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Exhibition Planning

Step-by-step guide for planning and managing an exhibition display in a museum, archives and/or library setting.

Getting Started on an Exhibition

Basic Steps:

  • Develop the main idea of your exhibition. What is the big idea you want to communicate to the viewers?
  • Decide on the central themes of the exhibition, and start thinking abut the “flow” of the exhibition. What do viewers really need to know?
  • Decide what objects to include. What stories do they tell? Why are they interesting? How do they contribute to the central idea?
  • Develop the exhibition narrative. Everything in the exhibition should contribute to the story you’re sharing with your audience. Make sure your group knows the main idea of the exhibitions; the major themes and how they relate to the main idea;  and how each object relates to a theme and, of course, to the main idea.

 What You Need:

  1. Title for the exhibition
  2. Brief description of the exhibition (3 or 4 sentences that sum up the exhibition)
  3. Exhibition checklist (a list of the objects – photos, videos, books, artworks, etc..) that will be in the exhibition
  4. Exhibition outline (a summary of the exhibition: title, brief description, the main themes, and the objects grouped by theme

Image of Student Exhibition: If You Give a Monk a Manuscript

Choosing and Preparing Materials

Choosing Something to Display

  • Browse several publications, sites, books and search broadly at first. In other words, don't limit yourself to searching for specific images or objects right away.
  • Many publications that may not initially look interesting contain visual images or graphics that can help you tell a compelling story about your topic!
  • Many documents and images published by the U.S. government are in the public domain, and therefore available for you to use.

Displaying Digital Images

  • If you scan an image out of a book or magazine, scan it at 100%, 300 dpi. Save as a jpeg or tiff. For best results, use the Epson scanners connected to the desktop computers in the Reference Room and use the Image Capture app. 
  • Make a note of the source of the image

Tips for Labels

  • Short is always better!
  • The label should be about what you’re looking at.
  • The label should tell you why you’re looking at it.
  • People often don’t read labels. That’s why the label should be short and tell the viewer something interesting about the object on display.

Organizing Your Exhibition

 Your exhibit will (may) include:

  • Title
  • A central idea or question
  • A brief description
  • Sections (groupings of objects)
  • Objects
  • Conclusion
  • Credits

Title, Central idea, and Description

  • What is this about, and why should we be interested? Make your viewers curious and eager to explore.


  • Sections structure your exhibition and allow you to group objects (thematically, by historical period, by type,…)
  • An introductory section introduces your main idea, and orients viewers to the structure of the exhibit
  • Why are these objects together? What do they tell use about the main idea? How do the sections work together to construct a coherent story?


  • Know why you are including each object: How does it contribute to the central idea? Why is it in this group? How is it different from the other objects?
  • Your label text should answer these questions: What am I looking at? Why is it interesting? What does it have to do with the central idea?

Tips for Writing, Revising, and Rethinking:

  • When writing object labels: If you can’t see it, don’t talk about it. (see Kris Wetterlund Guide to Interpretive Writing )
  • Always return to the central idea: Does this object/label/text support what I really want people to know?
  • But – revise your title, central idea, and description if you need to. Your ideas may shift as you do more research.
  • If you are working with a group, check in frequently. Work on each object and each section should support the central idea, and the flow of the exhibition as a whole. 

Books selected for display as part of a student-curated exhibition

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This work by The University of Victoria Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License unless otherwise indicated when material has been used from other sources.