Concepts to do an exhibition

Text published in 2010 in Frame
“Engaging spaces – Exhibition Design Explored by Kossmann.dejong”

Kossmann.dejong is an Amsterdam-based design agency that focuses on exhibition and interior architecture. The company was founded in 1998 by Herman Kossmann and Mark de Jong. Both are architecture graduates from the Technical University Delft. Since its inception, the agency has grown to include over 35 employees.

Over the years, Kossmann.dejong created an exhibition vocabulary to facilitate communication with themselves and all the people working with them. These twelve words or concepts are not meant as a recipe to make an exhibition, but rather frame a consciousness about what an exhibition or a narrative environment could or should be.

Transdisciplinarity. An exhibtion should appeal to all the senses. Transdisciplinarity becomes key in designing these spaces – the use of image, object, text, and space dissolves the content into a new animus. Here twelve important concepts circle around each other and intersect to form great exhibition design.
© Kossmann.dejong


A place can take on the character of a story when a space is structured and various media are added in a conscious, considered way. This kind of narration has a completely different structure than the classic one found in books, movies or plays – with a beginning, a middle and an end. An exhibition is a four- or more-dimensional, non-linear narration where the visitor can follow many threads; there is no question of one single story, but rather of separate story fragments that are always varied and presented from a different perspective in the space. In the beginning, the visitors put together their own stories with the narrative fragments or scenes that the open environment of the exhibition assembles. First, because there is no defined route and everyone can walk through the exhibition in their own way. And second, because the visitors are no blank slates and each brings the baggage of his own unique knowledge, memories and expectations, which means that each gives the exhibition its own meaning and importance. Directing that process and leading its reception by modulating the impact is the art of narration in an exhibition.


An exhibition is a story that unfolds in space and time. The fact that the onlooker moves physically in space distinguishes the exhibition medium from other narrative media such as film, literature or theatre. With books, films or plays, the viewer mostly sits in a chair and there is almost never any physical interaction; in an exhibition, however, the visitor is free to move. The route can be linear or labyrinthine. In walking, one can use a marked path with a clear beginning and end, or wander without a predefined goal. The path accords the visitors the space to give the exhibition their own interpretation. One can move slowly or quickly, stop to let the exhibition sink in, look up or bend over to notice the small details others miss. The walking phenomenon determines the order of scenes in the story. An exhibition is not really about the exhibited things, but much more about the relationships between them. The visitor leaves personal bonds during the walk through the exhibition. The trail binds all the loose ends together. Designing an exhibition is like designing a walk through a special landscape or beautiful city. During the course of the stroll, the view changes: new panoramas and other vistas. Standing still allows the environment to sink in deeper. Apart from the experience of the physical landscape, there are also changing events such as the setting sun, a singing bird, a sudden raincloud or gust of wind. Fellow travellers or meetings with other wanderers can also influence the experience a great deal. An unusual aspect of the phenomenon is that visitor movement makes all the static elements of the exhibition also seem to shift and move in relation to one another. This creates constantly changing relationships between different elements of the exhibition along the path.

Exhibition “Provocation”. Centraal Museum in Utrecht and Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo 2000 © Frame / Kossmann.dejong


Parallel storylines that jump forwards and backwards in time and space through editing or changes of scenes are a tried and true technique in movies and films. Exhibition designers are often dealing with complex themes. Thinking in multiple storylines, different main characters, and various points of view often offers a way to present complexity. The separate story lines are worked out with various forms and media next to one another in the narrative space. In film, the story unfolds in time, while an exhibition offers the possibility to experience several layers of a story simultaneously. With historical themes, for example, this creates the opportunity to have windows through time or show synchronous events that were taking place in the world, all one next to one another.

Between knowledge and experience

It is a challenge to create an exhibition where the visitors leave differently than they entered. In the worst case, the visitors can’t remember anything of the experience; in the best case, they have an experience which touched something and that is not easily forgettable, an experience that offers a new perspective and broadens their vision. To make sure that an exhibition lasts, it must be more than just an experience; learning, understanding – in other words: knowledge – should also be addressed. Experience is based on feelings and thoughts brought on directly, and is often subjective in character. Understanding and knowledge are directed at thinking, at conceptual interpretation, and they have an abstract character. ‘Experiencing’ and knowing’ are two different forms that strengthen each other, but it is always an art to join them together. In short, efforts should always be made to bring balance between the sensual and intellectual experience. One needs to experience something before wanting to know more about it. At the same time, an experience can be much deeper and more intense if one already knows a lot. This cycle has a feedback system: experience can stimulate the visitor to know more, and a cutting insight can ensure that the experience can be felt differently.
It is striking how often exhibition curators are inclined to place more value on knowledge than on experience. This results in long introductions and numerous captions. Visitors often spend more time reading text panels than looking at the actual object. It is no surprise that the lengthy texts are written from the perspective of the knowledgeable and qualified curator. The curator is the guardian of content and the most important partner in terms of that content with the exhibition designer. The task is then, together with the specialists, to make a style of translation in which objective knowledge and subiective experience stand in relation to each other. Placing specialized knowledge in the presentation with subtlety and telling and showing the subject in a new and attractive way for both specialists and laypeople, are the core of the exhibition designer’s task.

