Modelling for the Museum
A Designer's Guide for Small-Scale Displays


Models can create a convincing sense of size, volume, detail and context unavailable in other types of museum interpretation. In interpreting large artifacts, models allow the viewer an "aerial" view of the structure or artifact that puts the objective perspective in the hands - or rather the eyes - of the patron. Patrons can create their own mental image of the artifact at one point in history, or grasp an idea of the size or complexity of the artifact, or understand physical or cosmetic changes in the service life of the artifact, or view the artifact in the context of other artifacts, all at arm's length.

These models are spread out on a colorful but appropriate background and combined with artifacts from the real thing. The display does need signage.

Patrons approach a model display at their own speed, choosing their view planes by instinct, because by nature a model exists in three dimensions. By default, and without moving parts, model become interactive exhibitions, which has the most lasting effect on viewers, and partly explains why models are so popular among patrons. People also have a natural affinity for miniatures that has roots in both childhood memories and respect for craftsmanship.

For these reasons, models have great impact in a museum setting and are a valuable interpretive tool if used properly. On the other hand, since model interpretation is primarily visual in nature, a poorly prepared, inaccurate or context-less model can reinforce unwanted and non-objective impressions that are difficult to erase. If used, models should be considered an integral component in a museum or learning center's instructional mission, and not as a decorative adjunct. Models are also well-used as three-dimensional graphical signage, illustrating concepts that are difficult to grasp as text or a picture.

A more successful display; signage is backlit and combined with a forced-perspective boxed diorama, "airfield" atop boxes is simplified so as not to detract from primary subject.

If models are going to be used, however, certain criteria should be met. In general, a model is a small-scale representation of a larger subject. Some models in a museum's collection are actually historical artifacts themselves; these should be treated as curated objects and preserved. There is no control over the builder's skill and finish treatments of the model, of course, and these will vary wildly. Generally, these should not be displayed alongside professionally made exhibition models, because the viewer rarely understands the lack of consistency. In these cases, the provenance of the model should be interpreted as well.

The other type are purpose-built scale models that expand on the institute's educational mission. These can either single examples of an artifact, part of a collection, or placed in a miniature setting - called a diorama - that helps place the model in a physical context.

This large-scale Pan Am clipper model "flies" above the patron thanks to clear plastic disks representing whirling propellors. This also cuts down on the number of breakable parts.

The concept of "scale" is extremely important. This is the ratio of size the model is to the original artifact. For example, a model in which a quarter of an inch equals one foot on the real thing is 1/48 scale.

Models only work properly if the scale used is consistent and accurate. If a museum builds up a model collection that is representative, the physical effect is lost if the models are of different scales. For example, if a battleship model three feet long is placed next to a car model three feet long, the true physical relationship between the two is negatively exaggerated. Varying scales can work if the models exist as individual displays, but not as a coordinated exhibition.

One of the best ways of illustrating size is to people the model with human figures in the same scale. These can either be realistically modeled and painted, or be a simple outline or silhouette cutout. Another way is to use a repeating object of which the true size is well known to viewers, such as a Beetle automobile or stop sign. If the three-foot battleship uses tiny figures consistent with the scale, and the three-foot car uses a larger figure in its own scale, then the true size relationship of the artifacts is better understood.

Although difficult to see here, this 1/24 Boeing 314 has figures peering out of the windows to provide a sense of scale, and they also look back at the viewer.

The Smithsonian steamship model exhibition begins with a detailed model of the Savannah, and subsequent models in the exhibition, regardless of scale, have a same-scale image of the Savannah as part of the display.

Depending on the country of origin, scales tend to be either English or metric. There is little visible difference between a 1/100 (metric scale) model and a 1/96 (English 1/8 inch equals one foot scale) model, but they must be constructed by different standards. Another effect of scale is in the model's representation. For example, color and detail are also affected by scale. A color on a model will look too intense if applied exactly as the same hue as the original; colors are muted by the atmosphere and fade slightly as you move farther away from the real thing. A 1/48 scale model viewed from a foot away, for example, is like looking at the real thing from 48 feet away.

