Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 3: Immersion (I): Sense and Emotion

Panel Overview:

Timothy McNeil (University of California, Davis, US) Smoke and mirrors: the art of deception and the exhibition designer’s box of tricks

Kate Hill (University of Lincoln, UK) ‘Chilly tombs’ or ‘communion with the past’? Staging objects as dead or alive in early twentieth century museums

Izabela Derda, Zoi Popoli and Tom Feustel (Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, The Netherlands) From “just a collection of objects” to “only tech show off”: grasping a change and unpacking design approaches to multisensorial immersive exhibitions

Barbara Fahs Charles (Staples & Charles, US) Total immersion: taking viewers on a journey

Viveka Kjellmer (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) Smelling exhibitions: scented scenographics and olfactory communication in the museum  

Individual Papers:

Timothy McNeil (University of California, Davis, US) Smoke and mirrors: the art of deception and the exhibition designer’s box of tricks

This paper was available for the period of the conference only (1-11 September 2020)

Like our minds, exhibitions play tricks on us. Following in the footsteps of entertainers, sideshow carneys, escape artists, magicians and stagecraft technicians, exhibit designers incorporate illusion and deception to wow audiences and reinforce messages using a dose of fantasy and wonder. Natural history, science and children’s museums and themed and entertainment environments rely heavily on such trickery. Early automata and mechanical devices inspired modern-day animatronics, magic lantern theater and the Pepper’s ghost technique preceded augmented reality, and Victorian parlor games such as the thaumatrope anticipated flip and reveal didactic labels. From anamorphosis and trompe l’oeil paintings to Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirrored rooms, designers employ deception to powerful effect in their work.

This paper features historical and contemporary examples by designers who use these tools of deception and illusion to inspire people, transform exhibition encounters, and trigger emotive reactions. It will demonstrate the impact of design to shape these experiences and propose that without design at the helm and employed effectively, these experiential moments would not become lasting memories that inform and engage increasingly sophisticated museum audiences. The paper also concludes that capturing a designed experience overshadows its content. Although social media and recording platforms like Instagram offer powerful tools, they remain distinct from those forces that create immersion and establish lasting memories. This content is extracted from the author’s book manuscript that aims to chart a new methodology for understanding exhibition and experience design. His research documents the trajectory of exhibition design, professional practice and making, and introduces the design theory, techniques and tools used to deliver successful exhibition-based experiences across a broad range of venues.

Timothy McNeil has spent 30 years as a practicing exhibition designer working for major museums, researching exhibition design history and methods, and teaching the next generation of exhibition design thinkers. McNeil’s research and creative work seeks to define exhibition design practice and explore the exhibition space as a medium for the effective display of objects and the communication of engaging narratives. He is a Professor in the Department of Design at the University of California, Davis and Director of the UC Davis Design Museum. He serves as the primary instructor for undergraduate courses on exhibition design and environmental graphic design and is a thesis advisor for graduate students researching exhibition-related design theory, criticism and practice.


Kate Hill (University of Lincoln, UK) ‘Chilly tombs’ or ‘communion with the past’? Staging objects as dead or alive in early twentieth-century museums

From around 1900, some museums, curators and collectors started to display their historical objects in very different ways, deliberately rejecting conventional exhibition design in order to create environments which more directly replicated ‘life’ in the past. Folk museum staff particularly aimed to put objects into use, (re)building them, wearing them, sitting on them, playing them, and including animals in their collections; and to ‘free’ them from the ‘prison’ of cases and typological display. 

This paper examines museums’ move away from conventional display cases under the influence of the open air, folk life/social history, and reconstructive approach to displays in the early twentieth century. It stresses the extent to which this was framed as a rejection of professional museum exhibition design which was felt to deaden and decontextualize artefacts, turning them into ‘museum-ified’ objects rather than the real stuff of history. Pioneers of reconstructive design were often museum ‘outsiders’, with no training or experience, and emphasised the ‘home made’, amateur nature of their displays; they were inspired by their own relationships with their objects, which were both emotional and sensual, to try and create such relationships between visitors and objects. Displays were thus often described as bringing objects, or indeed the past as a whole, to life, and enhancing their communicative potential. Moreover, the rejection of conventional display can also be seen as a rejection of the restricted sensory range of such displays – reconstructive displays formed an important intervention in the idea of opening up museum objects to smell, taste and hearing, and occasionally even taste. 

