Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 8: Immersion (II): environment and experience

Panel Overview:

Joanna Norman (V&A, UK)
Period rooms: between museum object and exhibition design

James Housefield (University of California, Davis, US)
Designed destinations: learning from the first museums of San Francisco

Gabriela Denk (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, Germany)
Experience and atmosphere: three innovative exhibition designs by Hans Hollein

Raissa D’Uffizi (La Sapienza University of Rome, Italy)
From design product to art through exhibition: the case of Italy: the New Domestic Landscape (1972)

Daria Gradusova (Swinburne University of Technology, Australia)
Immersive ≠ virtual reality: a case study of three Hokusai exhibitions

Individual Papers:

Joanna Norman (V&A) Period rooms: between museum object and exhibition design

Like many museums, particularly in Europe and America, the V&A contains a number of historic interiors, commonly known as ‘period rooms’. Collected and displayed by the V&A since the 1860s, period rooms blur the boundaries between museum object and exhibition design, between notions of authenticity and constructed experience. Attitudes and approaches to them have shifted over time, in line – or in tension – with broader museum design trends: at times embraced and valued for their perceived aesthetic or atmospheric properties, at other times rejected on practical and intellectual grounds.

This paper will explore the liminal status of the period room in the context of exhibition design, with particular reference to period rooms in the V&A’s collection. It will discuss the origins of period room settings and their relationship to colonial and commercial practices of display such as international exhibitions, department stores and antique dealers. It will examine the translation of such settings to museum environments and the shifts in meaning that they have acquired and communicated as exhibition methods during the 20th century, ranging from ideals of domesticity to unified national narratives. It will consider the value of period rooms as a form of exhibition design in the 21st-century museum, the problematics they present to contemporary museum professionals and audiences, and the opportunities they offer for multisensory, affective engagement.

Throughout, this paper will highlight the complex networks involved in creating period room displays, including curators, conservators, architects, designers, dealers and technicians, through examples of different approaches to period room displays at the V&A, including the reimagining and reconstructions of certain rooms for different purposes and how such reimaginings foreground the collaborative nature of period room exhibition design in a variety of forms.

Joanna Norman is Director of the V&A Research Institute. She oversees the V&A’s research activities, including academic partnerships and postgraduate programmes, R&D for exhibitions, research affiliations and a portfolio of externally-funded research projects, most significantly a major transformational grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She joined the V&A in 2005 as assistant curator for the Museum’s 2009 Baroque exhibition, moving to the Royal Academy of Arts as co-curator of the 2010 Treasures from Budapest exhibition. From 2012-15 she was project curator for Europe 1600–1815, the redevelopment of the V&A’s permanent galleries of 17th- and 18th-century European art and design, and was subsequently lead curator for the Scottish Design Galleries at V&A Dundee, which opened in 2018.

Joanna has published widely in association with her curatorial projects, and also on the history of performance (theatre, festivals and musical instruments) in early modern Italy. Her current research focuses on period rooms and the reconstruction of historic interiors inside and outside the museum environment.


James Housefield (University of California, Davis, US) Designed destinations: learning from the first museums of San Francisco

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

This paper proposes an alternative model to complement the narrative of grand museums that dominates histories of nineteenth-century exhibitions. By considering the first museums of San Francisco, California, this analysis proposes the concepts of experience design and, especially, “destination design” as useful lenses through which to achieve new understanding of the history of exhibitions.

Museums of art and natural history figured prominently in the identities of Woodward’s Gardens (1865-91) and the Sutro Baths (1894-1966). Although one could visit each site solely to enjoy exhibitions, a museum was merely one aspect of the larger experience on offer and the economics of the site. Alongside museum displays, visitors pursued varied pleasures, from picnic grounds and gardens to amusement-park attractions, bathing, balloon rides, musical performances, or other entertainments. Eadweard Muybridge promoted photography from his Woodward’s Gardens studio, and Sutro’s resident photographers offered studio portraits and exotic views. By examining these museums in the context of the pleasure gardens in which they were located, we can better understand their meanings. Although recent decades have seen new appreciation for the “cabinet of curiosities” approach to curation found in these museums, further lessons can be learned by considering pleasure gardens as sites of display and diverse public interaction with artifacts, objects, and narratives.

Creating a visitor experience at Woodward’s Gardens or the Sutro Baths involved a combination of distinct leadership and dispersed duties, often dispatched to artisans who remain anonymous. In addition to the unidentified assistants he hired to build vitrines or treat taxidermy, Woodward hired artist Virgil Williams to create a space for viewing old master and contemporary paintings. This paper investigates how Williams’ designs and the other sites of display juggled an array of exhibition practices to achieve a designed destination.

