Giles Velarde was one of the UK’s most influential museum designers and thinkers. A champion of the profession throughout his life, he was not only an accomplished designer but also an established author of articles and books and a lecturer in English and French.
Giles was “in at the beginning” when exhibition designers were developing their craft and museums were moving on from being just displays of artifacts to becoming centres for communication, providing experiences and physical interaction.
Giles was among the first to explore the principles of museums being accessible to everyone, which we all now take for granted. In those days there were no specific courses for museum designers.
Giles, who was bold, inventive, creative and highly intelligent, quite literally “wrote the book” for those who followed him. Among other works, he was a contributor to the one-time “museum bible” the Manual of Curatorship and the author of two editions of Designing Museums, published by the Design Council in 1988 and 2000.
Born in Liverpool, Giles remained proud of his northern roots, although he lived for most of his life in London and later in East Sussex. He was educated at Ampleforth College and was the son of a distinguished architect who designed churches throughout north-west England. He did his National Service in the Royal Navy, reaching the rank of sub-lieutenant, and afterwards was offered a place at the Liverpool School of Architecture but chose instead to go to Chelsea School of Art.
In his early years he worked as an exhibition designer for various London practices before getting a job at the Central Office of Information. From there he was promoted to the Department of Trade and Industry, working on trade fairs across Europe and in North Africa. He won awards for design excellence for pavilions in South Africa and Algeria. In 1971 he led a team of exhibition designers on a project in Belfast, which was then “the largest exhibition of its kind since the Festival of Britain”.
In 1974, he joined the Geological Museum (later to become part of the Natural History Museum) to establish a design department. He remained there until 1988, leading a team of designers and working on groundbreaking exhibitions including Treasures of the Earth and Britain’s Offshore Oil and Gas.
During this time Giles became chairman of the Museum Exhibition Design Group, running seminars at Museums Association conferences and convening regular meetings at museums around the UK. This enabled young designers like me to go behind the scenes of the latest exhibitions, learn from what was happening and discuss ideas with our contemporaries.
This is when I got to know Giles as the charismatic, funny and very approachable man that he was. Often dressed in unusual and colourful clothes and wearing his trademark anchor pendant, he could be extremely frank without causing offence and was able to put even the most nervous attendee at ease. Always courteous and well-mannered, he could be acerbic in his wit but at heart was always the kindest of men.
He became a museum design consultant in 1988, working from his studio at home on feasibility studies, museum planning and implementation projects around the UK as well as in Boulogne and Paris. Sometimes alone or in collaboration with other companies he worked on innumerable projects, amongst them important developmental work for the Design Museum, National Museums Liverpool and for the Manchester Museum.
Giles had a great ability to win a client’s trust and to support them during challenging projects. Many clients and collaborators, like me, went on to become lifelong friends.
Giles, who never ceased to think or to create, was happiest of all at the centre of his family. He and his wife Celia threw memorable parties and their Sunday lunches went well beyond family occasions. After his retirement, already a devoted dad, Giles was very involved with his grandchildren but also kept up his contact with friends and colleagues, telephoning, writing emails and visiting.
He will be hugely missed by all those who loved him but must also be remembered and revered for his huge contribution to museums.
Rosemary Allen is a former director of Headland Design