Exhibition “Photographic landscape”. Netherlands Architecture Institute, 2006 © Frame / Kossmann.dejong


At its best, an exhibition is an experience of total immersion. What can be more wonderful than being absorbed mentally, shutting out everyday reality, and being safely directed towards experiencing a newly created world? This new reality created by the exhibition designer is never unreal, but simply another reality that guarantees that as long as the visitor can identify with the existing people and events in the here and now, there will be a great deal of impact and therefore a more intense experience. It is a challenge to immerse visitors in a narration that still leaves enough room for personal imagination. There must be a context offered which captures their attention.
The master of creating immersive spaces was Walt Disney. Disneyland experiences are actually three-dimensional film presentations in which the order of the scenes is completely determined and nothing is left to chance or to the imagination of the visitors. The designers have everything under control there. These experiences are, no matter how wonderfully and professionally made, short-lived and don’t inspire any kind of reflection or transformation. While Disney spoke of direct liberation, the exhibitions in this book seek an after effect in terms of content.

Arc of tension and first glance

An exhibition can only be experienced when the visitor is moving in its space. Movement is an individual act in time. This fact has an important consequence: the visitor must take on this action and must be constantly stimulated to keep going or stop to look proportionately.
The first glance is always very important in that rhythm. The first impression of an exhibition or scene must make the visitor curious. It creates the beginning of the arc of tension. This arc determines how long someone can stay fascinated and concentrated before the attention weakens and the desire to keep moving creeps in. An exhibition experience is a series of very small experiences, small arcs of tension awaken curiosity and cross into one another like waves. The first glance is the first experience, which opens the core of the exhibition, or a part of it, to the visitor. It also creates the after picture, imprinted in the visitors mind or in the thoughts that are carried home. Everyone knows those exhibitions where there is an overload of things, interminable captions, and not a moment of spatial or visual rest. Those are the exhibitions where, after ten minutes, thoughts of coffee are striking the loudest overtones. To create an arc of tension, there must often literally be space in the journey, whether it’s in the showcase, the spatial articulation, or the division and build up of the text.
The quality of the first glance is dependent on the quality of the spatial connection, in the focal points and perspectives and in the changes in media. This can again be compared to a walk through a city. In one-dimensional, boring streets, you easily lose interest, but on a journey of discovery full of curiosities, with small streets, squares and exciting encounters, you can last a long time. No matter how complicated the exhibition is or how many different storylines or parts it has, one important task is always to make a single comprehensible whole in terms of content and space. Every designer, whether a writer, a film-maker, an artist, a composer, an architect or an urban planner, is looking for that power that brings together all the elements of a piece.

Exhibition “Master of the Universe”. Netherlands Architecture Institute, 2006 © Frame / Kossmann.dejong

Who says what?

In movies and books, as normal as it is to think about the perspective of the narrator, the structure of the tale and its simultaneous stories, it is very unusual in the world of museums and exhibitions. Without making it obvious, the visitor is often only confronted with an anonymous, ‘scientific’ curator. Even films in these exhibitions often have an anonymous voice-over; the information is given in monologue by the authority. It creates a distance that inhibits the process of identification and participation. The visitor is left with little room for individual interpretation. In an inviting story, the mental distance between the shower and the viewer must be minimal; this closeness is essential. The more a visitor can identify with the story and its teller, the better what was told penetrates and sticks. One way to reach that personal connection is to bring the story into the here and now, in the time and space (the everyday life) of the visitor. Showing a subject from a number of perspectives gives the visitor insight and depth. It also adds to the objectivity of what is told: when different stories about a topic or theme are presented, the visitor has a chance to come to a personal standpoint. This also creates a better foundation for the story, because it is most often not about creating one vision of a situation, but rather to show many of them.


An exhibition is not an information folder; it’s a place where engagement with the visitor is central. While the exhibition’s story does present the exhibition designer’s vision to a certain extent, it should always leave enough space for the visitor’s own interpretation. It’s important as a designer to ensure that the story is not told in too literal a way. The abstractions offered by the design determine to what extent the visitors have the opportunity to broaden the exhibition maker’s interpretation with their own. The flatter the storyline and the more realistic and literal the elaboration of the theme, the less space there is for individual imagination. And the opposite is also true: the more abstract the elaboration of the narration, the more opportunity there is for individual reflection and interpretation.
All visitors bring along their own cultural and social baggage. In an ideal situation, this spatial storytelling would have a different effect on each individual visitor. Finding the right metaphors to hang the various parts of the exhibition on creates an important handle on how to abstract certain parts. That means that the designer must have a feel for the audience, the culture and the time. There are certain codes or rules of human experience that do not change, but there are also other things, such as the use of language, the speed of vision and absorption of information, that do change. An exhibition, just like a book or a movie, is full of conventions and references, making it a child of its time.

