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Modernizing Museums

Seven ways to renovate, modernize, and improve existing museums and visitor attractions!

with Paul Herbert, Sumi Fasolo, Tim Mansfield, Chris Muskopf, and Nicole Kleman

Our firm has decades of experience designing and modernizing museums. While it’s always exciting to design a ground-up new construction project, most of our projects actually deal with existing spaces. When it comes to museum and visitor attractions, you can’t simply set it and forget it; visitors understandably expect more content displayed in new and exciting ways and there is always more to add to existing galleries. Museums experience growth and need to accommodate more users without inflating their energy use. Sometimes they need to be able to quickly change out exhibit content in as little as a weekend. We’ve explored ideas to solve these problems and how to modernize all types of museums.


Problem #1: Content Changes

Time doesn’t stop and history is being made every day. Museums are expected to display current information to educate their visitors in engaging ways. This creates a particularly strong challenge for sports museums. Every year there are new players inducted into halls of fame and new game highlights to remember. Sports museums have new content to show every year!

Science Centers are in a similar situation as new findings keep them on their toes for exhibit content. What was breakthrough research last year may not be so today. What’s considered important to convey to the public now will likely change, and soon.


Solution: Future-proofing Your Museum

We help clients refresh their exhibit content while strengthening their overall messaging by tying their exhibits into their mission.

Basketball Hall of Fame Before and After - CambridgeSeven
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame before (left) and after (right) our renovation.

We recently completed a major renovation at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame that did exactly this. The Hall’s existing galleries were several years old and didn’t support their most current content or their mission. To better integrate their messaging with their exhibits, we worked closely with the curatorial team to redefine the entire narrative of the museum and designed how visitors flow through curated stories about Basketball. Whereas the galleries were once very separated and didn’t relate to each other, each gallery now flows into the next to carry visitors on a themed journey where they are immersed in the history, highlights, and heroes of the game. Marrying the new exhibit design with the architecture in which it’s housed creates a consistent, unmistakably basketball-focused atmosphere throughout the Hall.

We also strive to make our clients’ lives easier in the future by designing exhibits that can be easily updated. We know that whatever design we create will likely need to be updated in the next few years or even months, so we set up our clients with templates for graphic panels and flexible digital display systems that they can easily change or update themselves, future-proofing their museum with adaptable exhibit infrastructure. With digital technology, a vast amount of content is available to visitors – that’s good news for museums with limited physical space.

Broad Institute Discovery Museum Lobby Renovation Rendering - CambridgeSeven
Schematic rendering of the Discovery Museum at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT

For the Broad Institute of MIT  and Harvard, we’re designing a Discovery Museum within their existing lobby. When we started this project in early 2020, the exhibits were planned around findings revealed during the Human Genome Project. When the COVID19 pandemic hit, however, the client’s goals quickly changed to incorporate messaging about the virus, thus changing nearly all of the exhibit content. This kind of pivot demonstrates how the bio and life science fields need to be able to update their public information often and fast. Our design uses flexible exhibit pillars with easily replaceable graphic panels to allow the Broad to update their exhibit content in as little as 24 hours.

Problem #2: Frequent Technology Innovations

Technology has changed how we consume content. Everyone entering a museum expects to be impressed by the latest and greatest innovations, which are changing almost every year. Museums need to find new ways of attracting visitors and piquing their interest but, with endless digital entertainment in their pockets, visitors are increasingly difficult to keep engaged.

Solution: New Ways of Delivering Content

Technology innovations have opened up an exciting world of possibilities for content delivery. In addition to static images, environmental graphics, and signage, museums can also take advantage of engaging options such as:

  • Touch screens
  • Panoramic displays
  • Interactive projections
  • Augmented Reality
  • Life-size holograms
  • Immersive Soundscapes
  • Responsive lighting
  • Smart Phone Integration
Vue Orleans Cultural Attraction in New Orleans - CambridgeSeven
Vue Orleans main entrance with media wall outside the new Four Seasons in New Orleans

The former World Trade Center tower in New Orleans is undergoing a very particular transformation. We’ve renovated the office building into a luxurious Four Seasons Hotel with private residences that will also host a new cultural attraction on its 2nd and 33rd floors with an immersive elevator ride between the two. Though it’s not an existing museum, this is a great example of using technology to reconfigure a space to serve a whole new purpose.

We’re working with Cortina Productions to create a visitor experience unlike that of any other city. Vue Orleans will highlight New Orleans culture and history through exciting new media. The journey begins at street level where a three-story high screen greets pedestrians with evocative high-definition, slow-motion videos of musicians and dancers. To achieve such high-quality imagery on a screen this large, Cortina used a special camera to record at an impressive 1000 frames per second (for reference, a typical smartphone recording is done at 30 fps). This kind of feature could easily be used by a nature center to show high-def details of small creatures like hummingbirds or insects.

