Show time | The evolution of exhibition design - Museums Association

Show time | The evolution of exhibition design

A new archive is being set up that will chart the transformation in exhibition design over the last 40 years. Stephen Greenberg, one of the pioneers in the field, looks back at this ever-changing discipline
Stephen Greenberg
Bikes on display at the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, which opened in 2011 HUFTON + CROW

In 2004, Suzanne MacLeod, then a lecturer and now professor in museum studies at the University of Leicester, hosted Reshaping Museum Space, a conference that was a timely and serious exploration of the skillsets of interpretive exhibition designers. MacLeod recognised the importance of bringing together a generation of curators, educators and scholars of museums with those leading this still-emerging and expanding field.

It was a remarkable event, revealing the depth of imagination that was changing museology in the sector. It is recorded in Reshaping Museum Space, a 2005 publication that brings together the conference papers.

A second design-focused conference, Narrative Space, followed in 2010 along with a publication, Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions (2012). The University of Leicester gave us a platform to articulate our ideas, taking our evolving cross-disciplinary practice seriously as co-producers of museums.

Creative drive

MacLeod has continued to research and champion this field in publications and conferences, as well as hosting masterclasses and lectures with leading designers, both in Leicester and overseas. For more than 20 years now, museum studies students have been taught the principles of exhibition-making – the results are evident already in a more skilled generation of curators.

The next step in Leicester’s museum-making research is to set up an archive of museum design. It will begin as a pilot with the output of four practices – Event Communications (now Event), Land Design Studio, Haley Sharpe Design (HSD) and Metaphor. This body of work spans the 1970s to the 1990s, taking in the huge impact of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which was established in 1994 and is one of the last bastions of public sector patronage and practice.

An exhibition at the Urbis Museum in Manchester designed by Land Design Studio. The museum opened in 2002 and closed in 2010

It is also timely as most of the practice founders – Celestine Phelan (Event), Bill Haley (HSD), Rachel Morris and myself (both Metaphor) – have stepped away. Peter Higgins and Shirley Walker (Land Design Studio) are still working. Steve Simons (Event) sadly died in 2019.


The archive also bookends a period in Leicester’s museum studies department. This starts with the scholarship of Eilean Hooper-Greenhill and Gaynor Kavanagh in opening up content, interpretation and visitor engagement, and in particular teaching and inspiring the Social History Curators’ Group in the 1980s.

The turmoil of the years when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister influenced a generation of students who became museum leaders, such as Mark O’Neill, David Fleming and Iain Watson. Future museum directors were influenced by what was happening in Leicester. Lots of them became our clients.

Telling tales of life

People’s experiences needed storytelling and we explored how their objects could speak for them. Since then, Richard Sandell, MacLeod’s colleague at Leicester, has widened the field to address questions of inclusion related to LGBTQI+ communities, people with disabilities and other groups, as well as looking at identity, decolonisation, human rights and co-creation. These issues are being embraced by today’s museum leaders.

In the most recent phase at Leicester, MacLeod and Sandell are undertaking collaborative research with cultural partners in the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, which was established in 1999. It is easy to take the earlier ground-breaking thinking for granted now, but it is central to the work of access consultants, audience evaluators and others who didn’t exist when we began.

The four practices forming the pilot study have some funding to support it. Archivist and recent PhD graduate Peter Lester is going through what are disparate archives. Projects range from masterplanning to designing whole museums, from developing permanent galleries, temporary exhibitions and travelling exhibitions to creating expo pavilions, visitor centres, interpretive landscapes and cultural quarters at every scale. These have included national, regional and local projects.

Metaphor oversaw the redesign of Holburne Museum in Bath in 2011

In Scotland, Event has completed a suite of projects for Glasgow Life – Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Riverside Museum and most recently the Burrell Collection. And Metaphor has worked across National Museums Scotland’s sites.


Our work has not just been in the UK. Some of HSD’s best projects are in Canada, the US and Hong Kong. Event has worked in Denmark, Oman and Poland. Land Design Studio has developed a range of immersive expo pavilions, while Metaphor has done masterplanning around the world, including in the Middle East.

None of us imagined that our work would become a resource, but the variety and invention reflects the different practices. There are analogue artefacts, watercolours, models, renders, films, presentations and brochures. The archive also embraces complex collaborations with major graphic and interactive designers, film-makers and artists. Think of the ground-breaking PlayZone interactives that were created by Land Design Studio at the Millennium Dome in 2000.

Back to the future

The archive will be a fantastic resource for designers, curators and students. And it will be the students who, through projects, will help extend it to include the next generation of interpretive designers.

At the heart of the archive is one common thread shared by all the practices, the stage reports produced for the lottery funding process. These documents play back the intentions of the project to the institution, the funders and trustees.

The same process is followed broadly in overseas work. The reports are the place where gallery framework documents and design workshops are transformed into a picture of a complete visitor experience.


