Top 10 tips for curating exhibitions and displays: Lights, levels and labels

Exhibition and display work is considered the foundation of curatorial communication. The place where the idea, theme or story is given intention through the assembly of exhibits, objects and art.

Between us we have curated or contributed to a huge range of displays and exhibitions for large organisations and occasions, and very small ones with non-existent budgets. There are some things that no matter your budget, time or capacity, you should think about before embarking on an exhibition project.

Lights, levels, labels… action! Here are our top 10 tips.

1. Get your information in order

Have you done your research? Do you have thoughts or information you can organise around your collection? If you are in a museum use your object database and history files but don’t rely exclusively on these for your interpretation. Contextual research can enrich your interpretation with original quotes, such as from oral history recordings, newspapers and archives. Keep a record of all references so you can always return to the source of a piece of information, particularly if you get enquiries. Have you done your picture research and cleared all usage rights where relevant? Keep a record of all copyright holders.

2. Select the objects according to conditions

Your selection of exhibits is likely to be the most fun and satisfying part of exhibition and display making. Who is choosing? You the curator or members of a community? What logic is there in the selection? Think about the safety and security of objects you have on loan. If you are borrowing from a museum or a curated private collection there are many protocols in place to guide you through the loan process. If displaying in a pubic place will you need to make provisions to man that space and keep it secure when closed? Are exhibits best displayed as they are or in surrogate form, e.g. is a photograph better enlarged and reproduced (also digitally) so people can enjoy its detail, or can you find a replica or provide access to a 3D model? If you are displaying natural specimens such as taxidermy and insects, or paper and textiles, what are your lighting and temperature conditions like? This is particularly important if you are planning to display sensitive items for more than a short time (say, more than a month). Know your conditions. Read our interview with ArtRatio to understand how to deal with light exposure when you can’t control your display environment. Very importantly for large items, how will you get it through your doors?

Photograph of two gloved hands (purple) examining a 19th century silver pocket watch.
To mount or not to mount? Understand where the vulnerabilities of the object are and plan accordingly.

3. Choose the right mounts

There is nothing more dispiriting to a curator than seeing a poorly mounted object. It’s sad. It’s also possible to be overly fussy with mounts when given the right space, an object can be shown off at its best just as it is. Which objects will stand up on their own, which need a mount or some conservation to make sure it will withstand being part of the display without damage? This is, of course, particularly important for museum and high value objects. Be aware of items that can sag or curl, a mount that doesn’t support the whole object will not be effective. Photographs or paintings in glass display cases will not show off the best that item has to offer to the viewer. Avoid displaying small objects on high shelves. Shorter people, children and people in wheelchairs won’t be able to see them, particularly if displayed flat.

4. Plan your arrangement

Create an object list with all reference numbers or names of lenders where relevant. This is a crucial document and does not need to be complicated, just a list. Do you have enough display case space? Create rough footprints of the objects (including any mounts) and test them out in the showcases before you come to install them. If you don’t have access, use a piece of cardboard out out to your shelf footprint and work from that. When mounting framed works on walls have a spirit level handy but be aware many galleries have wonky floors, ceilings and temporary walls may also not be square. Draw out your wall arrangement before attending to measuring and mounting. Mirror plates are useful to keep framed works secured to a wall, cords are not ideal when displaying in a public space. Bespoke tracks might work for lighter works if you are confident they will be safe and will form a visually arresting display.

Give yourself enough time and space to install your exhibits.

5. Time to install

I have lost count of the number of exhibition projects I have been involved in that have under-estimated the time to install objects and art. This aspect of project managing a display needs time so if you have estimated 2 days, add one more on, you are likely to need it. Get your object list. When you bring the objects out for installation ensure you have a safe place for them and that you keep a note of any object numbers in their new, temporary location. Are you going to put anything on open display? Is it secure? Is it safe for visitors to walk around? Do you need a cordon that will give the object a buffer but won’t detract from the visitor’s experience? Always try it out before opening to the public. I take photos of each section of objects installed or art mounted on the walls and store them with a document listing the objects.

