How To: Designing an Exhibition

Author: Arkansas Arts CenterFiled under: Exhibitions, Museum

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By Keith Melton

Ever wondered how an exhibition is created? The finished gallery visitors come to see is the final piece in a long process. The exhibitions team – including exhibition designer Keith Melton – don’t just start hanging works on the walls and setting objects in cases. First, they plan. They decide on themes and colors. They carefully plot each work’s place on the wall or in a case. Melton has worked at the Arkansas Arts Center for almost 20 years, planning, designing and installing the exhibitions visitors come to see. 

Each individual exhibition presents a unique set of challenges, Melton says. Part of his job is to make sure that exhibitions develop in a cohesive way, working with every department to make sure that happens. With Little Dreams, many of the works are small, but reward careful looking on the part of the viewer.

Here’s a look at how Melton and the exhibitions team made Little Dreams in Glass and Metal: Enameling in America 1920 to the Present and Glass Fantasties: Enamels by Thom Hall into the beautiful exhibitions on view at the Arkansas Arts Center now through December 31.

The first step in the process is to plot out all the artworks to scale using a program called SketchUp, a 3D modeling application. We have been using SketchUp modeling for exhibition design for a couple of years now. We spent a good deal of time modeling the internal dimensions of the galleries, but once that was done, we are able to reuse the model for future exhibitions.


Sketchup models of exhibitions like "Little Dreams in Glass and Metal" and "Glass Fantasies" are used to guide the exhibitions team through the installation process.

Sketchup models of exhibitions like Little Dreams in Glass and Metal and Glass Fantasies: Enamels by Thom Hall are used to guide the exhibitions team through the installation process.

The second step in the process is to configure our repositionable wall components within the space and decide on the casework necessary for objects. All internal walls of our galleries are built in eight foot sections and can be reconfigured between exhibitions. We do this to accommodate exhibits of varying sizes and themes. Sometimes exhibits are very linear or chronological, so you need to create a path for the viewer to follow that order. Often exhibitions contain large works, which require longer viewing angles, or vistas. Some exhibitions, like Little Dreams, require an audience to look at smaller objects and study their details, so this exhibition was designed to create an intimate feeling where viewers come in close proximity to the art.
With Little Dreams, a theme developed based on the excellent design that already existed for the catalog, so we translated that theme to the exhibition space. The real challenge with this exhibition was finding a way to draw viewers into looking at the details, which are the heart of these enamel works. The casework we constructed allows safe, close viewing, so the exhibition design encourages more than just a quick lap around the gallery.

"Little Dreams in Glass and Metal" installed at the Arkansas Arts Center.

Little Dreams in Glass and Metal installed at the Arkansas Arts Center.

SketchUp has become a very valuable tool. We use it for designing the entire room, as well as minor things such as risers, which are the boosters we use to elevate objects to the correct height for visitors. The ability to predict and adapt our space was something that used to involve a lot of educated-guessing. Since we have been using this program, we have more confidence coming in to our exhibits on how they will look when finished. This technique allows us to predict how many works fit on a wall, gives an indication of how they will interact with each other. This reduces a lot of the guessing and changing things around at the last minute that was common just a few years ago. Whenever we move objects ‘virtually’ around on a screen, it greatly reduces the wear and tear of moving the actual art objects once they are here on-site. This keeps delicate artworks much safer. We can efficiently move artworks from a crate directly to a designated location. We are able to solve design details in advance, reduce uncertainties, and operate efficiently because we develop detailed installation plans. I think using this technology has provided a huge boost to our process and improves the visitor experience.


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