James Housefield is Associate Professor of Design and Affiliated Faculty in Art History at the University of California, Davis, where he teaches the Introduction to Design and Experience Design courses. Housefield’s research focuses on the variety of ways we design experiences. A former curator, he is especially interested in the histories of exhibition design, and modern cultures of immersive experience like those treated in his monograph Playing with Earth and Sky: Astronomy, Geography, and the Art of Marcel Duchamp (Dartmouth College Press, 2016). Housefield continues to research the histories of design, modern art, and their intersections. This paper is taken from his in-progress book manuscript, tentatively titled “Swimming at the Museum and Other Ways of Seeing: San Francisco’s First Museums and Exhibitions.”  


Gabriela Denk (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, Germany) Experience and atmosphere: three innovative exhibition designs by Hans Hollein

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

The work of Hans Hollein (1934-2014) was a crossover between architecture, design and art. Although his oeuvre is varied, he is still known as the architect of post-modern buildings such as the Abteiberg Museum in Mönchengladbach. His work as an exhibition designer, curator and installation artist has only been considered occasionally. My PhD project deals with Hollein’s activities in exhibition making and places them in the context of his general work and exhibition history. In the exhibition field Hans Hollein conceived and designed themed exhibitions on design, architecture and cultural history as well as artistic installations. His exhibition designs were complex environments and ranged from artistic via theatrical to scenographical displays. In conceiving spectacular displays and generating associative processes, Hollein provided strong visual and spatial experiences for the viewers, with the aim of inspiring reflections; he addressed all senses by complex dialectic and collage-like confrontations. The lecture will focus on three museum exhibitions of three decades conceptualized and designed by Hollein: first, it will examine Selection 66, an exhibition about chairs which Hollein transformed into giant sculptures in specifically made architectural environments at the Museum for Applied Arts in Vienna 1966. Second, it will introduce the opening show of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York 1976, called MAN transFORMS, where he showed the daily impact of design through experimental installations. Finally, it will take a look at the grand cultural exhibition Dream and Reality: Vienna 1870-1930 at Künstlerhaus Vienna 1985, for which Hollein designed spectacular displays, showing the contradictions of the turn of the century in Vienna and including numerous reconstructions and scenic elements. The goal of the lecture is to show the innovative display principles of the three exhibitions, thereby introducing a case study of individual post-war exhibition design practice by a single exhibition maker.

Gabriela Denk has a BA in Art History from the University of Stuttgart /Montpellier, and an International Master in Art History and Museology from the University of Heidelberg / Ecole du Louvre Paris. She has worked as a curatorial assistant at the Künstlerhaus Bremen 2011/2012, the Fellbach Triennial of small-scale sculpture 2013, and the Kunsthalle Mainz 2015-2018. Since 2018 she has been preparing a PhD thesis on Hans Hollein‘s scenographic and artistic exhibitions 1960-1987 at University of Heidelberg, supervised by Prof. Henry Keazor with grant by Gerda Henkel Foundation.


Raissa D’Uffizi (La Sapienza University of Rome, Italy) From design product to art through exhibition: the case of Italy: the New Domestic Landscape (1972)

Exhibition design can be decisive in communicating the message of an exhibition, creating spatial solutions which suggest a particular interpretation of the displayed works. The power of design is evident in the setting up of Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, an international exhibition on Italian product design held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1972. The exhibition, which promoted the artistry of made in Italy design production, was organized by the Argentinian architect Emilio Ambasz, curator of the museum’s Department of Architecture and Design. To underline the intrinsic social, formal and technical values of design objects, reproduceable by definition, they were presented in their unicity, fuelling a dialoguing opposition between artistical creation and mass production, museum and domestic settings.

The exhibition was divided into two sections, objects, a selection of 180 design pieces located in the garden terrace of the museum, and environments, a group of domestic spaces interpreted by 11 designers and recreated within the galleries. The objects were presented as sculptures: closed inside 60 wooden display cases and visible through windows, they were untouchable, denying the direct contact with human body that would be required for objects of everyday use. The environments, on the contrary, offered live experiences of spaces, which were expounded directly by designers through short videos on screens, recalling the modes of installation and video art.  The exhibition overturned the modes of fruition: objects were exposed outdoors while the environments were exhibited in the closed space of the museum’s rooms, redrawing the oxymoron of the title which matched the closeness of a domestic space with the openness of a landscape.

Italy: The New Domestic Landscape provided product design with the means to be accepted in the art sphere. The big jump from house to museum, significantly affecting the construction of taste, was possible thanks to Ambasz’s ambitious project, which excavated in the common ground between product design and art to produce one of the most memorable exhibition designs of the last century.

Raissa D’Uffizi completed her master’s degree in Design, Visual Communication and Multimedia in 2017 and is currently enrolled in a PhD program in Design at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Department of Planning, Design and Technology of Architecture. Her research deals with Design History, focusing on made in Italy design as a cultural phenomenon, with special attention to its perception and its communication around the world. She has worked as graphic designer for art exhibitions in Ghent and Rome, and has collaborated with many graphic design firms, such as David Perez Medina (Madrid) and Noao (Rome).