6. Think about the movement of visitors and viewers

Whether you are installing a display in a shop window or in a large gallery think about the use of space. Some of this will be dictated to you by the position of temporary walls or display cases, the location of windows and power points. If your display case has in-built lighting, position it very near or on top of a power supply to avoid trailing cables. How will visitors move around your display space? Are you prescribing a route or can they browse? Tip: Most visitors are browsers and will pick up stories and information in the order their eyes draws them and not necessarily in the order you want them to.

Photograph of folk objects such as animal masks, instruments, tatters jackets.
An assemblage of objects of contemporary Cornish folk customs for a short exhibition in a disused shop. Limited options for lighting and mounting but creating a corner of interest creates a natural barrier, and enhanced by archive recordings.

7. See the light

Lighting is the most neglected aspect of display and exhibition work even in places with flexible lighting rigs. It is often done as an afterthought or not attended to at all. Poorly organised lighting can diminish a viewer’s enjoyment of your curated objects and stories, especially if the revelation or understanding of your exhibit relies on illumination (e.g. to read something). If you have fixed lighting and limited options for changing positions and angles then plan your display around this constraint. Avoid positioning glazed artworks or display cases that will reflect lots of glare and impair viewing the objects and any interpretation. If you need to maintain darker conditions for light sensitive materials such as paper, photography and textiles, explain that to your visitors and if you have the funds consider using cases with smart glass that significantly reduces light exposure over the period of your exhibition. Poor lighting may be somewhat overcome by repainting a wall or applying a graphic. Have you got a colour scheme in mind? A beautiful colour scheme can help unite your exhibition.

10 rusted ship nails on a peach-orange-sunrise coloured mount.
This display of rusty medieval ship nails in a dark gallery is lifted considerably by mounting on a bright contrasting colour.

8. Key messages and calls to action

What are your key messages and calls to action? Who do you wish to communicate with most? What kind of labels will you use to tell visitors what they are looking at? Business-like and simple? Stating the obvious, e.g. Drum. 1863. Something more poetic. Writing as if the object speaks. Being the knowledge giver – key facts or revealing something that is hidden or surprising. All forms of interpretation are fair game in display work but maybe you can also be more creative. How else can people appreciate the object? An audio description? Better interpreted as part of a tour or show and tell event? Does your exhibition need words at all? Always consider your target audiences and their needs, the effect you want to create, the memory you want viewers to take with them, when deciding on your style of interpretation.

9. Reading your display

Many exhibitions are created for dedicated readers, and yet others hardly give you a clue about the stories of people, places and events behind the things on display, except stating the obvious e.g. Drum. 1863. Sometimes that might be the point. Curators of contemporary art shows will rarely take on the role of intrusive interlocutor. You probably will need to buy the catalogue if you want more. If you provide stuff to read, consider providing it in different ways: labels, posters, cards, booklets, laminated sheets, maybe something more creative like messages on a pebble or graphic novel style illustrations to share a story. When providing written interpretation on graphics panels and walls, keep chunks of text short, large enough for an easy read, using a font that is straightforward. Never reproduce text directly over a busy image. I’ve seen some fabulous content ruined by poor design where luscious quotations are hidden in newspaper-column text. Provide your designer with clearly organised content with references to which wall or case to which it is relevant (and if your designer has gone off on one don’t be afraid to tell them and correct it).

Wall/CaseTitleHeaderBodyExhibitsImages (caption, credit)
2The Price of MilkNewspaper repros 2
Protest label bottles
Female artist and two male visitors looking at an exhibit on the floor comprising tiles of turf and abstract patterns from different mining sites.
The artist Jill Randall interpreting her work at Geevor Tin Mine in 2016 as part of a meet the artist event.

10. Provide an opportunity for feedback

Opportunities for feedback and interaction with the topic of your display should be clear and obvious and invite meaningful engagement. Then… don’t forget to actually review this feedback so you can inform your future exhibition work and generate evidence for supporters, sponsors and funders.