The Wellcome Collection’s Ken Arnold on commissioning exhibition design

Ken Arnold takes time out from his job at the Wellcome Collection as head of public programmes to explain what he looks for when commissioning out exhibition design.


Words by Pamela Buxton

Ken Arnold Is head of public programmes at the Wellcome Collection, the science-based cultural centre in London. He completed a PhD on the history of museums and worked at the Livesey Museum for Children, Museum of Mankind, and Croydon Clocktower before joining medical research charity the Wellcome Trust in 1992. He was closely involved in the establishment of Wellcome Collection in 2007 and is overseeing the ongoing £17.5m redesign and expansion of the Collection's facilities, which is due for completion this year. He was awarded the RSA Bicentenary Medal in 2011 for services to design.

What is your role at Wellcome Collection?
As head of public programmes, my job is to run a team of people working on specific projects for exhibitions, live events, publications, broadcast and the website. My role is to help them come up with interesting ideas and to bring some coherence to the programme. An element of design cuts across everything, and alongside our talented in-house team we work with a wider range of external graphic, digital and 3D designers.

I'm now thoroughly institutionised at the Wellcome Trust- it's a pretty remarkable organisation so I haven't been tempted to move on. At the moment I'm fortunate to be involved in the Wilkinson Eyre-designed development to expand Wellcome Collection.

How many different design projects do you generally commission a year, and what sort of work is this?
We have up to four temporary exhibitions each year, and are in active conversations with between 10 and 20 designers of different shapes and types each year. These might be in relation to publications, exhibitions, digital design or live events. We also commission designers and artists to create installations in our large showcase windows.

Ken Arnold
Ken Arnold

Are you regularly approached by design teams?
Yes. As a venue I think we give the impression that we move on from one idea to another quickly, so that tends to be an open invitation for approaches.

How do you go about commissioning designers and architects?
Sometimes we get designers involved early on in the broad strategy for a space, as was the case with our new Reading Room. But on other projects it's valid to get some way along the line before getting designers on board. Sometimes we go out to two or three designers for a project, or we may chose a particular person we want to work with and develop a project with them. We may also work with colleges to find students to design our window installations.

Erotic fruit in porcelain, on show at the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition The Institute of Sexology, running until 20 September
Erotic fruit in porcelain, on show at the Wellcome Collection's exhibition The Institute of Sexology, running until 20 September

What qualities do you look for?
We're keen to work with designers who are curious and investigative in their approach and are keen to grapple with ideas they haven't tackled before. We are often interested in people with at least as much experience designing other things as they have designing exhibitions. Sometimes we work with people who've never designed one before.

One of the most interesting things about the design process for me is that the first phase of a project is a sort of collaborative visual dreaming, while the second phase is the opposite, cutting down the many possibilities from this broad terrain. In my experience not all designers are so good at both stages. They need to be sensitive to which stage of the journey the clients are at, and to be able to mesh with that. It can get quite uncomfortable if the timing isn't right.

All our projects are thoroughly multidisciplinary so we need designers who are eager and happy to consult with people from different or overlapping disciplines.

Postcard in the Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s collection at the Wellcome Library
Postcard in the Richard von Krafft-Ebing's collection at the Wellcome Library

What are your aspirations for your on-going refurbishment?
There are three overlapping aims. We need more space to accommodate those coming to the Wellcome Collection; we are looking for more integration of different spaces, floors and functions; and we want to create opportunities for people to stay longer, have a greater depth of engagement and actively conduct their own visits.

There will be more temporary exhibitions including projects that last longer than usual. The first of these is the Institute of Sexology which will be curated twice - once to bring it to the form it is when it opened, and then again as an evolving curation with live events and residences.

An important part of the design is a new staircase that takes people up through the building and helps it hang together as an integrated set of different experiences.

We're working with AoC to open up the Reading Room so that it has both some of the character of a library and some of the character of an exhibition space.

We're encouraging people to stay longer during their visit and come back more frequently, and are introducing a new sit-down restaurant on the second floor as well as the cafe on the ground floor.

Wilkinson Eyre is a terrific practice and has a marvellous way of coming up with great ideas and working out when these need to be pinned down. It really gets the spirit of what we do.

Poster from the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, on show in The Institute of Sexology
Poster from the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, on show in The Institute of Sexology

What makes for a good gallery environment?
We try not to get stuck with an exhibition formula. A lot of science-based institutions in the past got bogged down with an ideal methodology, which resulted in terribly dreary exhibitions. We're very keen on the integrity of the idea - I'd rather something was mysterious and maybe not comprehensible to everyone than have something so diluted that it's boring.

What role can interactive and audio-visual design play within a gallery?
I've never had much truck with didactic interactives. But sometimes something really simple and straightforward can be playful, and encourage you to change your pace around an exhibition.

What aspects of exhibition design are the hardest to get right?
Clarity and simplicity. Sometimes there is a danger of having too many possibilities and you need to cut a lot of it away to get back to the core idea.

The threshold of the space is also incredibly important. As you step inside the show your world is being shifted as you recalibrate your sense of where you are.

Another challenge is achieving a varied pace. The best designers I know design visitor time as well as the space through how they treat the lighting, the density of the exhibits, and where they put the graphics.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
We need to work sometimes at how Wellcome Collection fits into the Wellcome Trust [which funds research into improving human and animal health] and provides a way of communicating the great range of ideas it is interested in.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
One of the simple pleasures is wandering into a space and being a visitor myself, and just watching people interact with the displays.

What projects do you feel have turned out particularly successfully?
Thomas Heatherwick's Bleigiessen glass installation in the main Wellcome Trust building was a huge pleasure to work on and has really stood the test of time - it still feels relevant and fresh 10 years along the line. Luke Jerram has made a lot of different glass sculptures for us over the years of deadly threats to human health, such as HIV and Ebola, and it has been nice to have an ongoing relationship with him and get to know a body of work over time. We'll be showing half a dozen of these pieces in the new Reading Room.

What future design projects are in the pipeline?
The Institute of Sexology exhibition, designed by Casper Mueller Kneer, opened in mid- November and we're working with Calum Storrie on our spring exhibition: Forensics: the anatomy of crime, when our remaining new spaces will also open.

Do you have any favourite cultural institutions that you take inspiration from?
The German Hygiene Museum in Dresden is very inspiring for me. It has a fascinating and, in part, rather troubled history, but is doing wonderful work now. A much smaller museum is the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, which bridges the realms of medical culture and research, and works a lot with artists.

Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2024, All rights reserved.