Chapter 5. Exhibition types and their characteristics

Table of Contents

5.1. Technical aspects
Space and scope
Task 1:
5.2. How to create a visitor-friendly exhibition?
Interpretation of the scientific message of the exhibition and formulation of messages
Realisation of the interpretive plan
Visitor routes: planning and modelling
Multimedia elements: selection and planning
Developing a marketing plan
Evaluation plan with suggestions for adaptation / modification phases
Task 2:
Task 3:
Task 4:
Further reading

Exhibitions may be characterised by content, genre and venue, or the type of audience to focus on. In this chapter, we characterise major types and describe how they influence planning and visitor management.

5.1. Technical aspects

(Tamás Vásárhelyi)


There are national heritage sites (in Budapest, Heroes’ Square and the Buda Castle District are such examples) where the genius loci contributes to the exhibition, even if it is not utilised by curators or developers. In some cities like Berlin or Vienna, museums are concentrated on “museum islands”. Other museums are isolated because they are in the outskirts of a big city, or the locations they are situated in are far away from regional centres.

A museum building in Classicist style.

5.1. picture: Main façade of the Hungarian National Museum. This site assumes a particular significance because it is traditionally the main venue of the 1848 Revolution celebrations on 15 March. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Entrance and main façade  of a castle.

5.2. picture: The neo-Gothic entrance and façade  of Vajdahunyad castle – an eclectic architectural monument that houses the Museum of Agriculture. Many visitors enter the site in order to experience the historic mood of the building.  (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Oriental style garden at dusk with a covered seating arrangement.

5.3. picture: Rear courtyard of the Museum of Gold Treasures from South-East Asia founded by István Zelni – the opening ceremony. The Oriental sculpture garden prepares for the visit or sustains the mood of the objects just seen. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

huge space with three buildings that resemble Greek temples.

5.4. picture: The Königsplatz (King’s Square) in Munich, Germany, with three museum buildings erected in the style of ancient Greece On the right: façade of the Glyptothek, dedicated to classic Greek and Roman sculpture. It can only be approached through the square – a spatial experience that prepares for the visit. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

As could be seen in the third chapter of this book, exhibitions may be organised in the most unusual places – on a lake, for example. Some of the displays have restricted access; others are only visible for a short period of time. All these aspects have an effect on the arrangement of an exhibition.

A contemporary space with a complex structure.

5.5. picture: The „Globe Aula” of Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE). Its function is not obvious: is it a reception or chill-out area, an exhibition space or a storage facility? (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

An exhibition of stuffed animals and skeletons in a glass walled, pyramid shaped space.

5.6. picture: The Palaeontology Collection of the Natural History Museum of ELTE. The exhibition hall is situated in a courtyard of the building. After dark, the museum is  illuminated, and the pyramid shaped glass walls are an impressive sight. The row of chairs and the projection screen shows its double function. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

The skeleton of a ceteosaurus in the courtyard of a building.

5.7. picture: Exhibition of palaeontology at the University of Munich, Germany. The space could be used by students, but the huge exhibit prevents all other functions (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Wall show-cases in a university corridor. They look just like posters.

5.8. picture: University buildings often double as exhibition spaces. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

A classic museum vitrine.

5.9. picture: This exhibition furniture reflects its function better than the poster-like, thin wall cases in the picture  above. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

What makes an exhibition space unusual? In this chapter we discuss this issue from a technological viewpoint. Perhaps the space it occupies is peculiar: it is in a cave underneath a hill, (like the Cave Hospital on Castle Hill in Budapest) or an exhibition on a lake (like the “Art on Lake” exhibition mentioned in Chapter 3), or falling rocks on a peaceful street (with a sculpture that includes elements hanging from the roof of a house.)

Parts of an installation: rocks „falling” from the air, and a rock that has „landed” on a street sign.

5.10. picture: Falling rocks in Ljubljana. It is an awkward feeling to walk underneath this sculptural installation. The work also has a humorous effect: a rock has hit and smashed the street sign indicating „Danger! Rocks falling!” (Photos: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Unusual arrangements often present conservation problems. A low or high level of illumination, damage caused by sun rays or air pollution or street furniture that cannot be harmonised with the temporary exhibits often limit the number of items we can display. In other cases, the unusual scenery produces beneficial effects and provides an inspiring context for an exhibition. Many industrial buildings have been remodelled into exhibition areas, because the large spaces designed for industrial production and the steel structures of the ceiling produce an interesting contrast with the works exhibited. In the pictures below we show how these effects are put to use by exhibition developers.

Visitors in an exhibition hall in a former factory premises with rough, concrete walls.

5.11. picture: This museum hall recently burned down. Until there are enough funds to renovate it, exhibitions are organised in the damaged building. National Museum of Natural History, Lisbon. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Bunk-bed in a wooden hut.

5.12. picture: Exhibition organised in a former partisans’ hiding place in Slovenia. The venue and its historic connotations contribute to the special appeal of the small wooden structure, which could also be interpreted as an exhibition object. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

White nude sculptures of young men in front of black walls.

5.13. picture: The black, angular background of an old industrial site is contrasted with the white, rounded shapes of the marble sculptures. Centrale Montemartini, Rome. (Photos: Tamás Vásárhelyi)


The duration of an exhibition varies from a very short time span up to years and decades.

