Planning your exhibition

An exhibition in a museum or gallery is simply a themed display of objects, paintings, photographs, letters and other artefacts from their collection, presented for visitors to enjoy. They are also the way that museums and galleries help people tap into the unique knowledge and information they have about a topic or person. Labels, films, interactive activities and exhibition staff help bring the information and stories to life.

A school exhibition is a great way to focus and share students’ learning. It can include objects, images, music, film, students’ writing, artwork and models. Your exhibition can be large or small. It can be the result of a week’s work or the culmination and celebration of an entire topic. Work through the questions below to create your exhibition plan.

Browse the Inspiration gallery for ideas before you start planning. It’s full of photos of things you could do and will give you loads of ideas for your own exhibition.

Choose a focus for your exhibition to support your classroom topic and curriculum planning. Consider which of your topics would work well as a local history exhibition.

Check out our online resources, each theme is packed with locally focused photographs, objects, paintings and documents, from museums and galleries across the Tees Valley, alongside fascinating and useful information. Browse the gallery and choose a focus for your exhibition. Try using a painting, portrait or person as an initial stimulus for classroom work.

Plan as much of your topic work as you can with your exhibition in mind. What History, English, Art, Design, Technology, Music or other curriculum areas could you cover? How does your chosen theme link to the students’ lives and where they live? Your exhibition might include opportunities for writing labels, letters and invitations, creating maps, models, soundscapes and animations, creating historical characters or becoming exhibition guides. There are plenty of tried-and-tested ideas and tips for curriculum-linked activities in the Creation and Exhibition sections of this resource.

Using iPads or other tablets to build digital activities into your classroom work is a great way to motivate students and create engaging materials for your exhibition displays, adding interest and enjoyment for visitors. Integrating digital activities into your work needn’t be daunting. Support from Inspire2Learn is available for Tees Valley schools. The in-house team are specialists in using technology across the curriculum and have lots of classroom experience with mobile devices. They can offer staff training and even work side-by-side with teachers in the classroom.

Museums in the Tees Valley have a range of loans boxes available containing objects, clothes and other primary sources to support classroom learning and to include in your exhibition. Loans boxes are very popular and early booking is advisable. Find out more here

Use the Images, Teachers notes, ‘Did you know..? facts, Timeline and Links in the Making a Mark in the Tees Valley resource to find out more about your chosen theme and how it links to the local area and to children’s lives. The Research section of this resource is packed with activities to help students find out more about your chosen theme in the classroom, and information on visiting your local museum. Museum visits are popular and early booking is advisable.

In your classroom, the school hall, library, reception? When will your exhibition be? What days and times will allow working family members to come along too? What equipment will you need? Pop-up exhibition banners and display boards are available for loan from most local museums. Find out more here

Invite the rest of the school – peer learning is powerful! Think about inviting families, and don’t forget your governors. Local councillors, elderly residents and education officers from your local museum might also like an invite.

The Launch section of this resource is full of activities and templates to help launch your exhibition and celebrate all that hard work with family and friends.

Tick these off in plenty of time:

  • Choose your theme and which half term you’ll create your exhibition
  • Set a date for the exhibition itself
  • Book the space (the school hall, library, reception)
  • Book any equipment
  • Book a research visit to your local museum
  • Book a loans box from your local museum
  • Book digital support from Inspire2Learn if needed

Researching your theme

Creating an exhibition provides a real purpose for students’ learning about a historical theme and helps to motivate and focus their work. Researching their exhibition theme is a great way for students to develop skills and understanding in history and literacy such as:

  • A coherent sense of chronology
  • Making connections and recognising cause and effect
  • Framing historically valid questions and answering them through analysis and narrative
  • Using a range of primary and secondary sources to find out about the past
  • Structuring and organising non-narrative writing
  • Developing specialist vocabulary and language for describing and explaining
  • Using the past tense of a wide range of verbs

Two Learning officers show a group of school children a stuffed aligator

Introduce the idea of creating an exhibition right at the beginning of your topic. Show students examples of other exhibitions from the Inspiration gallery to help spark ideas and visualise what their own exhibition might look like.

Use the activities and ideas below to help students find out more about their exhibition topic. The resources section includes useful information and biographies about each object, painting or portrait and links to other useful websites and resources to support both teachers’ and students’ research.