Inside the exhibit, guests can expect far more than touch screens and buttons. A 30’-wide screen with radar fan technology responds to gestures, eliminating the need for physical touch. This is a great feature to reduce the spread of germs as well as the standard wear-and-tear that touch surfaces usually face. The Riverview Theater uses several projectors to create a new type of documentary – one in which archival footage blends with animated paintings to tell NOLA’s history in a new visual platform. Visitors can also use AR-enhanced view finders to look out into the city. In addition to enjoying great views from high above the street, these view finders inform viewers of hot spots and display facts about landmarks and neighborhoods.

For more about new technology innovations, see our previous article – The Future of Technology in Museums.

Vue Orleans Riverview Theater - New Orleans - CambridgeSeven
Rendering of the Riverview Theater at Vue Orleans

Technology has also liberated exhibit content from the walls of institutions; by extending the visitor experience to digital realms, people can access content from anywhere in the world through websites and mobile apps.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Exhibits - CambridgeSeven
A map of the new visitor journey at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – graphic by sparks+sullivan

For Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), we’re creating interpretive exhibits to share their important research with the local community and the world. Visitors will be engaged with digital interactives, augmented reality, one-of-a-kind artifacts, and hands-on activities such as designing their own underwater vessels and experiencing coastal resilience solutions in action. They will learn about habitat conservation, digital fabrication, sustainable food supplies, and several other topics explored at the WHOI facility. The experience extends beyond WHOI’s property lines; a network of “portals” into the world of WHOI will be scattered around the village of Woods Hole to engage users at the ferry terminal, along the ocean walk, and in the village center, leveraging augmented reality, physical artifacts, WHOI personnel and the completely unique coastal landscape in this region.

COP26 Resilience Pavilion - CambridgeSeven
The COP26 Atlantic Council Resilience Pavilion offered physical and digital interaction

Similarly, at the recent COP climate summit in Glasgow, our design for the Atlantic Council’s Resilience Pavilion was a physical manifestation of a globally-reaching communications platform. While ambassadors and leaders met at the Pavilion, citizens around the world were able to engage with the events and presentations through digital means online – stitching physical and virtual experiences together.




Problem #3: Disconnected Exhibits

When museums and attractions consist of multiple exhibits, it’s common for those exhibits to feel disconnected from one another, especially if they were designed at different times or by different designers. This can leave visitors confused about how to navigate through the museum and they might leave with no lasting impression.

Solution: Craft a Holistic Design Vision

This is where we have the opportunity to tie together the exhibit content with the architecture itself to purposefully design the space that visitors experience. Because our office has both Architects and Exhibit Designers (and people who wear both hats), we’re particularly skilled at marrying exhibit content with the space in which it is housed. This creates a fuller experience where visitors feel enveloped in the story the museum is telling, whether that’s the story of sports, STEM exploration, oceanography, or local culture.

Sloan Museum Discovery Hall - CambridgeSeven
Rendering of Sloan Museum’s Discovery Hall

The Sloan Museum in Michigan is transforming a previously empty space into a new gallery focused on Earth and Physical Sciences. CambridgeSeven is designing the various exhibits that will be housed in this new space – Discovery Hall. It’s important for us to give this new space a unique identity and ensure that the new exhibits all speak to one another. Discovery Hall is organized to show thirteen specific areas of science and their interdisciplinary connections. Each discipline has its own color-coded “island” and these islands appear to orbit around a massive globe, where Earth Sciences are exhibited. We used a range of vibrant colors to visually differentiate the science islands and to instill a vibrant atmosphere to the gallery. In addition to creating direct sight lines and the color-coded organization, we embedded QR codes in the graphics at each area that dive deeper into the content overlap between science disciplines. This media integration helps connect visitors standing in the Sound Gallery, for example, to connect to relevant content from the Waves Gallery.


Problem #4: Sustainability & Longevity

Sustainability is on the top of everyone’s minds. Environmentally-friendly designs are no longer aspirational – they’re expected. But making sustainable changes isn’t only great for the environment, owners can also save on operating costs and increase the longevity of their institutions when they go green. When it’s time to renovate and upgrade your facilities, where should you start?

Solution: Sustainable Exhibits Made Simple

Our office has exhibit and architectural designers, which means our ability to craft sustainable museums is two-fold, both within the exhibits and within the architecture itself.

Boston Children's Museum LEED Design - CambridgeSeven
Sustainable features of the Boston Children’s Museum

Our renovation and expansion of the Boston Children’s Museum turned this waterfront facility into the first LEED Gold Museum in the country. To help them achieve this, we incorporated elements such as:

  • a vegetated green roof that is also a teaching opportunity
  • a multi-story space that’s almost entirely lit by the sun
  • a gray water storage and distribution system
  • operable hangar doors for natural ventilation
  • perforated sunscreens to help cool the interior on hot days
  • permeable pavers with hard- and soft-scaping along the harbor walk
  • new energy efficient elevators and HVAC systems

A simple option we recommend to our clients is going green with LEDs. LED lights save energy and money and even come in an Organic option (OLEDs) that mimics natural lighting qualities. Introducing sensors that automatically turn off lights when visitors exit a space can also be a great way to save on lighting costs.