–        Chamber exhibition: a small-scale display that is open for a short time period –a few hours, a day or a week. Such exhibitions are organised for conferences, trade shows or festivals.

–        Temporary exhibitions: regularly organised by museums with large collections which last for a few weeks or months. (The duration depends on the availability of the works on loan, the number of potential visitors, the schedule of the exhibition facility etc.)

–        Permanent exhibition: it may stand for years. Museum staff generally consider an exhibition outdated after five to ten years. In such a time period, the exhibits wear out, the installations fall apart and also the content and message of the display become outdated. The style of museum communication also changes and makes an old exhibition appear obsolete. Nevertheless, financial reasons sometimes keep permanent exhibitions in place for 20-30 years. Such displays are visited by professionals for their “museum of museology” appeal. There are also visitors who actually prefer traditional installations of the type they have seen during school visits and which they can now share with their own children.

–        Travelling exhibitions provide a transition between the two latter types: they can be on loan at a venue for years, or else be open for a month at each venue. They are like franchises: their content and form is more or less constant, but items from the museums that temporarily house them may be added to the display. 

Caravan with a man and another man sitting in front of it, facing each-other at a desk.

5.14. picture: A typical example of the chamber exhibition is the mobile exhibition. A two-day exhibition about the trip to Italy of an early 20th-century painter, István Szőnyi, situated in an art object transportation van at the traditional museum festival of Hungary organised each year in the month of  May. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Interior of the exhibition van above, with photographs on the walls.

5.15. picture: The exhibition was produced with the same care as if it were installed in a museum. Photo documents, works of art and their labels are arranged to produce a gallery effect. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Exhibition in a museum space.

5.16. picture: A good example of the permanent exhibition. Its installation was innovative at the time of its opening; therefore, it could easily survive the typical life span of such an exhibition in Hungary, 30 years. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

A part of the exhibition with posters on the walls.

5.17. picture: The armchair in front shows the age of the information panel. We would not design anything similar today: the precise geometrical arrangement of long text panels with small images is outdated. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Lagre virtine with stuffed animals, pressed leaves and short explanatory labels.

5.18. picture: Leaves fade in less than three decades and make an installation look dingy. Today we would rather use colour photographs instead of pressed leaves. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhely)

Part of an exhibition with visitors watching and chatting eagerly.

5.19. picture: The old-fashioned installation is forgotten when we notice the interesting, original medical instruments. Simplicity here is not a handicap although contemporary exhibition design prefers richer, more picturesque effects. Semmelweiss Museum of Medical History, Budapest. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

The life span of an exhibition is a matter of professional decision, even in the case of permanent displays. We can plan for a change, but there is always unexpected damage that calls for immediate action. Unfortunately, Hungarian exhibition developers are inclined to leave an installation unchanged even if it turns out to be faulty immediately after the opening. Lack of funds and motivation are inhibiting factors that prevent immediate reaction to mistakes.

A visitor corrected this information panel.

5.20. picture: How long has this panel been in place with the correction by a knowledgeable visitor in one of its corners? (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Space and scope

The space an exhibition occupies depends on its type. A unique installation is a significant, usually large object placed in an entrance hall or other central location. A chamber exhibition may be situated in a small hall, but it could involve one glass case only, or a corner in a research lab with old tools. A showcase in a shopping mall or trade fair also belongs to this type of exhibition. Many museums reserve one hall for temporary exhibitions. These spaces are usually rectangular and easy to view as a whole, but with dividing panels an intricate spatial arrangement can also be achieved. If this hall can only be accessed through galleries of the permanent exhibition, the temporary exhibitions act like a natural extension of the permanent collection on view. Museum spaces can be turned into an intricate network where visitors easily lose their way. In the galleries, room numbers and arrows indicate the sequence of a visit preferred by curators. However, these are often ambiguous and the experience of space can become that of a labyrinth.

If the museum has a garden, it can also be involved in the exhibition route and create an open-air exhibition of machines or sculptures. Finally, there are open air museums, where the landscape is part of the experience. Sometimes museums are “places of contradiction”.

„In some museums, architecture and interpretation seem almost oppositional. Nordiska Museet in Stockholm possesses a sublime and imposing cathedral-like architecture which now seems at odds with the museum’s strongly humanistic interpretation. Today, the balcony-like exhibition galleries are visually separated from the museum’s great - and largely empty - central hall.” (Dodds et al., 2012, p. 23.

Museum environment in a church-like, white walled, vaulted building.

5.21. picture: Nordiska Museet – illustration for the quotation above. (Source: Dodd, Jocelyn, Jones, Ceri, Sawyer, Andy, Tseliou, Maria (2012): Voices from the Museum. Qualitative Research Conducted in Europe’s National Museums. EuNaMus Report No. 6, Linköping University Electronic Press, p. 24.)

Museum environment in an old, wooden cottage.

5.22. picture: Interactive models of machines made of wood are in harmony with the wooden structure of this exhibition site. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Visitors testing a metal instrument in the creek near a building.

5.23. picture: An easy-to-realise, still much preferred by visitors interactive installation type is the water-powered machine. Here, a model of the Screw of Archimedes is put to use to upraise water from a creek near the museum building. The museum environment is utilised here to create a very natural and effective installation. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)