By examining the growth of new designs for display, and the rejection of old ones, then, we can reconstruct changing attitudes to the past and how its material survivals were thought to enable knowledge and experience of it. 

Kate Hill is Associate Professor in History and Deputy Head of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. She works on the history of regional and local UK museums; her most recent book was Women and Museums 1850-1914 (MUP 2016). Kate is co-editor of the Museum History Journal and Chair of the Museums and Galleries History Group.


Izabela Derda, Zoi Popoli and Tom Feustel (Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, Rotterdam, The Netherlands) From “just a collection of objects” to “only tech show off”: grasping a change and unpacking design approaches to multisensorial immersive exhibitions 

This paper was available for the period of the conference only (1-11 September 2020)

In popular discourse, immersive exhibitions are often (and almost exclusively) associated with extensive use of new technologies and a high level of visuality. What is overlooked is the fact that immersive technologies are implemented to bring forth the narrative of the exhibition and to enhance the overall audience experience by providing inspirational and emotional layers. The multisensory layer, which surrounds and exposes the theme of the exhibition, supports the submersion of museum visitors in the storyline. For this reason, exhibition design is not tech- but story-driven, and digital methods serve only to reinforce the storytelling and create an immersive environment. New design approaches provoke a change from exhibitions understood as collections of tangible objects curated for structured exploration to active co-creation and co-production of experience by consumers interacting with the environment. In our research, we explore the shift from linear, curatorial-led exhibitions to multisensorial immersive experiences and investigate relations between place, space, story, technology, interaction and consumer in the process of exhibition co-creation.

Izabela Derda, PhD, is a researcher and lecturer at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication in the Media & Communication Department in Rotterdam, Netherlands. She investigates how new technologies influence the transmedia design and reshape content-medium-consumer-creator networks. The paper belongs to the NWO KIEM-funded project “Smartification of audience experience” aiming to improve flexibility to enhance audience’s experiences (in which she is a primary investigator).

Tom Feustel and Zoi Popoli are graduates of the Master Media & Creative Industries program at ESHCC involved in the “Smartification of audience experience” project.


Barbara Fahs Charles (Staples & Charles, US) Total immersion: taking viewers on a journey

This paper, from the designer’s perspective, addresses several aspects of the conference, especially collaborative working, material culture, emotion and affect, and responsibilities.

Large traveling exhibitions, with everything—artifacts, art, cases, even walls—to be shared among venues, are a specific design challenge. Two that Staples & Charles created are especially interesting for immersing visitors in other cultures. ‘Views of a Vanishing Frontier’ (1984–85), developed by Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, to commemorate Prince Maximillian du Wied’s and Karl Bodmer’s 1832–34 explorations up the Missouri River, took visitors on the journey based on Maximillian’s diary. Over 125 original watercolors and drawings by Bodmer were featured in tall, thin vertical panels that could be joined in curves emulating the rhythm of the river. Huge enlargements of Bodmer’s engravings, lightly hand-colored as in the 19th century, punctuated the trip. Encased Native American artifacts and natural specimens, collected by Maximillian and illustrated by Bodmer, enriched the experience. The ‘Views’ pallet was natural linen and wood, letting the exquisite tones of the watercolors predominate. ‘Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia & Alaska’(1988–90),expressed cultural diversity and relationships among eight ethnic groups, four in Siberia and four in Alaska. Organized jointly by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the USSR Academy of Sciences, ‘Crossroads’ combined pre-1867 Alaskan collections preserved in Leningrad with artifacts in North American institutions from the 1897–1903 Jessup Expedition, the first to scientifically investigate the peoples of North Eastern Siberia. Fantastic garments, some made from fragile fish skins or bird pelts, were a special challenge. For these, unique manikins were created to express the people who wore them. The pallet of light greys and birch gave a sense of the cool north, underscoring the subtle natural materials of the artifacts.  

For Bob Staples and for me, the solution should be so “right” that visitors focus totally on the story, people, art and artifacts, not the design. These two exhibitions achieved that elusive goal.