Try using a painting, portrait or person from the Image gallery as a stimulus to introduce your exhibition theme. The Bombardment of the Hartlepools by James Clark, for example, provides much food for thought and discussion about the impact of World War I on the local area. Or the Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway by John Dobbin could prompt discussion about how transport has changed and just what sort of equivalent modern day event might be attended by so very many people from all walks of life. Encourage students to ask questions about the painting and use these to structure some of their research. Talk about how the people or events compare or relate to students’ lives today. There are lots of practical ideas and activities for exploring paintings in the Using portraits, paintings and images guide.

Explore the Making a Mark timeline with students to see what happened in the area before and after events in your theme. Are they connected in any way? For example, the invention of steam trains and the pioneering railways in the area made it possible for people of all walks of life to travel to new seaside resorts in Saltburn, Hartlepool and Redcar.

Enquiry questions are a useful way to structure students’ research. These can be devised by teachers to steer students’ learning, or by the students themselves to focus their research in a direction that they are particularly interested in. They can be wide and far-reaching, for example: How has transport in our area changed? What did people do at the seaside in Redcar in the past? What was life like for Saxons in the Tees Valley? Or more focused: What did the ironstone miners take with them to work? What might the first journey on the Stockton and Darlington Railway have been like? Students or groups of students could each have a different research focus to feed into the ‘bigger picture’, or contribute to different sections of an exhibition.

A visit to your local museum is the ideal way to immerse students in your chosen theme. Museums across the Tees Valley have a range of exciting, hands-on curriculum-based workshops for Key Stages 1 & 2. A museum visit provides opportunities to introduce or find out more about your theme. You can also look at exhibitions and explore the different ways objects are organised and presented. Find out more about schools programmes available in local museums. When you contact the Education Officer be sure to tell them you are creating an exhibition, as there may be ways your visit could be specially tailored.

Investigating objects and images develops students’ enquiry and critical thinking skills and is a great way to develop language and vocabulary. Museums across the Tees Valley have a range of loan boxes containing objects, clothes and other primary sources for students to use in their classroom enquiries and to include in their exhibition. Loan boxes are very popular and early booking is advisable, find out more here. Family and friends might also be willing to loan items.

Use our tried-and tested classroom activities for using objects, portraits, paintings and images to find out to find out about the past to support students’ learning. Find these resources here.

The memories of people in our own families and local communities can be a rich source of information about the past. Students can collect memories related to their theme from family members, people from the community or their school using the Collecting memories template which can be found here. They could interview contributors to find out more and record them using a simple tablet app (see the Digital activities guide which can be found here for more information).

What can our local area tell us about the past? Are there any significant buildings, structures, statues or street names relating to your theme close by? Perhaps your school is near to a war memorial commemorating the local people who lost their lives in the First World War, or a bridge or building along the original Stockton to Darlington Railway route.
Historic England have a searchable image bank of hundreds of buildings, structures and monuments in the Tees Valley, including Red Barns House (Gertrude Bell’s home) in Redcar, the Transporter Bridge and a statue of Joseph Pease. Each image is accompanied by useful information. Hidden Teesside also has hundreds of images grouped by theme and area.

How has the area changed? Students can use maps and aerial views to explore a number of themes relating to the Tees Valley’s history such as the rapid growth of Middlesbrough in the 1800s, or the development of seaside towns like Saltburn-on-Sea. They could chart changes in railway routes or look for evidence of areas named during Saxon and Viking times (e.g. Anglo Saxon names traditionally end in –ton, -ham or –ley; Viking place names end in –by, -thorpe and –ay). Your local library may have copies of old maps of the area, or use Historic England’s searchable bank of aerial views. Use Google maps to compare these with the local area today.

Creating the displays

This section helps students explore their theme, and select and create materials for their exhibition. Creating displays provides rich opportunities for students to:

  • Write for different purposes and audiences
  • Develop skills for writing such as recounting, structuring letters, writing in the first person, writing persuasively or descriptively
  • Explore aspects of the past from different perspectives and points-of-view
  • Find creative ways to present information and ideas
  • Develop and use historical vocabulary

A selection of tried-and-tested activities have been included here but there really is no end to the curriculum-linked work students could do to produce their own materials – models, poems, animations, artworks, letters – to include in the exhibition alongside objects, images and information text.

