The Design Cure—Applying Exhibit Design Expertise to Schools, Libraries, Hospitals, and Airports

The Design Cure: Applying Exhibit Design Expertise to Schools, Libraries, Hospitals, and Airports

By Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA

Founding Principal, LHSA+DP


There is a lot of discussion these days about what ails our society. While there is no question that the Internet Age has done wonders to connect us virtually to other people, places, and experiences, there is an increasing corollary desire for authentic experiences in which we can connect with other people in person and in real time. People are also craving experiences with greater value, experiences that offer a wider range of personal benefits and takeaways than were previously available when the purpose of many public places was more narrowly defined. We have seen this in the emergence of “edutainment” venues that deliver educational quality along with entertainment and recreation.  This hybridization is now finding its way into other realms of the public sphere, places such as schools, libraries, hospitals, and airports, which are increasingly seeking new ways to engage the people they serve.

As a museum design firm, we at Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership have been observing this fascinating, and growing trend in our practice for quite some time.  As we noted in our 2011 article, “Learning Curve: How Museum Design ‘Taught’ a New Elementary School,” published in The American Alliance of Museums’ Museum Magazine, the experience and expertise that designers of museum environments have developed over the years is increasingly in demand in a wider range of project types, such as school design, library design, hospital design, and even airport play spaces.  The reasons for this phenomenon are an interesting indicator of the evolving and expanding public expectation of the services provided by the institutions they patronize:

  • There is greater public demand for customer (visitor, user) comfort.  The types of amenities and consideration for people’s needs and desires that museums have long provided are now recognized as a baseline expectation and a major selling point for cultivating and maintaining audiences in a variety of venues.
  • People want added value. In the information Age, knowledge is currency. People want to learn, to grow, and to be intellectually stimulated and nourished. Museums and exhibits are seen as offering very effective “informal education” in a manner that is attractive and compelling, less didactic and less challenging/intimidating than what and how we are teaching in schools.
  • It’s all about “me.” In our “niche” culture, people want recognition of their particular needs, desires and interests. They crave personalized experiences that acknowledge them as individuals.

Museum designers are especially tuned in to how varying audiences need to be communicated with, how they learn, what makes them comfortable and successfully drawn into the objectives of a given experience.  Individual and group interactivity and responsive environments satisfy people’s egocentricity and desire for social interaction.


SCHOOL DESIGN   Summit Elementary School

While we might get deeper into the weeds of these motivations, the bottom line is that museum designers are seen to offer something valuable – something relevant and operative to associated realms.  Our first inklings into this transference occurred when we were approached at an American Alliance of Museums Conference in Denver by representatives of a school district in Casper, Wyoming.  They had a sense that elementary education could benefit from adopting and adapting characteristics of interactive children’s museums.  Because by that time we had been involved in over 50 children’s museum projects, they thought we might be able to help them out.  Before we knew it, we were designing a completely new, and conceptually unique K-5 school, called Summit Elementary, along with an attached pre-school.    


LIBRARY DESIGN   Queens Library

Soon afterward, we were strongly encouraged to throw our hat in the ring to design a new type of children’s public library.  The client wanted to create a family-friendly environment that would promote inquiry, engage users deeply and be seen as a community gathering place – a kind of town square – welcoming children of more than 75 ethnicities and nationalities.  We won the commission, and the result was The Children’s Library Discovery Center at the Main Branch in Jamaica, Queens.  It married the traditional functions of a library with interactive science activities, multi-lingual wayfinding and highly responsive spaces and interpretation.  The success of this award-winning project became the progenitor of several more children’s and young adult library projects in the last few years, including the Children’s Reading Room and Young Adult Room at the East Hampton Library and the Children’s Library at the Port Washington Public Library.      



These educational and cultural projects have now led to other, less explicitly educational venues.  We recently completed a unique facility for JetBlue Airways at their new T5 Terminal expansion at JFK airport.  Entitled “jetBlue junior,” the space offers families waiting for their flights the chance to explore an aviation themed environment, complete with engaging (and educational) physical, digital, and media interactives as well as a small reading area.  Open only since December, it is already a tremendous hit.      


HOSPITAL DESIGN   Pirogov Hospital

The most recent entry in the race to enhance user experiences has been in children’s health.  We are presently engaged in three separate children’s hospital design projects.  The fascinating added layer of value inherent in these initiatives is the proven effectiveness they hold to improve the quality of health care and recovery.  The now well-established field of “evidence design” has involved extensive research and testing, yielding quantitative proof of the efficacy of design to help heal.  Our initial goals have been to reduce children’s and families’ anxiety, to distract them from their stress by immersing them in thematic, story-based environments, and to generally soothe and relax.  We have continued to learn, however, that there are key characteristics of an environment that promote well-being, shorten hospital stays, lessen the dependence on pain medications, and actually reduce morbidity. 

These include:  

  • Access to light and air, and views to the outside world  
  • Sensitivity to the need for privacy  
  • General uniformity among patient rooms in terms of lay-out, color, amenities, etc.  
  • Any enhancements that allow patients to feel less controlled by others and more in control of their own situation    

To this list, we add elements that we know through our experience can offer a greater degree of comfort, engagement and empowerment:    

  • The enlivening of the environment through the application of a storyline or theme, together with colors, patterns and illustrations  
  • Access to interactive media technologies and opportunities for self-expression  
  • The provision of activity rooms that offer a fun, non-clinical alternative to staying holed-up and isolated fulltime in separate rooms  


Needless to say, we are always learning.  When it comes to the design of health care facilities, there are a wide variety of inputs that provide an array of criteria, beyond what we may have encountered in our other work. These include the critical information and parameters provided by doctors, nurses, physical therapists, child life specialists, infectious disease experts and more.  These, of course, must be integrated with the familiar exigencies of budget, schedule, maintenance protocols, durability and, as always, user satisfaction.

But the ability to impact people’s lives on so many levels and in so many ways continues to grow, and fulfills our mission to “enrich the lives of our clients and communities.”  Who would have thought that an initial interest in providing experiences that harness the power of storytelling and play to promote learning and the communication of values could extend to help children heal?  What new frontiers lie just over the horizon to administer “the design cure” to our ever-changing and challenging society? We can’t wait to find out.


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