Daria Gradusova (Swinburne University of Technology, Australia) Immersive ≠ virtual reality: a case study of three Hokusai exhibitions

The term ‘immersive’ today is associated with virtual reality (VR) and digital experiences. However, in exhibition design those types of design often comprise only part of a bigger exhibition experience. Considering immersion purely as a digital experience may limit the creativity of approaches to exhibition design in the future and skew the historical analysis of the current state of exhibition design practices. Therefore, I propose to reconsider the importance of foundational exhibition design techniques which facilitate nondigital immersive exhibitions.

This paper is a review of several contemporary exhibition design approaches that create immersion in physical museum spaces. It is based on the analysis of three Hokusai exhibitions (in Milan, London and Melbourne in 2017) and interviews with practicing designers (also in Milan, London and Melbourne). The paper draws on a comparative analysis of the exhibition designs of different Hokusai exhibitions, and demonstrates how combining visitor experience, associations, scale, rhythm and pace, colour and light in one conceptual narrative creates an immersive exhibition.

Daria Gradusova: A decade ago, while undertaking the Bachelor in Conservation of Arts Daria became interested in new ways of displaying collections. She went on to study Exhibition Planning and Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, then worked in museums in the US and Italy for several years.

Currently she is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Health, Arts and Design at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. Her current project concerns the notion of authenticity in contemporary curatorial practices and how it is reflected in museum identity, exhibition programming and communication. Her previous experience spans from interning as an exhibition designer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (USA) to consultancy in a small museum in Saint Petersburg (Russia) on strategies for a traveling exhibition.



Thread: Period Rooms: Qs for Jo, Gabriela and Raise

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear Jo,

Thanks very much for giving us a sneak peek into your fascinating research – I really enjoyed the relationship and interplay between your historical analysis and professional reflections on process of displaying these complex, intriguing spaces. I thought there were some nice overlaps between your paper and those of Gabriela and Raissa, and also Kate Hill (Panel 3). It seems that the inspirations for reconstructed rooms are plural and wide-ranging.

My question is about the changing fortunes of period rooms, and public and curatorial perspectives of inauthenticity. I wonder if you have identified a change in this critique about the inauthenticity of the period room in recent years – are they becoming less controversial do you think? And if so, why might this be?

Gabriela and Raissa, thanks too for your papers, which I enjoyed very much – I wondered also about the reconstructed rooms in your research. Do you know, Gabriela, where Hollein’s inspiration came from for his period room, and Raissa, your photos of the visitors to Italy: The New Domestic Landscape were incredible: did you get a sense in your research of how visitors felt about and engaged with the ‘environments’ that were created?

Thanks again, Claire

Raissa D’Uffizi   

Dear Dr Claire Wintle, the photos of the visitors are real emblem of a specific period of the story. In the 1972 the phenomen of of design was growing and spreading in society: also we can read the environments like a “period room” of the future, because at that time, the visitors walking around the exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape at MoMa with a lively interest and surprised approach. We can see how people interact with the new and strange panorama of domestic scene, a very ambitious project for the time that have leave a strong sign in the our contemporary life. The sensation is that the visitors have absorbed a new approach to future, domestic world is full of the possibilities and the exhibition has crystallized in its potentiality of innovation.

Gabriela Denk   

Dear Claire,

in the exhibition Dream & Reality 1985 in Vienna were several reconstructions of interiors and architectural facades. In my presentation, I showed the most ambitious project: the detailed reconstruction of Josef Hoffmann’s room design for the first presentation of Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven-frieze at the XIV. Secessions-exhibition in Vienna 1902. It was Hollein’s idea to restore the frieze and show it to the public again after many years in storage in his original presentation context. Hollein and his team did a lot of research on this, especially on the wall colour. The basis for the reconstruction were historical photographs. If you want to know more about this: Hollein wrote an article on the reconstruction for the exhibition catalogue p. 558-565.

Greetings from Germany, Gabriela

Joanna Norman   

Dear Claire,

Many thanks for your question. I think visitors are often less critical of period room displays than museum professionals are. Certainly prior to the redevelopment of our Europe 1600-1815 galleries, front-end visitor research highlighted the period rooms as some of visitors’ favourite objects in those galleries. I think this is because of the contrast they offer with contemporary museum design: visitors often happen upon period rooms unexpectedly, and enjoy the very different sensory experience, and often greater intimacy of space, that they offer. I also think this is because of the opportunity to project onto them: they offer a seemingly less didactic presentation, in which curatorial, design or interpretative interventions are less in evidence, and therefore greater capacity for imagination.