Once the students have had a chance to research and explore the theme, hold a group or class discussion about what to include in your classroom exhibition. Talk about what is meaningful to the students, how their theme might relate to their own lives, and what and who are important to represent and include. Is there anything that shouldn’t be included? Talk about your target audience. What will they be interested in? How can we make our exhibition interesting and fun for adults and children? Agree and list criteria such as: safe to put on display, interesting, fun, helps visitors understand more about our theme/the history of our local area, helps represent the lives of different people – men and women, rich and poor. Students can include objects, images, memories of local people, their own work – writing, models, artworks, films, soundscapes, animations.

When museums and galleries are creating an exhibition, they create a list of all the items – objects, images, documents, tickets, photographs, books etc – so that everyone working on the exhibition knows what is being included. Each object in a museum or gallery is given a special reference number so that information about it can be easily kept and found when needed. In the National Portrait Gallery for example, each portrait is given a number starting with NPG. The first portrait they ever collected was a portrait of William Shakespeare – its number is NPG1. The Gallery now has over 200,000 portraits, each with its own special number.

Students can use the Exhibition item list template found here to keep a list of all the items in their exhibition with its own reference number. Remind them to use the same numbers when they create object labels for their display. They might like to begin each number with the initials of your school. Or begin with ‘O’ for object, ‘P’ for photograph etc.

Museums often borrow objects or paintings from other museums, galleries or from individual people to include in an exhibition. When they do this they set out a loan agreement so that a record is kept of where an object is, how it will be looked after and when it will be returned. You may want to borrow objects from your local museum, or people in your school or community to include in your classroom exhibition. Students can use the Loan agreement template found here to make it official. See the Loans boxes and equipment guide which can be found here for more information about borrowing items from your local museum.

Timelines are a great way to organise information. They can also serve as a useful introduction to your exhibition. Show students the Making a Mark timeline. Students can create their own illustrated timeline to show how the events of their theme unfolded and/or to place their theme in a wider historical context. They can use their own work, print out images from the Image gallery or create a digital timeline (See the Digital activities guide which can be found here for more information). Students can also create timelines of objects in their exhibition.

Working in pairs or small groups, students research and role-play interviewing a historical figure. Give the students a portrait of a person from the Image Gallery linked to your exhibition theme. Students devise a list of five key interview questions and research the answers. Encourage them to focus on questions linked to the topic as opposed to their favourite colour or what they had for breakfast! They could use the Making a Mark Image Gallery and accompanying biographies, wider internet searches, their Museum visit, books and other primary and secondary sources to find the answers. They then role-play an interview with their historical character.

The results could be used to create written biographies. Interviews could be filmed with students in role using a simple tablet app like iMovie (see Digital activities which can be found here for more information). Include these in your exhibition.

Students use what they have learned about their theme to create a series of short, punchy, fascinating ‘Did you know..?’ facts. They should consider what might make a fact truly ‘fascinating’ for someone who knows very little about the theme. Try linking facts to people and their everyday lives, or to something very famous; try expressing weights or distances in forms people can relate to, for example:

  • The Vikings liked to keep themselves clean and tidy – archaeologists have discovered razors, combs and even ear cleaners.
  • The famous arch of Wembley stadium was manufactured on Teesside. Its hollow structure is stuffed with Middlesbrough football shirts.
  • 6.2 million tons of ironstone was mined from Skinningrove – that’s the weight of over 1 million elephants!

    Find more examples in each of the Image gallery themes. Include the facts in your exhibition or go to the Exhibition section of this resource for a way to turn them into a fun exhibition game.

Students choose a painting or portrait from the Image gallery, related to their exhibition theme. They explore the images using activities in the Using portraits, paintings and images to find out about the past guide which can be found here and annotate them with interesting facts. They could use a simple app like Photo label to do this digitally (see Digital activities found here for more information). Include the annotated images in your exhibition.

Students recreate a portrait, painting or event featured in the Image gallery, relating to their exhibition theme: Edward Pease and George Stephenson discussing steam powered trains, the discovery of the Saxon Princess burial site, Dr Nicholas Patrick posing for his NASA portrait, World War I officers playing cards and listening to a gramophone during a lull in the fighting, for example. Students can take photos or make simple films of the results and include them in their exhibition.

Using a painting or event from the Image gallery as a stimulus, such as the Bombardment of the Hartlepools or the first encounter of Hawaii (surfers and all!) by Captain Cook and his crew, students create newspaper reports as if reporting first-hand. What are the headlines? What might they have seen or heard? What might eye-witnesses have said? They can create a local newspaper front page for their report and include it in their exhibition. They can also literally ‘put themselves in the picture and report ‘live from where it happened’ using a simple Green Screen tablet app (See Digital activities which can be found here for more information).