Barbara Fahs Charles is an independent scholar looking at exhibition design, Eames, and carousels and carnivals. As a partner and designer with Staples & Charles for forty-five years, she was responsible for history, anthropology, and art museum projects across the US and internationally, from Singapore to South Africa. After several years as a costumier in professional theatre, she first worked on exhibitions as a researcher and modelmaker at the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, where she met her partner, Robert Staples, then a senior designer at the office. Between four years at the Eames Office and the formation of Staples & Charles, she photographed carousels across the United States and designed several museum projects solo.


Viveka Kjellmer (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) Smelling exhibitions: scented scenographics and olfactory communication in the museum

How can something invisible, like a smell, be exhibited and understood as meaningful in a museum? In this presentation, I focus on the meaning of scent as art, as exhibited artefact, and as an experience-heightening scenographic agent to create a multisensory whole in the museum. I investigate some of the curatorial and communicative challenges faced while working with smell as a bearer of meaning in the museum. Doing so, I discuss scented scenographics, smell technologies and design solutions in perfume exhibitions and olfactory art, where scents are used as communication tools. I highlight the sense of smell as a key factor in the sensory and bodily communication of these multisensory exhibitions. In the exhibition Art of Scent (New York 2013), perfume was exhibited as artwork, stylistically compared to art history. The exhibition Perfume (London 2017) visualized the fragrances in scented scenographies where the stories conveyed by the perfumes where conceptualized. Nez à nez (Lausanne 2019) exhibited perfumery as an applied art and used design installations to illustrate the styles of the perfumers. Belle Haleine. The Scent of Art (Basel 2015) exhibited olfactory artworks and installations, among them the smell of fear. This is compared to scented scenographics at play in contemporary visual art at the Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA) 2019. Smell in the museum can play a multisensory role – to activate the body and the other senses. An exhibition layout with scented focus will also promote bodily interaction, touch, navigation, and interactivity. Olfactory focus leads to a different pace; instead of scanning the room visually and then zoom in, we have to sniff it out slowly. Visiting a scented exhibition forces us to be present in the scent, to slow down, and go where the nose takes us.  

Dr Viveka Kjellmer is a senior lecturer in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She also holds a university degree in Economics and has a background in marketing. Kjellmer has published studies about the visual language of advertising, focusing on the image of scent, and has also written about fashion exhibitions and visual consumption. Her current research concerns costume, body and multisensory analysis, as well as scented scenography and olfactory communication.




Thread: Smelly exhibitions

Claire Wintle Topic starter 06/09/2020 10:09 am

Dear Viveka, thanks for this fascinating paper – I loved your careful analysis of these inspirational shows. I was wondering if you knew anything of the earlier history of using smell in exhibitions? @kate_hill and @tjmcneilmight have some insight into this, but I don’t think I’ve come across the purposeful use of smell before it was used in the British Museum/Museum of Mankind’s reconstructive exhibitions of the 1970s, for example in Nomad and City (1978) where the designers and curators hoped to recreate the experience of a souk, including through smell. I’ve got a feeling I’ve come across earlier examples, but they are escaping me at the moment! Thanks again, Claire

Kate Hill 06/09/2020 10:34 am

It’s such a fascinating issue! I don’t know of any deliberate uses of smell prior to the 1970s but of course plenty of museum exhibitions DID smell – Alberti talks about how disturbingly anatomy museums might smell and how efforts were made to remove or at least contain and minimise those smells. Recreative displays with real fires, animals, dyeing processes being demonstrated certainly smelled (also Grant at the Highland Folk Museum had some unorthodox methods of dealing with woodworm – liberal use of Cuprinol – so that may have added to the smell…). My main memory of the Weald and Downland Museum is of the smell of wood smoke – the multi-sensory nature of reconstructive exhibitions is definitely part of the appeal and has been since the 1930s at least.

Viveka Kjellmer  06/09/2020 5:30 pm

Thank you 🙂 It seems that a visit to a museum might have been quite a multisensory experience in pre-victorian times, and that a sensory shift towards the scientific and the visual changed this approach during the nineteenth century. This is discussed for example by Constance Classen in her article “Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum”, where she points to the massive sensory input in early museums and private collections, and the later change towards an almost complete focus on vision. She writes: “As regards the museum, this sensory shift meant that allowing visitors close contact with museum pieces could no longer be justified by scientific values. The important thing in modernity was to see” (2017, 907).

