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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Why you should choose custom exhibits over off-the-shelf

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Whether they come to your gallery space from off the shelf or through a custom process, interactive exhibits aren't complicated in their mechanics.

If it's a digital interactive, there's a computer platform. Often (but certainly not always) that platform is a flash-driven product like an iPad.

There's some sort of three-dimensional shell or device, the work of an industrial designer working with a graphic designer to brand the experience. The shell's role is to heighten the visitor's sense that this is an experience only to be had in a museum context.

Touchscreen interactive, by Brian Parson, for the Cook Museum of Natural Science.

And there's the soul of the interactive exhibit, the script. The script is the logic of the game or activity. It entails defining outcomes, writing copy, creating a "look and feel," sourcing images, and, if it is digital, writing code.

The producers of off-the-shelf exhibits have tallied their costs of all of these elements and made a calculation. If they can sell the same exhibit more than once, they can bill again and again for the design. Yes, they might pass along some economy-of-scale benefit to consumers. But to make their business model work, they have to replace the savings they get by reusing design with substantial marketing and sales teams.

And for what? Quite possibly an exhibit just like the guy's down the road. An exhibit that doesn't quite do what you want, doesn't quite fit your aesthetic, that looks not so much installed as rolled into place.

Butterfly viewer, by Brian Parson, for the Cook Museum of Natural Science

The very thing you don't want to skimp on, the integrity of the design, is what the purchaser of an off-the-shelf product has put on the chopping block. All to cover the off-the-shelf company's marketing and sales costs. Not a smart calculation.

If you're sourcing exhibits for a STEM museum, you know math. Before you obligate funds, call a custom company. To see more work by Backstory designers, click here.

Phil Ratliff is President of Backstory Educational Media. Backstory helps clients across the Southeast mount exhibits and create educational content. Reach Phil at

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