Museums often include letters and diary entries in their exhibitions. They are a great way of ‘peopling’ a history and bringing different voices, perspectives and points of view into a story from the past.

Letters could be from a First World War soldier or nurse writing home about their experiences at the Front – what might they be missing about their home in the Tees Valley? They could be letters of protest from concerned residents about the effects of the proposed Stockton & Darlington Railway on the local environment or postcards from Victorian holidaymakers in Saltburn-on-Sea. They could write diary entries from one of Captain Cook’s crew members arriving in Australia for the first time, Nicolas Patrick voyaging to the International Space Station or Gertrude Bell working in the Middle East. Students can bring their work to life by reading their letters or diary entries out loud and recording them using a simple tablet app (See Digital activities here for more information). Display the written results in your exhibition. Provide headphones for visitors to listen to the spoken versions.

Use the ideas in the Digital activities guide which can be found here, to produce soundscapes or to literally add a voice to portraits. This will create atmosphere in your exhibition and help immerse your visitors in the time and theme.

Bringing your exhibition to life

This section helps you work together to organise your exhibition and bring it to life for your visitors. Parents are bound to find their children’s work fascinating, but what about younger brothers and sisters, other children in the school, governors or other invited guests? The activities below will help students hook visitors in to all the fascinating information they have discovered and keep them interested and engaged as they explore the displays.

More ideas and information can be found in the digital activities guide in the guides and templates section.

Bringing their exhibition to life provides a wealth of learning opportunities for students across the curriculum including:

  • Organising and presenting historical information in creative ways for different audiences
  • Modelling and communicating their ideas through a range of media
  • Evaluating and modifying their ideas
  • Drafting, proof-reading and producing accurate text for public display
  • Précising longer text into concise, ‘bitesize’ labels and instructions
  • Developing and using descriptive and technical vocabulary
  • Writing active sentences, using adjectives, prepositions, verbs or other grammatical elements

Museums put a great deal of thought into creating titles for their exhibitions. The title you give your exhibition is important. Not only does it tell your visitors what the exhibition will be about, it is also the hook that will stimulate their curiosity and make them want to explore your exhibition to find out more.

Show students examples of titles on the exhibition posters and leaflets in the Inspiration gallery’s ‘Publicising’ theme. There are more titles in the list below. Talk about what the exhibitions might be about and who might want to go to them. Make a class list of as many words as students can think of to do with your chosen theme. Use this to brainstorm ideas for the exhibition title. Try:

  • Having fun with alliteration: Town in Time; Tees Tracks
  • Exploring ways of relating the theme to the students using possessive adjectives and object pronouns: Our War; Middlesbrough and Me, Colours of our Lives
  • Making a list of adjectives that might describe your chosen theme and playing with them to add flavour to your title: e.g. Intrepid Tees Valley explorers; Our amazing railway; The extraordinary Gertrude Bell


Hold a class vote to choose the most popular title.

  • Colours of our lives
  • The First World War: national memory, local stories
  • What’s the First World War got to do with me?
  • Tees tracks
  • Change in trains
  • Kirkleatham: the story of a village
  • Beauty and the beach
  • The extraordinary Gertrude Bell
  • Discover Dresser
  • The Linthorpe pottery
  • Town in time
  • Iron valley
  • 20th century women
  • Black chronicles
  • Face to Face: portraits past and present
  • Learning the ropes: painting a picture of Captain Cook and his young apprentice
  • Walkabout: Australian Aboriginal life and legend

Work with the students to discuss and decide how the exhibition should be organised. Look at the ‘Displays’ themed images in the Inspiration Gallery. Think about and discuss:

  • Who are your audience and what do you want them to find out?
  • How much space will you have?
  • Will you have different sections?
  • What might the headings be?
  • Will they be arranged chronologically?
  • What will be included in each section?

Students might also like to think about how they will make their exhibition accessible – by leaving plenty of space for wheelchairs and buggies for example, or including voice recordings and descriptions of written work and displays for people who are visually impaired. Students could act as exhibition designers and create labelled floorplans or layouts.

