Designing exhibitions: making history come alive

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Designing exhibitions: making history come alive

We recently delivered a series of striking displays for three very different exhibition projects. In this article we share some of what we learned through the process. We were privileged to work with Urban Brew Studios, and the University of Fort Hare, in developing exhibition panels for a permanent exhibition commemorating the university’s centenary. Archival Platform commissioned us, on behalf of the South African Heritage Resources Agency, to develop an exhibition displayed at the West Coast Fossil Park. And, working with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Croatia, we were able to tell the history of the Tulip flower in a display outside their embassy building in Zagreb, Croatia.

Simplicity, care and using clear design principles are core components in designing a successful exhibition.

The exhibition at the University of Fort Hare commemorated the centenary of an institution that has formed the centerpoint for social and political revolution and progress in South Africa and across Africa. The permanent displays tell the story of Fort Hare’s place in global socio-political progress, celebrating its alumni and influential past students including Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Seretse Kama and Robert Mugabe.

Attention to detail is critical. All of the work we do for our clients is important – both to them and to us – and everything we deliver demands scrutiny. Every detail, from image resolution to the last full stop is presented under the bright spotlight of the display area and of public perception.

Our designer, Louis Louw, adds another point: “Exhibition design is an exercise in effectively managing large volumes of information which will be displayed in larger-than-life formats. The audience needs to navigate the display easily to absorb the information presented.” Distracting fonts, inadequate imagery or typos reduce the impact and possibly even the credibility of the exhibition.

“My best advice is: always test the displays at full scale,” cautions Louis. “Only then can you gain a sense of what works and doesn’t work visually.”

One key principle is to “choose your fonts carefully,” says Louis, suggesting that the best approach is to err on the side of simplicity. “If your design is too complex, the audience will disengage. The layout needs to enhance, not overshadow, the detail of the display.” The layout and visual approach should also be relevant to the purpose of the exhibition.

Language also has an important part to play. Like any communication, its tone and vocabulary should be appropriate for the audience. The tulip exhibition was displayed on street-side fence railings outside the embassy. In this context, says Louis, “the language would be more descriptive and appropriate to a public audience than an exhibition in, say, a university setting with a more academic focus.”

Visual impact is also crucial. The layout and imagery should draw people into the subject matter. This approach helps to make the content much more accessible. Even if people don’t read every word, each image should tell a story.

“The scientific subject matter of the fossil exhibition could be mind-boggling to young minds. But by presenting it in a visually arresting way, it was possible to bring the topic to life in visuals that supported the exhibition content,” says Louis.

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