Our archive is comprised of various primary source materials used within the individual student projects. All materials are organized by subject matter and have been approved for educational non-commercial use. The label text for each item will indicate if and when certain materials require specific usage guidelines. The following is a guide to best practices as researched by Emery Gardiner-Parks, a UNC Charlotte history graduate. In support of the other class projects, Emery dedicated their research efforts towards the discovery of the best practices for historical storytelling. It is our hope that you utilize their best practices guide when interacting with the primary source materials in our archive. If you have any questions regarding the materials featured in this archive, please contact us.

What is Best Practice?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, best practice is “a procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption.” It is especially important in collaborative projects so that everyone can produce a coherent project out of many disparate pieces. The procedures themselves will vary between types of projects and in some fields, they may be less rigid than others. For example, best practices in terms of lab safety or cleanliness in a professional kitchen are more rigid than best practices for writing an essay or painting a mural. There are certain methods that work better in those cases and are generally suggested, such as essay structure or what paint to use, but poor lab safety results in deaths, while poor essay writing will not generally kill people.

In the case of history, best practices lean more towards suggestions and guidelines to make a good product. The parts of history that can cause damage to fall more under the ethics of history; being truthful and relatively unbiased, not spreading misinformation, and similar. Oral history and other history dealing with living people are slightly more rigid in terms of best practice, which still crosses quite heavily into ethical guidelines because dealing with living people’s lives and stories is more delicate than those long dead.

Exhibit Best Practices

Museum exhibit best practices have more flexibility than lab safety procedures, but they still have guides that can help create a more successful exhibit. Most guides I have seen use a similar structure to plan an exhibit, and it is one we discussed in class. It starts with:

The Big Idea

The big idea is part of what the Smithsonian’s “A Guide to Exhibit Development” calls an “Interpretive Hierarchy” or defining your overall purpose. The big idea amounts to a thesis statement in an exhibit, it is what your exhibit is about and what the visitors should be learning about. The big idea is supported by key messages that provide a framework for the rest of the exhibit, like sections in an essay. Each key message has critical questions that the exhibit answers for the visitor.

Your Audience

Know what your intended audience is so you can cater the exhibit to them; a children’s museum and a war museum have different purposes and different audiences, so their exhibits will reflect that. Part of that is catering to different preferences within your target audience The Smithsonian guide suggests that most audiences will have visitors who prefer one of four different types of experiences.

  • People seeking new concepts and ideas
  • People who want to connect to the exhibit emotionally
  • People who prefer the visual parts
  • People who want to engage senses other than their eyes

Exhibit Labels

  • People are more likely to read short labels
  • Visitors spend more time in exhibits that they can understand the layout of.
  • The longer they are there, the more they learn.
  • Labels should be at a reasonable height for reading
  • Labels are more likely to be read if near a multidimensional piece
  • Short paragraphs are far more likely to draw readers
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