In terms of academic and museological critique, I think this remains strong. Perhaps they have become less controversial as museums have continued to display them, and perhaps also as they have become spaces commonly used for contemporary installations. But critique continues among design and architectural historians – in relation to specific period rooms, perhaps, rather than in general. I also think that the more recent the room, the more controversial, as decisions whether to privilege designers’ intent over lived experience of inhabitants are of course much more fraught and sensitive.



Thread: Period rooms

Solmaz Kive: Topic starter   

Dear Joanna,

Thank you for your great talk! I really enjoyed your discussion on various factors involved in designing period rooms.  Thinking of a hybrid approach to education and experience and the need to go beyond the rigid perception of authenticity to respond to the needs of here and now, I wonder if you could share your reflections on the impact of the recent move towards digital museums on the visitor’s/viewer’s experience of period rooms and how/if the period rooms should adjust.

Thank you,


Joanna Norman   


Dear Solmaz, 

Thank you so much for your question. The move to digital offers huge possibilities for visitors’ experiences of period rooms, particularly hybrid digital / physical experiences. There are obviously opportunities to use digital technology to reconstruct the original architectural environments that rooms were in, or to reconstruct ‘original’ furnishings, but to my mind one key potential benefit is in offering alternative approaches, thus challenging the ‘time-capsule’ concept and presenting change over time, but perhaps also in presenting speculation: ideas we have about a room’s history but for which we lack evidence. It also, critically, offers opportunities to connect period rooms with lived experience, be that through film, AR, oral histories and more.  I think we will see much more of this as we move forward and I think it has great potential to help create multi-layered meanings that will enrich the experiences of period rooms.

Thanks and best wishes,



Thread: Creating Immersion

Barbara Fahs Charles Topic starter   

Daria, Fabulous presentation. Thank you for looking at the basic foundation and building blocks of immersion without digital enhancements. The Milan presentation was stunning. Barbara


Thread: Designed destinations: questions of ‘designer’

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear James, thank you for this fascinating paper. I hope you’re managing ok where you are in California? I especially enjoyed your contribution for the blurry boundaries it created around “museum” practice. It is so great to have this reminder of the cross-fertilisation of different types of display environments and learn about the complexities of ‘designed destinations’. I have a question about the ‘taxidermist as designer’. In preparation for my paper, I was reading some material from the Journal of Design History which made a distinction between the professional designer as they emerged in the nineteenth century and the ‘trades and crafts’. Beegan and Atkinson (2008) put it like this: ‘the designer is able to achieve an overview of the increasingly complex production process in industrial society and direct the work of the artisan, the builder, the sign maker, the potter, the printer and compositor [and could we add taxidermist?!]’. Do you have a sense of how this dynamic played out in your case studies, and what do you think this distinction in general? Does it apply in your research?

Daria Gradusova   

Thanks James! Just commenting to say I really enjoyed the presentation and I feel as if I’ve actually traveled in time and space (so immersive, ha!).


Thread: Interviewing designers

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear Daria, Thank you for your careful engagement with these interesting exhibitions. I wondered about the impact that being able to interview the designers for just one of the exhibitions has had on your wider analysis of the three exhibitions. How much did the process of the interview influence your understanding? It’s really interesting to be at that point of the process where some case studies are more ‘fleshed out’ than others – having interviewed quite a few curators and designers myself, I am quite interested in reflecting on whether these interviews challenge or simply confirm original hypotheses, and how issues raised in one interview impact on later parts of a piece of research – prompting new lines of investigation, etc. How are you finding this with your research? Thanks again, Claire

Daria Gradusova   

Dear Claire, 

Thanks for great questions!

The process of interviewing itself showed me that exhibition designers think ‘intuitive spaces’ (or rather creating an intuitive visitor experience) and first of all question themselves ‘what is immersive?’. I started each interview expecting that they will have answers and will tell about their best practices but they were reflecting and thinking through. That, to me, is an indication that equaling immersion in exhibitions to digital experiences is taking away a possibility to design a more subtle and rich immersive experience.

Regarding the point of some case studies not being ‘fleshed out’, after all, my concern became more about general accessibility, documentation and dissemination of designer knowledge and design processes. One goal was to understand designer views on immersion and look at non-digital experiences, another goal was to document knowledge and views of contemporary exhibition designers and back them up with particular examples which has become challenging. So in the process of interviews (from very outreach to completed interviews) I became more interested access to designer knowledge rather than the research hypothesis on immersion itself. My take-aways were that to research exhibition design in detail, a project has to be supported – sponsored by a museum or be a museum-university partnership project. Mine was not arranged as such and, hence, created some difficulties in access to primary sources. 

Other than that, in my research I found that interviews both confirmed some bits of hypothesis and also challenged it. I think in it is the beauty of interviews which bring richness to data related to exhibition design. 

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