Narrowing the Focus of Exhibitions


Dave Stroud, Director of Interactive Exhibits, Thanksgiving Point Institute
Brianna Cutts, Creative Director, The Sibbett Group; Adjunct Faculty, John F. Kennedy University


Kirk Henrichsen, Curator of the Remote Art Collection, LDS Church History Department, and Henrichsen Design, Visual Communications Consultation

By Dave Stroud

This session took place during the Western Museums Association 2013 Annual Meeting

Tightly focused exhibitions improve guest experience, but that is just the beginning! Everyone involved with a project benefits from a concise exhibit message. From developers to fundraisers to board members, a clear definition of what the exhibition is, and is not, improves understanding, buy-in, and helps manage “focus creep” – you know, all those great ideas that are only peripherally related to the main message.


The “topic sentence” method is simple, which makes it easier to apply. Likewise, constant reiteration is the key to success. Here is a breakdown of this method: A Junior High School term paper method:

  • Topic sentence for paper
  • Topic sentence for every paragraph

Similarly, for exhibition development, there should generally be:

  • One concise main idea for the overall exhibition
  • One idea per exhibit, AND each exhibit must support the main idea

Additionally, when developing a focused exhibition, there should be:

  • One concise idea for total exhibition should be expressed in title and tag line
  • One idea per exhibit- helpful if title and tag line

Here are some less good examples of tag lines: Media Zone

  • Motors, Magnets, and the Mind

NASA BLAST (bringing light and space together)

  • Almost everything we know about space come from studying light

From Soil to Market

  • The journey of food takes to your plate – plant, grow, harvest, market, table

Paleontology is Puzzling

  • A model of the process of paleontology

Archimedes Playground

  • The six simple machines, fundamental building blocks of mechanical engineering, showcased in arrays of real playground equipment.

Here are some methods I use to narrow the focus of my exhibitions and keep them lean:

  • Brainstorming – structured meetings with special
  • Research – with an eye towards reductionism
  • Ask, if I could only tell someone ONE thing, what would that be?
  • Prototype, get ideas “out on the floor” early -fail faster to succeed sooner
  • Talk to actual visitors about the idea
  • Carry a place to write down the great idea you have in an unlikely place
  • Once you have zeroed in on your idea, don’t change it!  Be strong! This is in fact the real point of this session

Be aware that the final “topic sentence” may turn out to be different from your original idea

  • Be sure that ALL stakeholders know your simple topic sentence
  • Talk about the main idea constantly with anyone who will listen
  • Practice! This hard and does not happen without commitment and practice

View the Prezi from this presentation here:

Dave Stroud is the Director of Interactive Exhibits at Thanksgiving Point in Utah.



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