Category Archives: Museum Design

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)




SFO: Living Innovation Zone

The Living Innovation Zone Program (LIZ) seeks to create a flexible framework that harnesses the city’s creativity by using City-owned assets, such as public spaces, and partnerships with leading organizations as catalysts for exploration, innovation and play.

LIZ is a partnership between the SF Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, SF Planning, and SF DPW.

I stumbled upon this walking to breakfast and it is yet another great example of progressive public space thinking in SFO, and nicely is also an example of when my worlds of urban design and museums collide.  It is my own dream to be seeing this type of content and collaboration more that is not only contributing to urban spaces but pushing museums past the traditional walls.

The “Pause” Project on Market St was with the The Exploratorium who were “given the opportunity to build an interactive educational experience on the city sidewalks that open people’s eyes and illuminate how the world works”.  One of the chairs is really neat as it takes social interaction and 2 people to sit next to each other to close the circulate (hold hands) and play music on the seat’s arm rests.

*The website only notes things from 2013.  I do hope this great idea is still going on

SFO: Visit to Walt Disney Family Museum

I had gone to Presidio earlier in the week to see Lucas Films as part of Wired by Design,  I found myself back there, slightly lost and trying to find the Walt Disney Family Museum.  It feels like a peculiar enclave of historic buildings and federal land, but the destination was well worth it.

It was one of the few museum experiences I’ve have that left me moved, inspired and wanting to go find the book and know more.   Perhaps it was just this great story of a creative man, dreamer, innovator and a great museum layout to help tell this story.  Or more perhaps it was the content – of pure childhood nostalgia. Disney movies felt magic in my childhood and it still does.

Fave museum design ideas to steal = 

  1. Their integration of screens into display was so very well done.  I really enjoy when they were inset into other 2D graphics 
  2. The lift to the 2nd level gallery was “a train car” and had a small voice over.  It represented the literal transition to his move to Hollywood.  Using the building as experience was a great touch
  3. The layout of galleries was essentially a timeline, and sometimes I’m not a fan of such linear models, it also just works really well.   The story about his work and career was also really well integrated with family stories, and insights. 
  4. The last rooms felt emotional to me reflecting on his death and legacy.  The final room was a quiet pause of reflection.  (A recent QM exhibition had a similar space and I think it really is in tune with what visitors need)

SFO: Visit to Exploratorium

I had mostly heard of the Exploratorium as pioneers in interactive science centres, so in my mind I was picturing just a grander version of QM’s type of science centre.  To my surprise it was much more richer in themes and had a great integration of art and science that was also unexpected/ unknown to me.

There are 6 main galleries –

  1. Human Phenomena (thoughts, feelings, and social behaviour)
  2. Tinkering
  3. Seeing and Listening (light and vision, colour, sound and hearing, and motion and spatial perception)
  4. Living Systems
  5. Landscape Observation (explore the local environment)
  6. Outdoor Gallery

I really liked Living Systems personally but the “seeing and listening” area seemed the busiest. It was huge – almost overwhelmingly so!  Right from the entrance, there is so much going on in every surface (walls, floors, windows, ceilings) I actually hardly knew what to look at and didn’t feel like I could take it all in.

Fave museum ideas to steal:

  1. Their ability to bring back-of-house to front-of-house was amazing.  It is so different to the building configuration of QM, and an exhibition construction workshop in the middle was great and mind-blowing to me.  Mirco labs and some research offices were glass and facing visitor areas too
  2. “Notes from Bio Lab” was a quick handwritten ways curators could change and update the info.  More bringing BOH to FOH, and giving personality to people behind the scenes
  3. Outdoor Gallery and Observatory – commenting and reflecting on local place and acknowledging its environment was great, and sent a real message of “everyday science” and it being closely all around us.
  4. Outdoor playground – the use of outdoor space for play, seating, displays and exhibits
  5. Artist in Residency.  There was many works from various years of the long-running program.  The weaving of art + science was really well done.
  6. I stumbled upon Fire Services Week, and it was great to see special programming and community collaborations and engaging with wider things going on in the city/community.

SFO: Visit to California Academy of Sciences

I certainly look at museums to see what is happening in experience design, but the California Academy of Science was also on my list for architectural reasons.  With a new natural environments gallery planned at QM I couldn’t help but be jealous of their live animals, bio-dome rainforest and aquarium environments, huge ceiling spaces, and great forecourt.

Fave museum design ideas to steal =

  1. Centralised “stage” in natural lighted area put public programming literally in the middle
  2. “Lab’ area showing current works and research in development
  3. Immersive theatre experience
  4. Building as “science experiment” and with sustainability measures built in for visitor awareness (eg- number of water bottles saved by those using drinking taps)
  5. Museum going outside with “curated’ landscape design with local plants and tags with scientific names in surrounding gardens

SFO: Stanford Solar Charger


The Stanford campus is huge and in my totally-lost-wanderings I also did stumble on some gems – like this vintage gas pump as a solar device charging station.  Part of the SOL Design lab.  Just might be a great and handy idea for other urban public spaces  and parks