On the other hand, tiny details can get lost if it's muted. Most professional model builders both exaggerate the intensity of the detail and mute the intensity of the colors in order to create a realistic representation of the actual object.

A "dumping ground" display of aircraft models, with no interpretation whatsoever.

The selection of a constant scale should be chosen early by a museum looking to create a consistent model collection. In doing this, balances have to be struck and considered. The larger the model is, the more detail can be incorporated, but it will take more space and be more expensive. The smaller a model is, the more can be collected in one place and costs are lowered.

Also, if a commercially popular scale is chosen, costs will be lowered because kits may be available of the subject model. Model kits, however, which are intended for home display, tend to be on the smallish side for museum use.

For ships, which have the largest range in sizes for the real artifact, the most useful scales for museums are 1/1200 or 1/700 for representing very large fleets, 1/500 or 1/350 for building up a large collection in a limited space, 1/200 or 1/96 for more detailed models, and 1/72, 1/50, 1/48, 1/35 or 1/32 for very detailed large models. The scale of 1/96 is by far the most popular size for museum-quality models and represents an international standard, representing a reasonable balance between sheer size, detail and cost.

For aircraft, the most popular scales are 1/72, 1/48, 1/32, 1/24, 1/16 and 1/8, with 1/48 forming the international standard for large collections and 1/16 the standard for very detailed representations.

For vehicles, the most popular scales are 1/43, 1/32, 1/24, 1/16 and 1/8, with 1/24 being the standard for large collections and 1/8 the standard for detailed models. For military vehicles and diorama subjects, the popular scales are 1/87 and 1/35. For buildings, popular scales are 1/87 and 1/48.

A successful stand-alone display, interpreted as a diorama with a separate "story" seen from each of the four sides.

Once the scale is chosen, the museum should then determine standards for finish and fidelity of detail. A model can, for example, be a highly polished, simplified representation of the real thing, or a realistically rendered tiny edition of it, completed with rust, chipped paint, grass stains and all the detritus of real life, or it can be somewhere in between. All are equally valid, but the museum's collection should be consistent in this regard.

The craftsmanship of the model should meet a certain standard as well, exhibiting no glue stains, sloppy painting, misaligned components, roughly shaped pieces or obvious compromises in construction. A useful guide is the International Plastic Modelers Society competition guidelines, which details minimum standards for competition models.

Once the model is completed or acquired, thought should given to the display mode. Signage should not impinge on viewing angles. Displays should be uncluttered and relatively plain. Since the viewers natural inclination is to view a model from several different angles, models should not be placed in corners or other sites that will frustrate this pattern. Dioramas should be designed so that individual stories or vignettes are seen from different perspectives.

Models will also be "stoppers" in a museum, creating longer interactions than with other displays; something to keep in mind when designing visitor traffic flow. Models can be built with working parts or lighting; the model should be constructed to provide easy access to these areas for maintenance. To protect against the elements and the clumsiness of visitors, models should also be protected by a clear cover that can be removed for maintenance. The model should be comfortably viewable for adult visitors and also by children; a step-up can be provided for the latter.

Various features of the model can be high-lighted by interactive signage; press a button on the base and a specific area of the model will light up or operate. It also helps to have a knowledgeable docent nearby with a laser pointer to answer questions. Some models, particularly large ones, are best built by professional shops. Others can be contracted to individual builders with professional standards such as IPMS members. If a museum has a continuing model program, it may be more cost-effective to place a builder under salary or sub-contract space to a model-building firm. Such model "shops," where visitors can actually see models under construction, are highly popular in museums.

True museum-quality scale models are expensive, because they're built by craftsmen with an artistic flair. Models should be thought of as original works of art and treated accordingly. Prices will vary widely, but you can expect to pay at least $15 to $20 an hour or more for a professionally-made model, plus materials. Other factors include speed of delivery, degree of finish and the amount of available resource information. A 1/96 scale warship, for example, generally runs about $2,000 to $2,500 a linear foot, plus materials.

Corporate sponsors, however, are often happy to foot the bill for a model, because of the high visibility such a creation brings.

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© 1998 Pacific Monograph