrical designers, interior designers, architects, or window display designers. They can become further involved in history, and become historians or archivists, or they can become museum workers, or curators.

  Educational Paths  
In order to become a museum exhibit designer some college or university training in graphic design, fine art, industrial design, drafting, construction, museum studies, history, carpentry, architecture, lighting, or theatrical design is recommended. Some business and marketing courses would also help aspiring exhibit designers promote their skills.

A bachelor's degree in industrial design or architecture is most useful for people who want to do more complex, varied, or high-profile displays, like those at national museums.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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