Exhibit Process Models: Considerations and Tips

Exhibits are usually developed, designed, crafted, and installed using one of two basic models. Exhibit Design/Bid/Build (aka Planning and Design or Design-Only) is like hiring an architect to design a building and then later hiring a contractor to build it. Exhibit Design/Build is an all-in-one contracting process.

These are different legitimate business models; one is not necessarily better than the other. You, as the museum, site, or visitor center, need to choose based on what fits best for your needs. And once you’ve hired, you need to know how to work with the model. (Hint: Trusting them as partners rather than adversaries, while understanding the pressures of their model, motivates any designer or fabricator to go above and beyond.)

Note that there are hybrid options that approximate the best of both worlds. A Prime Contractor may bring together a team of designers/developers and specialized fabricators to propose for your Design/Build project. Think of this as a movie studio approach: the best team for the job.
Tips for selecting a design/build contractor:
  • In bidding, companies may show the design cost as very low to free. They just shift design costs into the fabrication markup. This is standard practice and not necessarily unethical.
  • Ask how many projects their developers and designers are working on at one time.
  • Not all design/build companies are the same. Be sure to select a company that has in-house specialization in what you need. If you need dioramas and their strength is metalwork, you aren’t getting the best from this model.
Tips for selecting an exhibit design firm:
  • Ask how many projects their developers and designers are working on at one time.
  • Not all design companies are the same. Design firms can also fall into creating the same things time after time. If you’re selecting this approach to maximize creativity, look at their portfolio. If everything uses the same materials or has the same graphic look, you’re not getting the best from this model.
Questions? Contact Steve Boyd-Smith at steveboydsmith@106group.com.
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Steve Boyd-Smith


Steve has made his career eliciting stories and producing meaningful ways for visitors to engage with them. Since 1990, he has created interpretive experiences for dozens of museums, historic sites, and visitor centers around the country. A Certified Interpretive Planner, Steve was recently awarded the honor of Master Interpretive Manager by the National Association for Interpretation.