Labels are a common and useful way for visitors to find out information about objects in an exhibition, but keeping the information interesting can be a real challenge. Show students the examples of exhibition labels in the Inspiration Gallery’s ‘Labels’ filter. Use the Label template to write object labels for your exhibition. Students can try using these tips and ideas:

  • Keep it brief and to the point. Use short sentences. It can be difficult to read long pieces of text when you are standing in a noisy and busy exhibition
  • Include simple pictures or diagrams if useful
  • Stick to a specific word count – this can be harder than it looks
  • Include a fascinating ‘Did you know…?’ fact
  • Be creative: write a story, poetry or haiku label, or ‘personify’ the object by writing from the object’s perspective.

Remind students to always keep the reader in mind. What information do they really need to know? What might they find interesting?

Include activities and games in your exhibition to help bring the information to life and make finding out about your theme memorable and engaging for visitors. Show students the examples in the Inspiration Gallery’s ‘Exhibition activities’ filter. Students can create these activities or think of their own:

  • True or False game – this could be based on students’ ‘Did you know…?’ facts
  • Who/what am I? Invite visitors to guess what the mystery object/who the mystery person is
  • Print out and cut up a historical portrait or scene from the Image Gallery and turn it into a jigsaw
  • Past pairs: match the image to the description (of different types of transport for example, roles working on the Stockton & Darlington Railway, historical figures etc)
  • Exhibition treasure hunt: challenge visitors to find five specific things that feature somewhere in the exhibition
  • Archaeological dig: use a sand box to bury ‘artefacts’ from the past. Give visitors brushes to carefully reveal models or images of objects. Note: Museum objects should never be used for this activity
  • Create a storytelling area
  • Create a dressing up area
  • Exhibition quiz: how many questions can visitors answer about your theme?

Students can act as expert exhibition guides for a particular section of the exhibition, answering visitors’ questions and prompting them to engage in activities or look closer at objects. They could do this in role as a character related to their chosen theme, welcoming visitors with train tickets in role as a Stockton & Darlington Railway train guard, or explaining what it’s like to work in the Loftus mine for example. Show students the images in the Inspiration gallery’s ‘Characters and guides’ filter to spark ideas.

Collecting visitor feedback is an important part of the process for museums and galleries, to make sure they continue to produce high quality exhibitions that attract plenty of visitors. The ‘Visitor feedback’ filter in the Inspiration gallery shows some examples of different ways this can be collected. Feedback could be gathered through:

  • Evaluation forms and comment books
  • Feedback walls – invite visitors to draw or write a response to a question, e.g. ‘What does the Tees Valley mean to me’, ‘My Tees Valley memory…’ ‘What did I learn from the exhibition?’ to add to a feedback wall or giant piece of paper
  • Exit surveys conducted by students as visitors leave
  • School social media page.

Talk about the responses with the students and discuss what worked well and what they would change. Students can write an evaluation report or compile visitor responses into graphs and charts.

Launching your exhibition

Publicising and launching your exhibition is a great opportunity for students to:

  • Identify audiences and purposes for writing
  • Draft, proof and edit text for public consumption and display (you don’t want mistakes in your exhibition posters and invitations!)
  • Use structures, grammar and vocabulary that is different to informal speech
  • Design and present information in eye-catching and appealing ways

Show the students the invitations, posters and leaflets in the Inspiration gallery’s ‘Publicising’ theme. Discuss what they think is effective about them. Would they make you want to go along? Why? Students can design their own using the Invitation, Poster and Leaflet templates. They could customise these to fit with their theme – design it as a train ticket, for example, or decorate it with symbols that relate to the exhibition eg: Australian Aboriginal or English Saxon symbols.

Plan a special event for invited guests. Create a class list of who to invite to your exhibition: family, other classes, school governors, other schools (peer schools or to aid transition), people from local museums, local councillors, people who contributed memories or objects. Make invitations using the Invitation template. Write a press release and invite the local press to cover the event and report on the exhibition. Students can write and give an opening speech. They can prepare, make and serve tempting, healthy refreshments for their visitors – can they relate these to their theme?

Students can advertise the exhibition to their peers in assembly through a presentation or performance. They could also do this in other local schools.

Students could write a piece about the exhibition for the school newsletter or website. They could create posts for the school Facebook page, or write tweets – getting the message across in no more than 126 characters for the school Twitter account.

Students could also:

  • Create themed entry tickets or stickers
  • Produce an exhibition guide book or leaflet
  • Make mementos for families to take home with them such as a special ‘school poppy’ to commemorate the area’s involvement in World War I, or a ‘Saxon’ bead or coin