Museum Design and Colour

March 15, 2022

Museum Design and Colour

Museum Design and Colour

In celebration of the Coloursmith by Taubmans partnership with Melbourne Museum, we asked Museum Victoria's Visual Design Manager, Jo Pritchard about the value and importance of colour in exhibition spaces.

Jo talks about how colour is strategically chosen to guide the audience and tell stories, and how specific elements of colour selection for the museum can inspire how homeowners explore colour for their own spaces.

What is the difference between choosing colour for a home and choosing colour for a museum space?

In a museum context, colour is used to express and support the themes and narratives of an exhibition. Colour selection is not random – it happens through a thoughtful design process and is not necessarily reflective of the designer’s taste. Colour decisions are based on many considerations including audience, content, spatial form, lighting and narrative. For a home, you also need to employ a design process and consider similar elements, such as the intended function of spaces, light levels and built form. 

A key difference between the two environments, is the amount of time one spends in an exhibition versus their home. Very bold and dramatic colour combinations can be more appropriate for an exhibition space, where people visit for limited time periods. As you spend a lot of time in the rooms of your home, you need to ensure that you will enjoy the colours that surround you daily.

Another point of difference between home and museum spaces is the light. In order to protect the (often fragile) objects on display, we usually don’t allow natural light inside galleries. This enables us to totally control the lighting within spaces. We can orchestrate the levels, the temperature and the direction of the light within. Because of these lower light levels we often use bolder, more saturated colours than might be used within a domestic setting. 

Finally, whereas a designer’s personal preferences may influence colour choice within a museum context, in the home, personal taste is of primary importance. 

Are there any similarities we can use from the Museum design process to inspire our own personal colour choice?

You can consider the different spaces within your home in a similar way to that of a museum. The colours should respond to the built environment and work with your furniture, fixtures and decor. Just like an object may drive a colour choice within an exhibition, a beloved family heirloom or recent furniture piece might inspire a paint colour inside the home. 

As with an exhibition, your colour choices can help to define different areas of your home and create ambience and atmosphere. Do you want the entrance to be bright and welcoming? Do you want your bedroom to be muted or colourful? If the colours you see within an exhibition space inspire you to make bolder choices than you might normally make, maybe select tints of the colours for your own home. Alternatively, be judicious about where you employ the more audacious colour choices. Whether bold, bright, dark, muted, light or subtle, colour can transform any space, and just like a museum, it will help to tell your story.

What are the pre-requisites for choosing colour for museums spaces – what guides the choices? 

Colour selection is a critical part of the exhibition design process. There are many factors that are considered when making colour selections. First and foremost is audience – who are we designing the exhibition for? Is the experience meant to engage young children, is it targeting young adults, or older visitors? 

Each exhibition is unique and colour is a major component of the overall experience. Colours should reflect and respond to the themes and narratives of the exhibition. The finish or texture of the paint is also a consideration when creating an experience. Should the walls be satin, gloss or matte, or a combination to achieve a particular effect? If we are encouraging little hands to touch the walls within a space, we need to specify a more cleanable finish!

How important is colour to transporting visitors to a certain time period to enhance the experience within the museum?

Exhibitions are like theatre sets with colour being an integral element in the creation of ‘worlds’ into which our visitors step. Colours by their association can help transport a visitor to a different place or era. Sometimes colour plays the supporting role – it is there to enhance, accentuate or harmonise with objects that are on display. In some instances, the colour may not be clearly discernible or overt, but it is still working on a more subliminal level to enhance the experience. Sometimes colour is clearly the main character – used to define spaces or themes within an exhibition, or as the hero moment by itself. It may be used as a tool to guide visitors through a space, or it may be used to evoke an emotional response from the audience. Colour can engage, challenge, shock, soothe, excite, delight, orientate or even disorientate the visitor.