Planning a Small Specialty Museum to Make a Big Impact

Roxanne Nelson, AIA


Museums are a community investment that engage children and adults.

While many large cities have long supported specialty museums, smaller communities are planning museums that offer similar educational, cultural and economic benefits as those of their larger counterparts. Small specialty museums are becoming an essential part of a community's marketing strategy to attract and retain residents and promote economic development. Museums focused on science, history and natural history, in particular, supplement the school curriculum and provide professional development opportunities for teachers--a compelling community benefit. They are part of the quality-of-life mix that attracts families, professionals, and entrepreneurs.

A museum is a major capital investment that requires long-term planning. The following three steps will help facilitate the planning and design process.

Strategic Planning

The most successful museums start with a long-term strategic plan that clearly defines the existing market, and identifies programming and financial goals. The DaVinci Science Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for instance, is in the process of exploring the feasibility of a major expansion based on metrics from a data-rich strategic planning process.

Founded in 1992, the DaVinci Science Center moved to its current location on the Cedar Crest College campus in 2005, where it has grown steadily. The 29,000-square-foot science center designed by HGA serves youth, families, and schools with strong programming in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The DaVinci Science Center is undertaking
an Expansion Feasibility Study to determine
future needs.

To begin the strategic planning process, the DaVinci Science Center collected data from visitor attendance records, visitor surveys, donor and community feedback, Board input, census population projections, focus groups with area schools, a regional STEM education planning effort, and economic forecasting. They then engaged external consultants to conduct a museum performance assessment, which benchmarked the science center's performance against peers across the country to define future needs.

As a result of the strategic planning process and this study, the Board authorized an Expansion Feasibility Study. 

"By listening to visitors, community members and stakeholders and basing our decisions on hard data, we were able to move forward with a clear understanding of our needs and growth potential," says Lin Erickson, Executive Director and CEO of the DaVinci Science Center. "The Feasibility Study grew out of the strategic planning process. We knew we needed more space for education and exhibits, but the research-driven strategic-planning process told us what kind of space we needed.  The benchmarked data will inform the Feasibility Study."

Team Building

Beginning with a strategic plan and mission statement also is important to building an integrated facility planning team. Beth Demke, Executive Director of Gateway to Science in Bismarck, North Dakota, says a museum director's primary role is to build the team, facilitate open communication, and align the team to meet the mission and goals.

Gateway to Science's proposed new science

After completing the design phase led by HGA, Gateway to Science is in fundraising for a new hands-on science center, which will focus on career-path STEM curriculum with laboratories, classrooms, hands-on exhibits, and outreach programming. Demke compares the facility planning team to a three-legged stool. The first leg is the design team comprised of the building committee, architects, engineers, interior designers, and subcontractors. The second leg is the fundraising team that communicates with the public and targeted donors. The third leg is the exhibit team that designs and builds the exhibits.  

Leadership's role, she says, is to balance these sometimes-disparate teams, always emphasizing the mission statement--in this case, "inspiring the discovery of science through hands-on experiences." The mission statement emphasizes that the architecture and exhibits must work in unison to support the hands-on experience, and likewise guides external communications as fundraisers meet with donors, schools and other agencies to generate support.

 "When you start with a strong mission statement with full buy-in from the Board, it is then easy to communicate a unified goal that aligns all team members," Demke says.

Museum design

The planning and design process is a natural extension of the strategic plan, mission statement, and feasibility study. A critical element for success is to have a design team that has gone through the learning curve and understands the unique considerations of museums, balancing space programming, technical requirements, visitor amenities and budget to create a museum that reflects the institution's goals and mission.

The visitor experience is at the core of museum planning and design. Today's museum visitor expects an engaging, interactive, educational and social experience. Lobbies must accommodate bus-loads of children and orient the visitors but also serve as after-hours, revenue-generating spaces that invite broader community engagement. Galleries must be flexible and adaptable, with adequate infrastructure to accommodate changing exhibits and technology. Educational areas must be multipurpose spaces that support the museum and its learning objectives, as well as fill the high-demand for birthday party venues in smaller communities. Amenities such as caf├ęs and gift shops help extend the visit time.

An interactive lobby wall at Gateway
to Science.

For museums, especially science centers, the building itself offers unique opportunities to be a teaching tool or an exhibit. For instance, the DaVinci Science Center features views into the walls and building systems to introduce students to curriculum-aligned STEM topics in a fun and engaging way. By thinking creatively in the early planning stage, the architecture, exhibits and curriculum can integrate into a holistic experience for students and visitors.


For those planning a new or expanded museum, keep in mind:

  • Design matters. Build a team with experience.
  • Mobilize your strategic plan and mission statement to guide planning.
  • Develop a comprehensive capital budget with realistic projections.
  • Maintain clear communication to keep on track.
  • The return on investment is an engaged community with expanded amenities.