Talent on display18 June 2013
Exhibition design is getting plenty of press these days with a raft of high-profile shows taking the sector by storm. Pamela Buxton takes an indepth look at three practices that have made the field into a speciality
Since exhibition design calls for such a variety skills, it's not so surprising that those who thrive in it have such diverse backgrounds.
Whereas the long-established practice Casson Mann came to the discipline from interior design, comparative newcomer GuM grew out of architecture practice Pringle Richards Sharratt while Real Studios, designer of the V&A blockbuster David Bowie Is, came to exhibition design from the unlikely paths of mechanical engineering and physiotherapy.
But whatever their backgrounds, they all face the same issues given that the golden years of the lottery-funding boom years are over. There are more diverse audiences than ever to engage and myriad media to deploy with ever-shrinking budgets. Challenging conditions certainly - but it's still possible to pull it off with aplomb.
The David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A has been the big museum story of the year so far, prompting huge media interest and record ticket sales to see the iconic costumes and artefacts from the musician's long career.
The exhibition designer is Real Studios, which was brought on to the project to work alongside performance design outfit 59 Productions. For Alistair McCaw of Real Studios - coincidentally a Bowie fan - it has been an intense but hugely enjoyable experience.
McCaw and Yvonne Golds set up Real Studios after meeting while working at leading exhibition design group Event Communications. Both had unusual backgrounds, with Golds working as a physiotherapist before training in interior design and McCaw studying mechanical engineering before working on exhibitions with architect John Dangerfield.
Real Studios loves the variety of the work, which has encompassed subjects as diverse as treasure hoards at the Natural History Museum to mental health facility Bethlem Royal Hospital. One minute, it's putting the finishing touches to the David Bowie extravaganza, the next pitching for a visitor centre for Richard III's newly discovered remains. 'What I like most is that you learn the most unusual things. Every subject is completely different,' says McCaw.
But one of the more recent challenges is responding to the widening audience profile, with briefs calling for everyone from nursery-age children upwards to be engaged throughout the exhibition. And at the same time, competition is more intense as a more diverse range of companies moves into exhibition work.
'The brief is getting wider and wider as it appeals to more and more people,' says McCaw, adding that while the content needs to reach more audiences, average budgets are considerably down from the peak of the Millennium era.
The knack, he says, is learning to distil the vast amounts of information about the content that you acquire in the research, and communicate that essence to the greatest effect. 'Balance, pacing, an easy path to follow - you have to get everything right so it all fits together,' he says, adding that the design should avoid being clever for clever's sake or gratuitously eye-catching.
That's not to say the design can't be memorable as well as communicative. For the Voyagers exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, Real Studios engaged visitors by focusing on emotions and telling maritime-related stories through universal themes such as love, aggression and loss. All this was communicated through a dramatic 20m wave-like form with multimedia displays created by The Light Surgeons showing more than 300 images and films from the museum's archives.
Finding stories in the subject matter that visitors can relate to is a favourite approach - Real Studios is doing this for the Boathouse 4 exhibition of small craft Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard. To evoke the physical experience of what it must have been like to row a small boat at sea for a great distance, visitors can simulate rowing in an interactive exhibit.
While for drier subject matters the challenge is how to create engaging displays: at the David Bowie Is show, the task was how to marshall such rich and exuberant raw material into a visually coherent show. The designers chose a muted background of grey, white and black with just occasional splashes of what became known as 'Bowie orange' as highlights.
This purposely understated backdrop unifies the disparate costumes, although McCaw says the visitor route is deliberately a little maze-like to give more of a theatrical experience of the unexpected, rather than allowing the visitor to see across the whole show at any one time. The soundscape and costumes are the main event - but if visitors wanted to read every caption, it would take them five and a half hours, and almost as long again to watch all the audio-visuals.
