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Where Do We Start? Developing Exhibits

by Nicole Peters

The MA | AHS conference session lead by the multi-disciplinary team from ExhibitAK functioned as an interactive brainstorming workshop where real-life issues from the Alaskan museum sector were addressed. ExhibitAK is a Juneau-based museum planning and design firm dedicated to working with museums, cultural institutions, and other community spaces to develop and design exhibitions across the state of Alaska.


ExhibitAK team during conference session, “Where Do We Start? Developing Exhibits.”  From left to right: Sarah Asper-Smith, Christine Carpenter, Aaron Suring, and Ariel Rolfe.

The session began with the team providing preliminary introductions and descriptions of their individual backgrounds. They also discussed how each member’s knowledge base and experience contributes to their mission of exhibit development, design, and installation.  ExhibitAK immediately delved into what it takes to construct a museum exhibit plan. Sarah Asper Smith explained that their process involves a series of guidelines and mind mapping techniques rather than a definitive order of steps. The team likes to brainstorm collaboratively to form conceptual connections organically rather than formulaically.


Each workshop attendee received a guidelines packet on exhibit development and design.

Conference attendees were asked to split into four groups for an exercise that involved developing an exhibit plan using ExhibitAK’s preferred process. Sarah, Aaron, Ariel, and Christine were each assigned to a group where they coached each team in the development of their plan. ExhibitAK member Christine Carpenter was our team leader. After our group decided on an exhibit theme, the first step we completed with Christine involved brainstorming. She emphasized the importance of diverse perspectives and building on the ideas of others during this process. As with most creative writing and storytelling, we were encouraged to employ the “5 w’s”: who, what, when, where, and why. Group members shouted out ideas and concepts related to our theme while Christine hurriedly jotted them down on post-it notes that we stuck to the wall.


ExhibitAK member Christine Carpenter during our brainstorming and mind mapping session.

Next, we constructed a mind map in order to organize thoughts and to connect concepts. In its most basic definition, a mind map is diagram used to visually organize information. The idea is to draw parallels between themes and “big ideas” and to also put certain ideas on hold that may be better suited for another exhibit concept.

Christine guided us through the rest of ExhibitAK’s process, including steps such as constructing bubble diagrams, identifying audiences and outcomes, and space planning, so that the group began to understand how an exhibit goes from being an idea to a fully realized project- both conceptually and physically. The workshop provided an excellent opportunity to work with peers and to learn a valuable process applicable to museum work. Conference attendees walked away from the workshop with a better understanding of the complexity of exhibit development. Speaking for myself, it was an eye-opening experience into the behind-the-scenes workings of museum exhibit design. I became quite aware that this is an amorphous, non-linear process that benefits from multiple viewpoints, collaboration, and creativity.

Thanks ExhibitAK for an exciting and engaging workshop!

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