Designing Museums & Cities

How does an urban designer end up running a dinosaur exhibition?!

This was definitely a question I had asked myself while working on the Lost Creatures exhibition. I started my career in urban design and was recently working at the Queensland Museum in experience design.

While it might seem like a strange career path, the world of museums and urban spaces are not as different as they might first appear. There are valuable lessons and untapped collaborations tha­t could be shared in both worlds. Museums could play a bigger role in shaping cities and urban designers could help museums improve their strategies.



Each year, the Trends Watch report by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) shows emerging global issues and trends that are impacting the business of museums. In the 2013 report, AAM highlighted that increasing urban density and changing demographics in cities should be seriously considered by museums. It suggested responses in terms of public transport accessibility, cultural infrastructure redevelopment and museums as more meaningful public spaces.

What if an urban designer was the CEO of a museum?

Here are 3 lessons museums should probably learn from urban place-makers:

1) Create change through tactical urbanism and design prototyping.

In the context of museums, big exhibition projects are a bit like big architectural projects in cities. These can be slow, costly, and are often weighed down by politics and funding.

To create change, urban neighborhoods are now responding with models of “tactical urbanism”, based on quicker, cheaper approaches using prototypes and design testing pop-ups. Using this similar approach in museums could have huge benefits.   It might mean less effort on mega-exhibitions, and more interesting investment in programming activity, more flexible gallery spaces, and more use of outdoor spaces.


Parklets in car parking spaces

2) Be multi-tasking community spaces.

Museums are great places to look and wander, but these days cities demand that public spaces are more dynamic and multi-purpose. Working with Cobb & Co Museum, I most enjoyed hearing how local residents also used it as “the place to have coffee”. How wonderful for a museum to be so engrained in daily life and loved by its neighbourhood in that way.

This approach is also in line with the Project for Public Spaces’ notion of “The Power of 10” which notes that the best public space having a minimum of 10 uses. Using this idea, museums need to envision themselves as so much more, for both community and commercial value. A gallery, a cafe, a retail shop, a classroom, a movie theatre, a wedding venue, a garden, a market place, a co-working space, and why not a hotel too?


Cobb & Co Venue Space

3) Make greater partnerships & community collaborations

Cities will often work in collaborative partnerships across developers, government levels, and community to make big projects happen. It is often observed that to sustain great neighbourhood ideas, actions need to be both “bottom up” (grassroots community) and “top down” (business or government support).

On the other hand, museums are historically grounded with scientists and curators where expert knowledge rules and it creates a somewhat “top down” relationship with audiences. Taking a lead from city making, might mean museums open up to embrace more creative partnerships (in funding, corporate, and research partners) and to facilitate greater grassroots participation from their audiences.


“What do you collect” (Queensland Musuem, 2013): A great community and collaborative project model


The 2013 AAM TrendsWatch report, also gave examples where museums became more involved in urban planning processes. This mostly happens when a new museum or site redevelopment occurs, but the report also gave examples of when museums created exhibitions and programs about cities and architecture. There are some great examples of this worldwide, such as the BMW Guggenheim Lab, Skyscraper Museum, Canadian Centre for Architecture and festival formats like Venice Architectural Biennale and Public Design Festival Milan.

What if museums played a more active role in urban planning policy and processes?

Here are 3 lessons urban place-makers should probably learn from museums:

1) Better communication and experience design

Urban planning can be communicated in terribly boring ways, through very technical policy and confusing plans. Museums on the other hand, have a greater ability to engage wide public audiences across all ages. They show through exhibitions, websites and public programs that people are far more engaged in visual formats, interactive events and different story-telling modes. Urban place-makers could learn a lot in how to capture the public imagination to excite, inspire, and engage about important urban policy issues.


100% Brisbane (Museum of Brisbane, 2016) an excellent exploration of city and people in exhibition and digital design


2) Have a clearer brand strategy

Part of my museum role was to plan 5 years ahead in the Exhibition and Experience Plans. This was greatly helped by guiding all decision-making to achieve the museum’s central branding ideas. Cities on the other hand, can often have confusing branding position or it’s often confused as just city tourism or graphic logos. However applying more brand strategies to precincts and places, might help easier decision making and help cities be more competitive, by also being clearer in their distinct “brand personality”


City of Gold Coast rebrand values (2013)

3) Target smaller audiences

The design of museum exhibitions and learning programs is generally based on very targeted audiences (i.e, a kids program is distinctly different to an adults program). Reaching multiple audiences means having lots of choices and/or flexible systems to easily personalise experiences.

In contrast, some urban public spaces are often not as targeted, and this can create somewhat generic designs. Learning from museums, could result in cities having multiple, more targeted public space offerings, and being more clear and distinct in the target markets. This could also relieve the pressure on a single idea or a building project having to resolve everything for everyone in a given neighbourhood.


Superkilen Park in Copenhagen (BIG Architects, 2010) had a strong design ethos towards the local migrants groups


Designing meaningful experiences in museums and urban spaces are neither perfect nor easy models, as they both have their own complex systems of politics, land, space and budgets to grapple with. However, there are many lessons to be shared from both areas of expertise.

The commonality between a museum or an urban space comes down to experience design. Both aspire to creating meaningful and memorable experiences, and this requires great design thinking with a key focus on the people who are the end users. Museums happen to call them “audience”, and urban designers call them “community”, but in the end, both need to be well considered to create any enjoyable and vibrant place.


Lost Creatures Exhibition (Queensland Museum, 2013)




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