So where can exhibition design go next? Around the turn of the Millennium museums were test-beds for trying out new interactive technology - but those days have gone, says McCaw, due to both funding constraints and exciting new technology becoming something anyone can have at home. But there's still scope to explore new media further by using mobile phones or other devices to scan tags and get additional interpretation, thereby creating another layer of information while keeping the display presentation simple. 'There was a stage when interpretation become more important than the object, but for a while we've been returning to the object being the most important thing,' he says.
And that, whether it's a Bowie catsuit or Richard III's deformed skeleton, is surely a good thing.
GuM (short for Galleries und Museums) is off to a flying start as a specialist in gallery and museum design with projects celebrating such creative luminaries as William Morris and Benjamin Britten.
Not that London-based GuM is really a complete newcomer. While the exhibition specialism might be newly defined, GuM springs from seasoned architecture practice Pringle Richards Sharratt, whose work includes the Sheffield Millennium Galleries, the Pitt Rivers refurbishment and the V&A's Märit Rausing Gallery of Contemporary Glass.
So often, says GuM director Penny Richards, new museums end up housing exhibitions that do not work as well with the architecture as they should. Often they seemed to have been developed in a bubble of their own, even though the building itself often should be seen as the largest exhibit in the museum's collection.
'We decided to set up GuM to create a design studio which has a special interest in showing the display of exhibits and artefacts in complete harmony with the building - to present a gallery or museum and its contents in a more integrated and sensitive style," she says. 'We sensed that clients wanted their exhibition designers to have their own identity and ideas and to have a degree of independence from the architect. GuM has given us an opportunity to concentrate on developing our approach to a collection, and how to show and interpret objects in an important architectural context.'
GuM was appointed to work alongside PRS at the William Morris Museum in Walthamstow, East London and with Stanton Williams on the Britten exhibition in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Richards and fellow PRS director John Sharratt are sure that architects, armed with their spatial know-how, have the right background for exhibition design and are wellplaced to ensure that it is sympathetic with the host building.
That said, they do bring in expertise when needed, collaborating with specialists such as Thomas Manss, the graphic designer for both Morris and Britten shows, and Benedetta Tiana of BT Museum Consultancy, with whom they collaborated on the Morris project.
GuM finds the nature of the work hugely rewarding, delving into the archives and working with curators to decide how best to display the objects to effectively communicate the subject.
'It's very invigorating,' says Richards. 'We like the idea that an artefact or a collection of artefacts sets the brief for a project - and we like the variety of objects that we encounter on our projects and learning about them and their stories and significance. We like working with the curators to deciding which objects should lead a particular strand of the interpretation. We enjoy developing the parallel references between the historic and contemporary, and both the constraints and the freedom that come with designing for galleries and museums.'
With his rich life and varied achievements from poetry to design, political activism to publishing, William Morris was a great subject for exhibition design. GuM was particularly keen to convey his modernity, says Richards.
As well as scene-setting sections on his inspirations and domestic life, the exhibition includes a recreation of one of his furnishings shops - then a progressive venture for a designer - and a workshop room which shows the techniques behind the designs, from stained-glass windows to block-printed fabrics and wallpapers.
Laid out with a long central workbench inset with displays and interactives, the room is crowned with a piece of printed fabric hung high to allow the pattern to dry - as would have been the case in Morris's day.
Not all aspects of Morris's life are so visually alluring, and this is the where the skill of the exhibition designer comes to the fore. For the room on his book publishing for example, GuM introduced a bold black and white striped floor to both graphically get visitors' attention and allude to the ink and page of printing.
It would have been easy to get carried away with pattern but GuM uses it sparingly - as solar shading fritting on the cafe roof, on the doors to the lavatories, and in two bespoke items - a linoleum floor with a red marigold motif, and a new stair carpet.
The Britten 100 exhibition, which opens in June at the composer's Red House home in Aldeburgh, will include sections on how Britten composed, his influences, life in Aldeburgh, and a Peter Grimes section set within a dark space like an upturned boat.
In all its work GuM's mission, says Sharratt, seeks to avoid dumbing down the subject matter yet still cater for those with little previous knowledge: 'Your challenge as a designer is trying to make something appeal on different levels through how you present it, as well as the choice of objects.'
