This is shaping up as a bumper year for Wellington-based Story Inc. Over the past decade the privately owned company, which emerged in 1997 with Te Papa's Golden Days exhibition, has become a national and Asian player, devising multimedia narratives for museums, visitor centres, art installations and other public arenas.

This year Story Inc will make an even bigger splash with a pair of innovative projects. Last week, Zealandia - an exhibit tracing New Zealand's natural history - opened at the Karori Sanctuary, a conservation "island" near downtown Wellington. And next month the company makes its China debut with the "visitor experience" at the New Zealand pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

When we spoke, Steve La Hood, who founded Story Inc with fellow TV and film veterans James McLean and Dean Cato, had just returned from Vietnam, where he signed a deal to create one of the company's narrative-driven, multimedia exhibitions for Hanoi's projected US$130 million ($185 million) Millennium Museum, which will tell the city's 1000-year history. It is tentatively scheduled to open late next year or early 2012.

Back home, Story Inc is working with Rotorua's Museum of Art and History to showcase treasures from a confederation of eight local iwi at the Te Arawa gallery.

The Expo is a coup. A big chunk of the almost $30 million budget went on the pavilion's construction, which was managed by Australia-based Coffey International, with many components built in New Zealand and assembled in Shanghai.

To illustrate the theme of "cities of nature, living between land and sky", Story Inc frames urban life in the Maori creation tale of Tane.

Visitors will walk through a "city" topped by a rooftop garden of New Zealand plants and a geyser, and watch videos that feature city life swept by a rainstorm every seven minutes. The notion of nature intruding into cities is a departure from the iconic New Zealand landscapes that have become a tourist cliché.

Given that Asia is cash rich compared to the US and Europe, where competition for museum projects is more intense, Story Inc is likely to log up plenty of air miles to places such as Shanghai. Right now the focus is on Hanoi and the Te Arawa Gallery, which La Hood hopes will revitalise the way in which Maori history is told. "We want to have at least one major international project on the go at any time ... to underscore our work in New Zealand, which is really important to us."

Story Inc isn't the only player in this field, but, as its name suggests, has carved a niche through storytelling.

"Most of our rivals are basically design houses," says La Hood. "They come up with a design solution. We start with a concept then manage the development of the content, the way the story is told."

Traditionally, museums have used labels to explain what an artefact is, what it was for, when it was made, how it was used and so on.

In contrast, Story Inc exploits showbiz technologies - including video, robotics, latex mouldings, large graphics, computer-generated images and animation - to place artefacts into a "spatial narrative" that visitors can easily relate to. "We do things in 3D," says McLean. "It's always a real space and a real visitor experience. People love stories and learn from them. So we use spaces to tell stories in different ways."

The success of Golden Days, created by La Hood Productions (Story Inc was formed in 1999), offered the trio a chance to escape hand-to-mouth showbiz realities, just as curators began to explore how entertainment values might be used to lure visitors.

"It was serendipitous that Te Papa was experimenting with the form of museums and how exhibitions worked," says La Hood. "We realised that was going to happen all over the place." Story Inc was in the right place to benefit. As Wellywood burnished its reputation for special effects, the company grew to 10 people and farmed out work to specialists in areas such as software, lighting, electronics and joinery.

"We know who to call to get something done," says La Hood. "We don't want a room full of 40 people slaving over 3D illustrations. We don't want to be a corporate entity. We want to remain fleet on our feet." He wants the company to grow in quality, wealth - annual turnover is around $5 million plus - and reputation. "But not in size."

Having movie connections helps. Invited to a barbecue at the end of the first day's shooting on The Lord of the Rings, La Hood - then wearing one of many hats as an actor's agent - suggested to Peter Jackson that the props, costumes and other paraphernalia created by Richard Taylor's Weta Workshop should be in a museum. Jackson said he was a "bit busy", recalls La Hood, who pitched the idea of a travelling exhibition to New Line, the film's US producers. Over two million visitors have seen the show.

By 2000, Story Inc had entered the Asian market - "naive kiwis walking into the lion's den", admits La Hood - paying their dues with several successful Singapore-based projects before a Thai Airways job led to the Museum of Siam.

"You take huge risks," says La Hood, when asked about the business challenges of operating in Asia. "To get the Hanoi contract we had to string ourselves out financially. It costs a lot to fly to Hanoi, have people on the ground do preparatory work, create and submit presentations and pay for translations."

This tenacity has brought work and an Asian design network. La Hood stresses that rather than imposing a template on clients, Story Inc prefers painstaking consultation. Before creating 11 galleries on three levels for the Museum of Siam in Bangkok, months were spent with Thai historians, curators and scholars, workshopping concepts for exhibits.

"We want to learn who visits your museum, who you think the story is aimed at and how a museum can pitch its story at the target audience and draw new visitors," says La Hood.

When people start to agree, he says, the design "becomes a no-brainer - you start seeing it as you talk about it."

Expo 2010
* Opens in Shanghai on May 1.

* More than 190 countries are participating.

* Organisers expect 70 million visitors.

* New Zealand is spending $30 million to take part.

* The Saudi pavilion is reportedly the most expensive - $205 million.