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Planning & Creating Effective Exhibits on a Limited Budget: Part II

[This article originally appeared as Local History Notebook, Volume 10 Issue 5, September/October 1994.  It is reprinted here with permission.]

Planning and Creating Effective Exhibits on a Limited Budget: Part II

By James C. Oda, Curator, Piqua Historical Museum, Piqua

This “Notebook” describes how small historical societies with collections can put together inexpensive educational exhibits. Part I, featured in the July/August 1994 issue of The Local Historian, dealt with planning the exhibit, and Part II describes the actual construction of the exhibit cases and platforms.

Once a museum’s education committee has chosen and researched an exhibit topic or topics, the actual construction of the exhibit can begin. This “Notebook” will concentrate on building inexpensive temporary exhibits, which are defined as exhibits that are meant to be on public display for one year or less. While the education committee is planning and creating the temporary exhibit, it should continue to work and plan for more permanent exhibits, that is, exhibits that are designed to be on public display for one to ten years.

The concept of the temporary exhibit allows a museum to start small and gradually produce a planned exhibit expansion program. The information here will help your historical organization design exhibits using only a modest portion of its budget. For specific construction methods – for example, how to do actual carpentry or electrical work – check the additional readings list at the end of this article. It contains a listing of books that describes how to use different tools.

The Construction Plan

There are several general concepts that need to be incorporated into your construction planning process. First of all, remember that for small and large museums alike, change is important. For the small museum, an exhibit that requires a great deal of time and money is unlikely to be removed or changed on a regular basis. A good mixture of permanent and temporary exhibits will keep your museum fresh. It also encourages visitors to come back again and again.

Another concept important in exhibit construction planning is the significance of the artifact and the use of it in the story you are trying to tell. The exhibit framework must focus attention on the artifact or artifacts and their importance to the exhibit theme. The exhibit should be designed in such a way that the visitor focuses on the items exhibited, not on the framework that is supporting the artifacts. Ideally, the exhibit’s framing and foundation support should fade into the background.

A third key factor to remember is that the background in a good temporary or permanent exhibit should always be appropriate for the artifacts you are using. Neutral colors, for example: beige, tan, off-white, gray, and so forth, make ideal backdrop settings on blank panel boards. Backdrop colors should not clash with the artifacts.

If a more elaborate background is deemed necessary, pay close attention to color and materials used to create the background. Elaborate settings are dangerous because they often leave a false impression with the casual museum visitor. Many people will assume that the backdrop is as authentic as the artifacts you are using. Consequently, be sure that your background has been as well-researched as the exhibit itself. Always remember that accuracy in exhibit work is a cardinal rule.

An inexpensive way to skirt the problem of elaborate settings is to create minimalistic “stage sets.” For example, a window with Victorian drapes hanging by fishing line in front of dark panels set the mood of the time period without creating confusion among the visitors. If your community has a local theatrical production group or college art department, ask if there might be any volunteers available to help your organization produce “sets” and to advise you on how to create a mood with lighting.

A final concept to keep in mind for temporary exhibits is to build with the consideration of flexibility. Keep all your basic panels and boxes the same general dimensions. In this way, after you tear down one exhibit, the parts will all remain useable for a new exhibit. This built-in flexibility factor will save you both time and money. Also, if yours is a small museum, as you plan the layout of your exhibits, leave a little extra space behind or between the various exhibits. Those areas will enable you to store extra panels, boxes, platforms, or larger artifacts without giving up prime exhibit space.

Panel Board Exhibits 

One of the most basic and versatile temporary exhibit construction methods is the use of panel boards. Panel exhibits can be constructed from almost anything, however, some of the best materials include four-by-eight foot pieces of homosote, particle board, or plywood. From these materials, a good four-by-seven foot double-sided panel sandwiched by a framing of pine strips can be constructed. When using this construction method, the fir-strip frame should be secured to the panel with glue and nails.

Unfortunately, this is where most of the cost for temporary exhibit construction comes into play. Depending on the type of material or kind of wood used in its construction, the panel boards can cost anywhere from twenty-five to one hundred twenty-five dollars a piece. So building five or six double-sided panels can escalate the exhibit budget quickly.

There are several possible solutions to this problem. First, try building only a few panels a year. This keeps the cost down and allows you to slowly build up an inventory of exhibit panels. Another cost-cutting solution would be to haunt construction or demolition sites and ask building contractors for any cast-off pieces. When doing this, you might have to pull nails or scrape off plaster or even patch a couple of short pieces together. The trade off here is that you must be willing to provide more salvage and reconstruction time in exchange for a lower monetary cost. Once you have gathered your panels together, you will soon see in how many different ways they can be utilized.

One or two panels can be used along a wall, or a series of panels can be used to create a zigzag wall of their own. Panels can be formed into a triangle, an X, a square U or a short zigzag. The possible formations are limited only by your imagination and he space available.

Putting the panels together is relatively simple. They may be fastened with hinges, nails, screws, or diagonal strips of wood. Free-standing units can be braced in the rear or inside by placing sandbags or concrete blocks in the corner over the diagonal supporting strips. The supports just described are adequate. A well-braced group of triangular panels that was built in the museum that I direct once supported a five-year-old who was just learning the joys of mountain climbing.

Material or building supplies to cover the panels can be varied and appealing, but keep in mind that staying with only three or four basic types of coverings makes reuse a lot easier. Also, the covering for the panels should complement the exhibit theme or content. For example, if doing a storyline on the rugged, tough pioneer in your local area, try staining your panels. For a more finished neutral look, use several coats of a good quality paint. If your panel board has any of a multitude of imperfections, try covering them with textured paints that will produce a nice surface.