And with several more projects in the offing, including the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, GuM has plenty more opportunities to put into practice its belief in an integrated exhibition design that embraces, rather than ignores, the architecture of the building.
When they set-up nearly 30 years ago, interior designers Dinah Casson and Roger Mann didn't intend to become museum and exhibition specialists. But thanks largely to the opportunities generated by National Lottery funding they did all the same, becoming one of the elite international exhibition designers with projects as diverse as the Cabinet War Rooms, the blockbuster Hollywood Costumes show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the upcoming Benjamin Franklin Life and Legacy Museum in Philadelphia.
Along the way, each project has been an intense, immersive process as the designers briefly become experts in a multitude of subjects - current topics include the cultural history of wine, and the First World War - then afterwards 'park' that knowledge to make room for the next show.
'Some connect more than others, but some are a challenge,' says Mann. 'We've done sex, death, genocide...' 'We went into museums because the people are interesting and they are extraordinarily creative,' adds Casson. 'It's an amazing field of work...very, very intense.'
Their experience has given Casson Mann a long and deep perspective on the museum sector. They acknowledge the lottery was the great game-changer, encouraging museums to rethink their displays at a time when digital media was offering new means of presentation. Yet, as Mann points out, in some ways exhibitions are 'very thin' with captions generally no more than 50-100 words, despite the multitude of audiences they need to reach.
'It's not impossible but it is difficult,' he says. 'We're working with sound designers, film-makers, software designers, artists, writers - the range gets bigger and bigger. It's huge fun. Our job is to hold it all together so that it's seamless and holistic - not just a jumble but honed and complete. It's second nature now.'
So what's the key? 'You need to give people "handles" they can hold on to,' says Casson, who sees the role of museum designer as a visitor's advocate that can immerse themselves in the subject matter but then also step outside it to understand a visitor's perspective too. Then, continues Mann, having got their attention in one way, 'we hook them in and keep them'. The methods used depend on the subject, as does the level of technology employed in the interpretation. 'Sensitively used, technology and objects can get closer together,' says Casson.
For the Hollywood Costumes exhibition at the V&A, Casson Mann spent two and a half years devising the best way to both display the costumes and celebrate the role of the largely unsung costume designer by giving an insight into how they work. Casson Mann's masterstroke was to film the designers talking about their methods, sometimes in conversation with the relevant film director, and present the footage so that the designer appears to be seated at a table in the exhibition, with images of their sketches and work on the table in front of them.
When it came to the costumes themselves, these were displayed on mannequins and accessorised by the faces of the actors who wore them, and accompanied by footage from the films to bring them to life.
Casson Mann is currently working on a new museum of wine in Bordeaux, due to open in 2016 and, with architecture practice Snøhetta, on a cave painting museum around a facsimile of the Lascaux Cave in France, and the Benjamin Franklin Museum. Closer to home, the practice is working on the redesign of the First World War galleries at the Imperial War Museum, which is being refurbished by Foster + Partners. Its work there also includes a temporary hanging on aspects of the Second World War and subsequent conflicts.
It's always important to get the tone right in an exhibition but particularly so with the First World War gallery project, which spans 1900-1929, to put the conflict in its context and with an emphasis on contemporary voices.
'It's a museum about conflict. It's not celebratory. We're telling a much more rounded story,' says Casson.
Now, almost all Casson Mann projects are for museums but the practice would quite like to get back to a few more interiors projects as well. Both Casson and Mann feel that their museum work, in particular the ability to intuitively communicate through design, brings great benefits for other non-narrative sectors.
'Every aspect of an exhibition is communicating - every material, every media, every technology, contributing to a greater understanding of the story you're telling,' says Mann, adding that these are highly transferable skills for other environments such as those of companies looking to communicate their heritage and archives or hotels looking to present a particular environment to their guests.
But armed with such plum museum and exhibition commissions, they still love the buzz of a good show and the potential for such rich collaboration.
'If the client is ambitious and up for it and really working with you, it's fantastic,' says Casson.