People might be so enthralled in exhibit content that they never think about how an exhibit was made or what kinds of materials went into it. With vibrant colors, massive wall graphics, and durable surfaces, exhibits require intensive resources for which there weren’t always sustainable options. These days however, our office makes conscious decisions to specify materials, paints, fabrics, and fasteners that reduce the carbon footprint of our exhibits and are healthier for people.

To learn more about Sustainable Exhibit Design, see our article here.

Problem #5: Fundraising for Renovations

We know that museums can’t institute the changes they want without the funding they need. Very often, a museum will hire a designer to create preliminary or concept renderings to show what the museum could look like in the future if they secure enough funding. But this isn’t the only method to raise money.

Solution: New Exhibits as Fundraising Tools

Exhibits are meant to generate audience excitement and we believe such excitement can extend into the fundraising process.

Baksetball Hall of Fame Lockers Lobby - CambridgeSeven
Lockers in the new lobby of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

If you enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, you’ll be greeted by dramatic “Lockers” that highlight specific Hall of Famers. What you might not realize is that these lockers helped fund a 40,000 SF renovation. These are located in the main lobby of the Hall and are a publicly accessible part of the museum that’s free to enjoy. We designed these lockers early in the process to help secure donations for the entire project. Those who donated to the Hall’s renovation have their own locker, a move that created a win-win-win situation for Hall of Famers, the Hall, and visitors.

Problem #6: Staying Open During Renovations

It’s great when a museum has the money and vision for a renovation, but most organizations can’t close their doors for a year or more during construction. Temporarily closing means no ticket sales and staff reductions for that time – not ideal for any institution. We’ve worked with attractions of all sizes with varying subject matter to accommodate this challenge.

Solution: Phased Approach and Pop-Up Facilities

We’ve helped multiple institutions who were able to renovate their existing spaces without closing up shop. Breaking up a project into multiple phases allows some exhibits to remain open while others are undergoing improvements. This approach takes a little more coordination but is well worth it when museums can remain open to visitors.

North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island - CambridgeSeven
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island before (left) and after (right)

At North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, we broke up renovations into four phases spread out over nine months of construction. We used the same method at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame which was three phases over four years. This is a great strategy for the client, who can stay open during construction, and for the design team, who can continue to design later phases while the first phase starts construction.

Roundhouse Aquarium renovation - CambridgeSeven
Roundhouse Aquarium’s temporary structure (left) that housed exhibits until renovations were complete (right)

A different approach that works for smaller organizations is to use a temporary facility while the main one undergoes renovations. When the Roundhouse Aquarium and Teaching Center in Manhattan Beach, CA, moved into a temporary, pop-up structure that was placed near their existing facility, CambridgeSeven designed a bold and engaging graphic to wrap the temporary facility, signaling the shift to aquarium visitors. This allowed Roundhouse to keep its teaching programs up and running while the actual aquarium was renovated.


Problem #7: Accommodating More Visitors

This is a good problem for organizations to have – to be so successful that their visitorship steadily grows. However, this might also mean that circulation paths need to be adjusted to better accommodate more visitors.

Solution: Design Purposeful Wayfinding

It’s important that museums have clear wayfinding so their visitors can easily navigate to the attractions they want to see. Fluid circulation and wayfinding strategies improve the experience for guests and employees. Updating wayfinding systems is also a way to change the aesthetic atmosphere for museums with minimal changes to the architecture and exhibit content itself.

The lobby at the Museum of Science is the connecting piece between the three main museum wings. As one of the most visited institutions in Boston, the museum caters to an extremely varied audience. When improving the flow of visitors, we began by performing a comprehensive study of the existing signage, documenting areas of concern as well as areas of success, and applied these findings to inform the process and standards for the new wayfinding program. The goal of the project was to create a hierarchy of wayfinding tools that provide immediately recognizable visual cues for visitors.

Museum of Science Wayfinding - CambridgeSeven
Our design for a new wayfinding system at the Museum of Science helps visitors navigate between the various museum wings.

The system includes directional, orientation, and identification signs. Directional signs include messaging, with arrows and icons. Orientation signage most commonly takes the form of map kiosks. Our design reorganized the lobby as a portal into the different worlds of the museum – the Red Wing, Blue Wing, and Green Wing.  In addition to these colored “portals”, the wayfinding toolkit includes Plan-Your-Visit walls and kiosks, overhead directional signage, maps, changes in floor treatments to distinguish circulation spines, and exhibit anchors at either end of the spines.

Our team also applied ADA standards to the new signage system and incorporated the Museum’s brand colors and fonts into the updated graphic standards.


There are several ways to upgrade existing exhibits and museum spaces with options for all budgets, timelines, and size parameters. We love helping institutions engage the visitors in new and exciting ways which, in return, helps their own bottom line. No matter if it’s a science center, aquarium, children’s or art museum, we’ve successfully helped numerous organizations instill new life into their attractions. If you’d like to see more examples, please visit our project pages or contact us for a custom portfolio.

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