Exhibit Design Internship

I worked as an exhibit design intern at the National Museum of American History, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Working with another intern, I was asked to reimagine the museum's artifact walls and develop a conceptual design for an upcoming Sinatra exhibit in the space. I was exposed to the exhibit design process and was able to apply my industrial design background in a slightly different way than I was used to.


Our first step was to understand the space.

What and where are the artifact walls?

The artifact walls are essentially big display cases in the entrance spaces of the museum, on floors 1 and 2. The walls contain a sampling of the museum's collections, organized by several overarching themes. We focused our research on the first floor artifact walls.

How do people interact with the walls?

The other three interns and I spent two sessions peoplewatching, studying where visitors first went upon entering the museum. In the second peoplewatching session, the four of us looked more in-depth into visitor traffic by selecting every 10th visitor and tracking their movements until they disappeared out of the main space. 

Using the floor plans of the first floor, we diagrammed the movement of visitors around the space. A collection of these diagrams can be found below. 


The large majority of people first visit the restrooms, the information desk, or the EV1 Car that we had on display. From there, people lingered a bit, deciding what to do, before progressing on to the exhibits. 

Some insights about the artifact walls:

  • people didn't spend a whole lot of time in front of the artifact walls.
  • the entrance area was too chaotic to facilitate an in-depth engagement.
  • the walls were often the first point of contact between the visitor and the museum's collections. 
  • displays with more emphasis on visuals that gave visitors an introduction into the museum could be effective. 

My partner and I also looked at similar spaces in other museums and studied examples of exhibit displays that were effective. Armed with some guiding principles, we proceeded to sketch out some concepts. 

Initial Concepts

In these explorations, my partner and I focused on adding visual interest to the artifact walls, especially with use of color and depth. I was particularly interested in utilizing the space within the case, however limited it was. We both recognized the importance of layering artifacts and panels to add to the visitor experience.

Some of the sketches on the bottom show a concept for what we called the "wall of stuff," which was intended to display a large amount of artifacts of a similar typology. Since the museum is very comfortable with narrative style exhibits, we thought that this kind of large-collection display would complement that.


After identifying these two different modes of display, we realized that it would be beneficial to create dividers between these types of exhibits. This was an idea that also came out of our conceptual sketches. A dividing panel or section could provide a physical and cognitive break between separate shows. We imagined that it could be a place to display a small collection of items, one larger or "special" item, or it could simply show graphics or text. 

I mocked up several different dividing panels using Vectorworks. The divider is a versatile piece that is placed in between exhibits in the artifact wall. The first from the left acts as a spotlight on a single object, while others showcase collections of smaller objects or simply display relevant graphics and text. 


This is a Vectorworks mock up of our final collections-based exhibit. The image on the right shows an alternate method of displaying a large collection, using pedestals as opposed to shelves. 

The idea is essentially a grid-based system of shelves, which uses the Arakawa hanging system that the museum currently has in place. This allows some flexibility in placing panels that contain graphics and text that help give depth to the display. I created a hypothetical show using cameras to demonstrate this idea.

We then used the Vectorworks renders to mock up a scale model of one stretch of the artifact walls. The exhibits on the left and the right of camera show are more narrative-based modes of display, separated by the dividing panels. We played with the idea of placing vinyl on the surface of the glass, to add depth and interest.

Sinatra: An American Icon

In the process of developing these ideas for the artifact walls, my partner and I were then given a secondary project, to create a conceptual design for an artifact wall show about Frank Sinatra, the famous American singer and actor. The show was scheduled to open for his centennial, near the beginning of December.

After the first meeting with the curators and project manager for the show, we only had a rough idea of what sort of artifacts we had. Our mentor suggested that we design the exhibit, starting with the conceptual organization and leaving enough flexibility for the curators to then pick and place objects. For me, it wasn't the ideal way of working, but I could see that, with our timeline, this is what the situation necessitated. 

The show would take up four panels on the artifact walls, which is about 20 feet in length with a depth of about 2 or 3 feet. The official charter for the show described it as a highlight of Sinatra's career and accomplishments in both music and film, which helped us structure the exhibit accordingly.

A few guiding principles:

  • A section dedicated to film, and a section dedicated to music
  • Not biographical - focus on accomplishments
  • Have an attention grabbing element, for visitors to easily understand the topic presented
  • Showcase Sinatra's unique character and personality

We also considered the insights that were part of our investigations into the entire artifact wall.

  • Create more visually attractive exhibit by incorporating color and varied composition of elements
  • Utilize layering to create hierarchy and interest - despite the shallow space, there is still depth!

Our initial sketches tried to put these principles into use.

We gravitated toward telling what we called "mini stories." The area dedicated to music was a composition of a microphone, sheet music, and records, as an ode to the process of making a song. The film area had one of Sinatra's trench coats, a movie still with the trench coat in action, and posters from his various films. Graphics were a large portion of the exhibit, because we thought it would give more insight into his stage presence and character. 

Blue became an obvious color choice (Sinatra's nickname was "ol' blue eyes"), and we used his signature as an attention grabbing element. This led to our first conceptual proposal, which we modeled in Adobe illustrator and in our 3D prototype. 


To wrap everything up, we presented our work to our supervisor, the other exhibit designers, our project manager, and the director of design at the museum. We received many positive comments about our work and our thinking processes. Although I don't expect our artifact wall concept to be directly implemented, it has contributed to an ongoing discussion about how the museum's artifact walls can be utilized more effectively. 

Sinatra Wrap Up

After the meeting, I did some refining on our Sinatra concept based on the feedback from the director. I streamlined the design to emphasize the areas of content replaced the more rounded shapes with a more rectilinear look. I decided to layer large panels of color to accentuate the organizing framework.

The final design.