Planning Projects and Designing Interpretive Exhibitions

Module code: MU7508

Module co-ordinator: Katy Bunning

This module offers students a chance to put their ideas, experiences, and theoretical tools into practice. This module is based on the development of a final project in the form of a written exhibition proposal, which encourages students to think broadly and creatively around a given interdisciplinary theme. It further allows students the chance to specialise in their own areas of interest and expertise. Areas covered by the module include a selection from the following: designing and planning an exhibition; analysing the exhibition space; creating a design brief; managing exhibitions and other projects; choosing objects; choosing interpretive media; and planning events and an education programme.

Topics covered

Unit 1 - What is an exhibition?

This unit begins by considering the literature relating to exhibitions. This unit is intended to act as an introduction to thinking about exhibitions, what they are, how they are made and the great creative potential they hold.

Unit 2 - The exhibition experience

In Unit 2 we will move on to think about visitors to museums and what we know, based on existing research, about the way visitors use, experience and learn in exhibitions. The unit will review a number of theories or models of exhibition use and learning in museums in order to provide a basic theoretical framework for beginning to think about how an exhibition might communicate specific ideas to specific audiences.

Unit 3 - Thinking about interpretation

This unit builds upon Unit 2 in order to explore the nature of interpretation and what it might mean to take an interpretive approach to the development of exhibitions. By this, we mean an approach which puts the visitor first. The unit will consider a series of interpretive techniques evident in current theory and practice from consultation to storytelling and interactivity. However, an interpretive approach to exhibitions might also mean a creative process whereby all of the media that make up an exhibition are explored for their interpretive potential. With this in mind Unit 3 also explores what we might call ‘design as interpretation’. Many of these ideas are returned to in the case studies in units 5-8.

Unit 4 - Exhibition criticism

Unit 4 offers an opportunity to think about the professional field of exhibition criticism, how we might understand it, who undertakes it and why, and how we might develop the techniques required to generate deep and informative exhibition critiques.

Unit 5 - Exhibition strategies: storytelling

We will explore the interpretive approaches introduced in Unit 3 in Units 5-7 – a series of light case study units. Unit 5 explores some exhibitions which have utilised storytelling and narrative as a key interpretive device. We begin by looking at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, for its focus on creating narrative space. We then turn to an exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum and one at the National Museum of Australia, which both use stories to create an inclusive environment. Finally, a recent Michelangelo exhibition at the British Museum offers an example of how different stories can be layered together in a fine art exhibition.

Unit 6 - Exhibition strategies: creating participatory spaces

In Unit 6 we will explore the creation of spaces which are in some way participatory, enabling a close engagement with some of the special media solutions that we see increasingly in museum and gallery displays. Included here are three very different case studies, beginning with an exhibition at the Anne Frank House designed explicitly to engage audiences in a debate. We then look at the Millennium Dome’s ‘Play Zone’ which aimed to be a highly interactive experience. We end by looking at the permanent Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, a space designed to give visitors time to pause, reflect, and comment on the difficult subject matter.

Unit 7 - Exhibition strategies: creating learning environments

This unit focuses on learning environments. Although learning environments can be very much about narrative and interactivity, the focus here is on the direct application of current notions of learning to the shaping of museum space. Exhibitions at Weston Park Museum, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, and the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – the British Galleries are arguably the most high profile and one of the most successful exhibitions to harness learning theory in the making of its design decisions – are each explored in this unit.

Unit 8 - Exhibition strategies: artist interventions

We will focus on artist interventions in museum and gallery spaces. What is so fascinating about interventions, even though they sit slightly outside of our focus on exhibitions, is the freedom that an artist can bring to the creation of a visitor experience and the acceptance of the artist’s voice as an almost ‘neutral’ voice in relation to difficult subjects: this could certainly be said of the now archetypal example of Fred Wilson’s work at the Maryland Historical Society in which Wilson offers a subtle commentary on the politics of collecting and displaying ‘Others’. Unit 8 looks at his more recent work in Sweden, along with Peter Greenaway’s fascinating and obsessive installation at Compton Verney which artfully linked the past of the historic site of Compton Verney and Geenaway’s own narratives around the fictional character of Tulse Luper. Such installations sit on the boundaries of exhibition design but nonetheless provide inspiration and new approaches to be explored and reused by museum and gallery professionals.

Unit 9 - Project management: a framework

Unit 9 provides a practical (and generic) guide to effective management of projects for people working in museums. Because of this broad scope, Unit 9 is a large and detailed unit. You may find it helpful to work through the unit reasonably quickly (by skim-reading) and return to it in more detail at a later date as and when it is of use.

Unit 10 - Management tools for exhibition projects

Unit 10 follows the breadth offered in Unit 9 by taking a closer look at specific aspects of project management that are utilised specifically in the development and delivery of exhibitions.


  • 225 hours of guided independent study


  • Essay, 4,000-5,000 words (100%)