With roughly 1,500 projects, however, the next challenge will be how to make the archive accessible. We will devise ways to access them by museum type (national, regional or local); subject (fashion, design, social history, war, popular culture and so on); range (from the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum to the Titanic Experience in Belfast); and by project, since often there are bids for a project or temporary exhibition in the same space.

Another element binding the archive together will be podcasts and to-camera interviews with the founders of the interpretive exhibition design companies.

The visitor centre at Normandy American Cemetery in France was updated in 2019 with the help of Haley Sharpe Design

None of us had the same qualifications. In the early days, there was no MA in narrative environments. Simons from Event had worked for Mischa Black at the Design Research Unit, an architectural, graphic design and interior design firm with a connection to the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Event’s Phelan was a television script writer, while Morris at Metaphor was also a novelist. Higgins and Walker at Land Design Studio had worked with Gary Withers, the founder of the immersive design company Imagination. Higgins had also been a set designer at the BBC. I was an architect, teacher and then editor of Architects’ Journal.

We each brought the experiences needed to become cross-disciplinary practices. We were all driven by convictions, such as a belief that the audience are the actors, that museums could be immersive and movies in space, that the exhibition itself should be a work of art, that the designer is an auteur, and the museum experience should weave personal stories and artefacts.

In 2004, Mark O’Neil from Glasgow Museums closed the Leicester conference with a paean to a phantom star guest, the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind. This was shorthand for the impact that big-name architects could have on reshaping museum spaces. We knew we were exploring a dissonance between the container and the content.

How were our narratives to be compatible with their expressive architecture, branded with their signature? We could not know then that Glasgow Life would appoint the architect Zaha Hadid to design the Riverside Museum, nor that the “Bilbao effect” (sparked by Frank Gehry’s design of the Guggenheim Bilbao, which opened in 1997) would become a more complex equation.

Needless to say, our four practices have worked with signature architects such as Hadid, Libeskind, Gehry, Foster and SnØhetta. This is another important research resource, as is the flip side – working with conservation architects on historic buildings.

Finally, do not forget the unprepossessing lo-fi buildings that sometimes concealed remarkable experiences that we made within.

Our successors can decide what they take from the archive of museum design as they face new and more daunting challenges than the ones that we had to overcome.

Stephen Greenberg is the founder of Metaphor

Comments (1)

  1. Richard Fowler says:

    I’m really encouraged – as a retired, long-time designer in museums – to see the discipline featured in the article Show Time in the July/ August edition of Museums Journal. Greater exposure of the interpretive design of museum displays is to be encouraged, and the proposal to create a new archive to be based at Leicester University is an excellent idea, which I hope fulfils its potential. Thank you for that.
    However, I have misgivings about the article written by Stephen Greenberg. There is no doubt that the feature is excellent promotional material for the four featured design groups (Event, Land, Haley Sharpe and Metaphor) but it could give a distorted view of interpretive display design in museums to your readers, some of whom might be getting the impression that the four groups have a monopoly in the field. Their input has been significant but it is only part of a much bigger story. What about the other major contemporary players such as Ralph Appelbaum Associates and Casson Mann? (both recently produced excellent design work at the Imperial War Museum, and RAA have been announced as the chosen designers for the upcoming Slavery Museum in Liverpool with architect David Adjaye); MET Studio? (with many spectacular overseas projects inspired by the pioneering work of Alex McCuaig), and Stanton Williams? (current expansion of the Museum of London); to name just a few.
    It worries me that Museums Journal, with its proud record of independence, might be seen to have been compromised with the (surely unintentional) promotion of selected design companies in this article.
    The role of in-house museum design teams who maintained displays, produced temporary exhibitions and permanent displays, and also provided graphic design services for interpretive panels, labels, signage and publications should also be included in the archive. Most national museums and some large regional museums had their own design office up to the mid-1990s, when commercial designers started to take over.
    The article states that the body of work in the archive will span the 1970s to the 1990s, which is encouraging but it is curious that all of the projects featured and illustrated by the chosen companies are much more recent. Why? Perhaps they are hoping that prospective clients will be impressed.
    Treasures of Tutankhamun, a massively successful special exhibition held at the British Museum in 1972 marked, arguably, the beginning of specialised museum exhibition design, and was created by an in-house design group led by Margaret Hall. In the same year the landmark Story of the Earth exhibition, designed by the legendary James Gardner (commercial artist, wartime camouflage artist and one of the original museum and exhibition designers), opened at the Geological Museum at South Kensington. In order to give a complete picture, one hopes that the scope of the proposed archive covers the entire period from the early pioneers to the latest projects.
    The rich source of funding provided by the national lottery (HLF/ NLHF) from 1994 up to the present and by the Millennium Fund at the turn of the century have had a tremendously positive effect on museums and – in tandem – spawned a large number of museum design specialists. The project information from this golden age for museums should include the work of all significantly involved – in-house teams, design consultants and design companies large and small – and should be archived for the benefit of research and historical record.

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