Exhibition “Florence revisited”. Florence Nightingale Museum, 2010 © Frame / Kossmann.dejong


Exhibition designers take up the challenge to translate a story whose content is often very complex into an attractive spatial narration for a very broad public. There are no focus groups: the exhibition must be understandable to everyone. It is of course wonderful when it is possible to present the subject in such a way that it offers something new and exciting to both experts and newcomers.
All kinds of layers can be created to make the exhibition interesting to all the different groups and to avoid that the visitor gets lost in the story. Both the structure and dosage of the various storylines, as well as the main subjects and their details are key. A number of media can be used to present the different layers or parts of the exhibition. Each medium has its own level of accessibility and effect on the visitor, which is important for bringing the story across in all its depth. Sound and (moving) images are easily accessible to most visitors while texts and drawings, with their attention to detail, require more effort. There can be a playfulness in the different ways of telling: short and succinct or expanded and detailed, with a focus on sensual experience or on transmitting exact information. The layering both helps visitors to stay in the classroom and also directs and structures the collective events they must deal with. Various layers of the exhibition must be able to exist next to one another. A fine balance ensures the public stays interested and wants to follow the story; it is therefore of utmost importance that the presentation is legible and understandable.
The goal is to create an exhibition where a visitor can easily spend a number of hours but can also have a meaningful experience in half hour or less. Such a short space of time allows only a small number of layers to come to the surface. The longer the visitor stays, the more there is to know and the deeper the material and story become. The exhibition becomes more intense, comparable to a visit to a beautiful city that only becomes more exciting and attractive the longer you stay.

Mixed media

In order to draw from knowledge and experience on multiple levels, various media can reach the visitor in many different ways: emotionally, intellectually, etc. Every exhibition medium has its own position on the scale between knowledge and experience. There is a difference between long introductory texts and the use of quotes, between music and voice-over, between still and moving pictures. Each part of the story or of the exhibition as a series of stories can be developed with another medium. One medium might be easier to digest than others and ask less time to do its work. The strength and power of one medium is stronger than that of another. Moving pictures usually win out over text. Sound is a very powerful medium, as is smell, which is seldom used. The place and time when one or more media are implemented is of great importance in the building up and impact of the narration. Designers can use a mix of media to determine when the visitor feels something and then comes to a realization. The layers are comparable to the build up of a piece of music or the ingredients in a dish where different tastes are meant to strengthen or even weaken one another. Everything should be in balance.

Exhibition “Normal”. Het Dolhuys, Haarlem, 2005© Frame / Kossmann.dejong

There is always a basic level of interactivity present in an exhibition. The visitor can actively participate by choosing a path through the story of the exhibition. Beyond this naturally occurring form of interactivity, one can only talk of interaction when the medium and the user react to each other. An interactive exhibition, then, is not only a space and a story structure chosen by the designer, but also an environment where the visitor can participate in the story and really add something to the show. The impact of an exhibition increases as the visitor becomes more active and invested. Designing an exhibition is therefore always a search for ways to break up the one-way street of communication between storyteller and listener and to expand the interactive role of the spectator. A very effective form of interactivity is a living storyteller who, though incapable of changing the form of the exhibition, can have far-reaching effects on it through every question and every possible nuance.
A good storyteller knows how to move the public from the beginning to the end. The voice, the posture, the gestures and, most of all, the moving story. A living storyteller has the opportunity to personalise his story based on the public. Telling also means improvising and reacting on the public. When a storyteller or guide can become a discussion leader, an actor, a musician or a dancer, it creates an opening for communication with the visitor and endlessly expands the possibilities for the exhibition’s interactivity.
The development of new media makes it increasingly easier to integrate the interactive process in an exhibition. It is becoming more and more simple to invite the visitor to affect the story or the function of the space. The idea isn’t to allow the visitors to change the story at will but, rather, it adds new dimensions that make it fit better with individual interests. It is still an art to make the corresponding technology as invisible as possible and to make its control as natural and ‘human’ as possible to avoid any form of distance and to increase the chances of interaction.


Exhibition designers collaborate with specialists from a large number of disciplines; among them are curators, film makers, lighting designers, interior designers, and writers. The exhibition designer is often the director who brings the contributions of these various professionals together into a new form. Designers or directors establish new connections, create new spatial narrative structures, and give content a new shape. This creates a new version or interpretation of a story or subject. That version is by definition subjective, even when collection items are being shown. It is striking how much value many curators attach to the original context and meaning of a museum object. They see these museum pieces as a representation of a specific historical event. But the objects also speak for themselves and can take on an autonomous meaning. Taken out of their original environment they are decontextualized. The museum object is an orphan that needs to be embedded in a new context. This recontextualization offers new connections and generates new stories and insight.

Exhibition “Him Too…?!”. Jewish Historical Museum, 2003© Frame / Kossmann.dejong