Claire Wintle Topic starter 07/09/2020 8:51 am

@viveka_kjellmer Ah yes, of course – I really like Constance Classen’s work. I suppose I was thinking about the purposeful introduction of smell in the modern museum, more specifically in the 20th century, but this is a prompt to remember that exhibition ‘design’ started way before then! 🙂 Perhaps @awitcomb (my “go to” resource for affect and emotion in museums!) might know more?

This post was modified 1 year ago by Claire Wintle
Timothy McNeil 07/09/2020 8:23 pm

Yes, thank you Viveka for addressing such a fascinating and under utilized sensory element in the museum exhibition. I was very taken with one of your examples where visitors activated the smells coming from the vessels by cranking a handle to pull out the stopper which after when released would return to seal in the vapor. I don’t have much to add further in terms of history except to look at experiences in early-mid 20th century theater, cinema and World’s Fairs with Smell-O-Vision and AuromaRama – of course the idea here to associate film and visual narratives with smell. Not many of these exploits took off but they are quite ingenious and may have inspired museum exhibition designers at the time. I ask students in one of the courses I teach to think of a smell associated with childhood and then describe the experience – their responses are always wonderful – a lot of food answers and indicative of the various cultures and backgrounds they come from. My purpose for conducting this exercise is to demonstrate the power of experience as a tool for engagement but also because as you say smell is so evocative and memory inducing. Here’s to more smelly museums!

Claire Wintle 08/09/2020 8:19 am

@tjmcneil What a great teaching tip! And, of course, the Commonwealth Institute adapted these World’s Fairs techniques in its Malaysia exhibit too @kelvin might be able to give us more insight, and you can read about the simulated smell of rainforests in his article on Instant Malaysia

Kelvin Chuah 09/09/2020 3:42 pm

Archigram, the London architects designed and realised the Instant Malaysia exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute in 1973. Here is an excerpt from Archigram Archival Project’s text for this exhibition:

“The major feature of the exhibition, which is built on two levels, is the sensory (and sensual) simulator located at the level above the general display area. Inside, ‘in 12 minutes you experience the 90º atmosphere of the Malay jungle and the cool winds after the monsoon’. The simulator accommodates up to 15 people at any one time and they are subjected to constantly changing visual images and sounds, and, more powerfully, temperature and humidity. the mechanics of the simulator are interesting – the four screen multi-projection slide system, which is literally done by mirrors, synchronised with three track sound, and the associated impacts of superimposition, dissolve, blink etc…In the end, of course, it is the simulator which really draws one’s attention. Rightly or wrongly, this particular piece of hardware is much more intriguing than the content of the exhibition as a whole.” Architectural Design, June 1974, pp. 387-388.

The quote references a purpose-built simulator that created an immersive experience for visitors – simulating a Malaysian encounter for the visitor. One of my Malaysian informants who visited the exhibition said when she stepped into the simulator; it felt real. She vividly remembered the artificially induced smell of tropical rain and the humidity touching her skin similar to the blast of hot air when one comes out of Subang Airport (Malaysia’s international airport in the seventies).

I found it fascinating. As Archigram managed to construct a tropical climate as an exhibition experience, which in turn, attracted visitors who made repeated visits to the simulator – again, according to my informant who was then a London based designer making weekly visits to Instant Malaysia with her colleagues.

Claire Wintle Topic starter 10/09/2020 7:15 am

Thanks Kelvin. I’ve just listened to Marlene Van-de-Casteele’s excellent paper on Panel 13 that references the use of smell in museums much earlier than all this. I’d forgotten that in an exhibition I’ve done some research on, Vogue editor/MET curator Diana Vreeland had pumped a sandalwood fragrance made by Guerlain through the air-conditioning system at the ‘Costumes of Royal India’ at the MET in 1985 (!) She used scent in quite a lot of her shows and was famed for her blurring of commercial and museum spaces in those exhibitions that she created at the Costume Institute. Thanks all! Claire

Viveka Kjellmer   

Thank you all for these very interesting examples and the valuable input. I’m really excited about this conference and all the wonderful presentations, truly inspiring work!





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