Our colleague, Geoff Pickup, who has died aged 71, was the designer of many popular exhibitions and important permanent galleries during his 38-year career at the British Museum.
Born in Wembley in 1951, he attended Cheshunt Grammar School in Hertfordshire before training as an architect at the University College London Bartlett School of Architecture. He then worked as an assistant for several well-known architectural practices before joining the museum in 1975.
As an assistant 3D designer in the museum’s expanding Design Office, he initially worked on part of the 1976 exhibition Nomad and City, the first immersive exhibition – recreating the atmosphere of locations – in the Museum of Mankind at Burlington Gardens, home of the Ethnography Department from 1971 to 1997.
As the 3D designer he worked with curators, graphic designers, editors, technicians and contractors to design a further six exhibitions there, including another immersive exhibition for the 1982 Festival of India, Vasna: Inside an Indian Village, for which he travelled to India to undertake background research and collect props; and the 1990 exhibition, Images of Africa: Emil Torday and the Art of the Congo 1900-1909.
At Bloomsbury, the most memorable of the 12 exhibitions he designed were: The Golden Age of Venetian Glass, 1979, Süleyman the Magnificent, 1988, and The Making of England: Anglo Saxon Art and Culture, 1991.
Under the directorship of David Wilson, the director of the British Museum between 1977 to 1992, the remit of the Design Office broadened in the mid-eighties to cover responsibility for the public face of the museum: publicity, public spaces and galleries, and establishing a house style. Geoff’s design skills and knowledge of case construction were directed towards the design of permanent galleries.
Firstly he designed part of the suite of upper floor Greek and Roman galleries, followed by two galleries for the then Oriental Department: The John Addis Islamic Gallery in 1991 (now closed) and The Korea Foundation Gallery, 2000.
With the return of the Department of Ethnography’s collections to Bloomsbury, Geoff designed the JP Morgan Gallery North America, the basement Sainsbury Africa Galleries and the Wellcome Trust Gallery: Living and Dying. These galleries remain and are his memorial.
Geoff was known for his enthusiasm, infinite patience and attention to detail. One of his academic colleagues said of him that he taught her what it meant to be a curator presenting the collections, as he studied the context of every display and knew how to arrange objects in relation to others, always asking what was the message to be conveyed to visitors.
He spent hours of his own time adjusting lighting on objects to achieve the optimum results. These skills inspired many younger designers. There were also his lectures to museum studies courses at various institutions both in the UK, including the Museums Association, and abroad. Early in the 2000s the museum’s policy changed from supporting an in-house design facility to outsourcing the design of most temporary exhibitions, galleries and public spaces.
As senior designer, Geoff’s remaining years were spent in the Capital and Estates Department of the museum involved in the management of projects. But on retirement in 2013 he formed a small consultancy with two former colleagues and, designing again, was the lead designer for a new gallery of Pre-Columbian Art in Santiago, Chile, which opened in 2014.
Although rather a private man, Geoff had many friends and contacts. Much of his spare time involved energetically visiting museum and exhibitions. He had wide interests including architecture, chamber music, opera, collecting prints and contemporary ceramics. A quintessential museum designer, his talents, knowledge and expertise will be greatly missed.
Margaret Hall was the British Museum's head of design from 1964 to 2001 and Geoffrey House was the institution's head of public services from 1987 to 2003