Cloth, burlap, or felt are often used as background coverings; however, for the most part, do not use cloth material with patterns or brilliant colors. Remember, for historical organizations on limited budgets, neutral colors and materials mean flexibility that can save of money.

Felt has a number of advantages in covering panels. It stretches well and gives you a nice tight fit without having to worry about keeping the fabric straight. With a little rubbing, nail holes vanish from the felt’s surface, making reuse of the material very easy. To keep the cost down, try buying your construction felt during the post-Christmas sales. Since black is not a favorite Christmas color, it is usually easy to find large rolls of black and other colored felt still in stock.

A second basic element for temporary exhibits is the use of platforms. Using two-by-fours or any other available wood stock, build rectangular or square stands to a height of three to six inches. Cover the top with plywood or particle board to provide a place for large museum artifacts. The tops of these platforms can often be formed from the one-foot tops you have already sliced off of the exhibits panels. Painted or covered with fabric, these platforms allow larger artifacts to be placed in front of the panel exhibits. To keep everything as flexible as possible, construct your platforms with at least one four-foot side. This will match the width of your panels and can be used in other exhibits.

The final basic element for temporary exhibits is the box. A box can be made in an endless array of sizes and shapes. The frame can be of almost any type or size of lumber. The covering can also utilize the one-foot strips cut away from the exhibit panels. Boxes can be four or five feet high to support a Civil War drum or only a couple of inches square for use as a mounting board for prehistoric tools. The size, weight, and condition of your artifacts will determine the dimensions and support needed for each box. The boxes can be placed in front of panels or attached to the panels. They can be used alone or in a series to form steps or random height patterns.

Mixing and matching your panels, platforms, and boxes will give your museum exhibits diversity and interest. The key to temporary exhibits is to keep the visitors’ attention. Artifacts placed in a variety of positions will do exactly that. By keeping your backgrounds simple, you will be able to create varied and reasonably complex artifact exhibit patterns.


Tools to build the exhibits are basically what you can find in anybody’s garage, so do not spend a fortune equipping your volunteers. All you need are the following:

  • Safety Goggles
  • Electric Drill
  • Yard Stick
  • Circular Power Saw
  • T-square
  • Claw Hammer
  • Screwdriver
  • Slipjoint Pliers
  • Heavy Duty Stapler


An important part of your construction planning is the use of labels. Artifacts need to be identified, and your themes need to be explained. The easiest, fastest, and most effective way to create labels is by using a computer and a laser printer.

But wait, what do you do if your museum cannot afford expensive technical equipment? Start making friends in various places. Ask secretaries, school superintendents, bank presidents, or industrial office managers if they would let you use their equipment. Someone on your board has the right contact. You just need to start looking, and schools are one of the best places to start. Besides, if your museum has not already created a working relationship with your school district, this will be a good time to start.

The labels need to be divided into three distinct categories. First the HEADLINE, which should be created in large bold type. The headline is very short and identifies the artifact by its name or nomenclature, the time period, and the exhibit theme. It is oriented towards the casual museum browser. The next part of the label is the DESCRIPTION, which uses a smaller type size. The description provides a more detailed overview of the artifact and may include the material from which it is made, the location where it was made, the reason it was made, how the artifact was used, or who used it. This part of the label is geared towards the museum visitor who likes a little more information with his or her tour. The last part of the label is used for the CONTEXT which uses the smallest type. The context provides the historical background of the artifact and places it in the context of both the exhibit and the history of the community or region. This label will appeal to the museum or history buff who likes to spend the afternoon reviewing and absorbing your historical exhibits.

Funding Your Exhibit

Now that your construction planning is completed, you have just one more task before actually building your exhibit. You need to assist your poor over-worked treasurer in coming up with the funds to cover your exhibit construction. One way that has already been discussed is to cut down your overhead by finding sources for used materials. That, however, does not always cover the entire cost. Look for outside funding that corresponds to the exhibit you are building. Ask the local Altrusa Club to help fund the history of women exhibit. Contact the local financial institutions to support your exhibit on the economic growth of your community. See if local auto dealers would be willing to generate a fund drive to get your history of transportation exhibit up and running. Funding is much easier if the donor can see a direct tie-in to his or her business, occupation, or vocation.

Building an exhibit can be exciting and fun. Use the material you can find in your own community to create just the right framework to exhibit your museum’s artifacts to their best advantage. Look at the old table the neighbor has just thrown out and see if a couple of side panels and a coat of paint can turn that useless table into an effective exhibit box or platform. Check out that display case in your basement that is missing one side and has six of eight pieces of glass missing. Removing all of the glass and the metal supports might just leave you with a useable platform for your spinning wheel collection. With a little imagination, a little paint, and more than a little sweat, you, too, can experience the joys of museum exhibition.

Suggestions for Further ReadingItems marked with an asterisk are available from the Ohio Historical Society’s Local History Office Lending Library:

Hoggett, Chris. Stage Crafts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975.

*Neal, Arminta. Exhibits for the Small Museum, A Handbook. Nashville, AASLH, 1976.

*Norris, Patrick. History By Design: A Primer on Interpreting and Exhibiting Community History. TAM, 1985.

*Serrel, Beverly. Making Exhibit Labels: A Step-By-Step Guide. Nashville: AASLH, 1983.

*Witteborg, Lothar P. Good Show! A Practical Guide for Temporary Exhibitions. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1981.



The Local History Notebook is edited and published by the Ohio History Connection’s Local History Office in order to bring useful information to people working in the local history field. The selection of subjects and authors is based on the OAHSM Editorial Board’s and the Local History Office’s determination of issues which are timely in nature and lasting in scope. The reference inserts are copyrighted © 1994 by the Ohio Historical Society. Reprints are available individually or as complete sets; please specify volume and number. For further information, contact:


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