From inspiration to action

Rebecca Atkinson, 26.04.2017
Raising the bar in exhibition design
“Why is exhibition design only just being realised for what it is?” asked Peter Higgins, of Land Design studio and a visiting professor at Central St Martins, during his presentation at the Museums Association’s one-day conference Grand Designs: New Thinking on Exhibition Design, which took place on 24 April at the British Museum in London.

His provocation was that many museum professionals don’t fully understand how to create narrative and structure in an exhibition. Having in-depth knowledge about objects and their associated stories isn’t enough – it’s how you tell them that’s important.

It was a point that resonated with the audience, who had gathered to hear more about different approaches to design and have their thinking challenged.

Tiina Merisalo, the director of the Helsinki City Museum in Finland, set the tone for the day in her opening keynote, which discussed how an “existential crisis” and redevelopment prompted her team to reimagine what a museum can be.

Merisalo shared the process behind the new designs, from creating visitor profiles based on motivation, to co-creation, which has resulted in a museum that wants to be meaningful to diverse groups of people.

Later in the day, Henry McGhie, the head of collections and the curator of zoology at Manchester Museum, touched again on the issue of what a museum should be – and how design can help achieve this.

Rather than assume visitors need to know more about issues, they should be empowered to act on issues, he said, adding that “inspiration is a feeling that moves us to action”.

This was the design impetus behind the museum’s Climate Control exhibition in 2016. Two entrances encouraged people to think about their own decisions, while penny jars at the end presented an opportunity for visitors to express their opinions.
The design processes behind very different exhibitions were also shared at the conference.

Jane Bennett, the senior exhibitions project manager at the British Museum, discussed its temporary exhibition American Dream: pop to the present (until 18 June).

As well as talking about briefs, narrative boards and mock-ups, she also revealed that the museum had trailed a two-stage tender process for the exhibition build, bringing the contractor on board early in order to “get more value from the same amount of work”.

Although it’s not an approach that will work for every exhibition, the museum will try it again in the future – and its experiences could have an impact for other museums wishing to realise exhibition design more economically.

Tim Bryan, the head of collections, and Stephen Laing, the curator at the British Motor Museum, shared the challenges of design an engaging exhibition space with large objects.

The conference ended with a talk from Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, the co-curators of David Bowie Is and You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the designer Pippa Nissen, the director of Nissen Richards Studio.

It was fascinating to hear how the team created such a stylised exhibition, from mannequins in authentic 60s poses to a participatory hair salon.

And although produced by a large London national, the exhibition highlights the power of creating emotional connections, particularly through music. As Marsh pointed out, the way sound can be delivered in a museum setting is likely to be revolutionised in next five to 10 years, which presents a huge opportunity for visitor engagement.

More soundbites from the conference can be found on Twitter using the hashtag #MAExhibitionDesign