Show time | The Evolution of Exhibition Design
In 2004, Suzanne MacLeod, then a lecturer and now Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, hosted Reshaping Museum Space, a lecture which was a timely and serious exploration of the skills of interpretive exhibition designers. MacLeod recognized the importance of bringing together a generation of museum curators, educators, and scholars with those leading this still emerging and expanding field.
It was a remarkable event, revealing the depth of the imagination that made museology evolve in the sector. It is recorded in Reshaping Museum Space, a 2005 publication that collects conference materials.
A second design-focused conference, Narrative Space, followed in 2010 with a publication, Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions (2012). The University of Leicester has given us a platform to articulate our ideas, taking seriously our evolving interdisciplinary practice as co-producers of museums.
MacLeod continued to research and champion this field in publications and conferences, as well as holding masterclasses and conferences with leading designers, in Leicester and abroad. For more than 20 years now, students of museum studies have been learning the principles of making exhibitions – the results are already evident in a generation of more skilled curators.
The next step in Leicester’s museum research is to build an archive of museum design. It will begin as a pilot project with the release of four practices – Event Communications (now Event), Land Design Studio, Haley Sharpe Design (HSD), and Metaphor. This body of work spans the 1970s through the 1990s, taking into account the enormous impact of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which was established in 1994 and is one of the last bastions of public sector patronage and practice. .
It’s also timely because most of the practice’s founders – Celestine Phelan (Event), Bill Haley (HSD), Rachel Morris and myself (both Metaphor) – have retired. Peter Higgins and Shirley Walker (Land Design Studio) are still working. Steve Simons (Event) sadly passed away in 2019.
The archive also completes a period within the Department of Museum Studies at Leicester. It begins with Eilean Hooper-Greenhill and Gaynor Kavanagh’s scholarship to open up content, interpretation and visitor engagement, and in particular to teach and inspire the group of social history curators in the 1980s.
The turmoil of Margaret Thatcher’s years as Prime Minister influenced a generation of students who became museum leaders, such as Mark O’Neill, David Fleming and Iain Watson. Future museum directors were influenced by what was happening in Leicester. Many of them have become our customers.
Telling life stories
People’s experiences needed to be told and we explored how their objects could speak for them. Since then Richard Sandell, MacLeod’s colleague in Leicester, has broadened the scope to address issues of inclusion relating to LGBTQI+ communities, people with disabilities and other groups, as well as identity, decolonisation, human rights and co-creation. These questions are embraced by museum leaders today.
In the most recent phase in Leicester, MacLeod and Sandell are undertaking collaborative research with cultural partners at the Research Center for Museums and Galleries, which was established in 1999. It is easy to take the earlier innovative thinking for granted, but it’s at the heart of the work of access consultants, audience assessors and others that didn’t exist when we started.
The four practices forming the pilot study have some funding to support it. Archivist and recent Ph.D. Peter Lester scours disparate archives. Projects range from the planning and design of entire museums, from the development of permanent galleries, temporary exhibitions and traveling exhibitions to the creation of exhibition pavilions, visitor centres, interpretive landscapes and cultural districts at all levels. These are national, regional and local projects.
In Scotland, Event has done a series of projects for Glasgow Life – Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Riverside Museum and most recently the Burrell Collection. And Metaphor has worked on the sites of the National Museums of Scotland.
Our work has not been limited to the UK. Some of HSD’s best projects are in Canada, the United States and Hong Kong. Event has worked in Denmark, Oman and Poland. Land Design Studio has developed a range of immersive exhibition pavilions, while Metaphor has produced master plans around the world, including the Middle East.
None of us imagined that our work would become a resource, but variety and invention reflect different practices. There are analog artifacts, watercolors, models, renders, films, presentations and brochures. The archive also encompasses complex collaborations with leading graphic and interactive designers, filmmakers and artists. Think of the revolutionary PlayZone interactive games created by Land Design Studio at the Millennium Dome in 2000.
Back to the future
The archive will be a fantastic resource for designers, curators and students. And it will be the students who, through projects, help extend it to the next generation of interpretive designers.
At the heart of the archive is a common thread shared by all the practices, the progress reports made for the lottery funding process. These documents convey the intentions of the project to the institution, donors and trustees.
The same process is widely followed in overseas work. Reports are where gallery framework documents and design workshops are transformed into a picture of a complete visitor experience.
With around 1,500 projects, however, the next challenge will be how to make the archive accessible. We will find ways to access them by type of museum (national, regional or local); subject (fashion, design, social history, war, popular culture, etc.); range (from the British galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum to the Titanic Experience in Belfast); and by project, because often there are offers for a project or a temporary exhibition in the same space.
Another element linking the archives will be podcasts and on-camera interviews with the founders of the interpretive exhibition design companies.
None of us had the same qualifications. In the beginning, there was no MA in the narrative environments. Simons of Event had worked for Mischa Black at the Design Research Unit, an architecture, graphics and interior design firm linked to the 1951 Festival of Britain.
Event’s Phelan was a television screenwriter, while Metaphor’s Morris was also a novelist. Higgins and Walker of Land Design Studio had worked with Gary Withers, the founder of immersive design company Imagination. Higgins had also been a set designer at the BBC. I was an architect, teacher and then editor-in-chief of the Journal des architectes.
We each brought the experiences necessary to become interdisciplinary practices. We were all driven by beliefs, such as the belief that the audience is the actor, that museums can be immersive and films can be spatial, that the exhibition itself should be a work of art, that the designer is an author and that the museum experience should weave together personal stories and artifacts.
In 2004, Mark O’Neil of Glasgow Museums closed the Leicester conference with a hymn to a ghost star guest, Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind. It was shorthand for the impact renowned architects could have on redesigning museum spaces. We knew we were exploring a dissonance between container and content.
How were our stories to be compatible with their expressive architecture, marked with their signature? We couldn’t have known then that Glasgow Life would appoint architect Zaha Hadid to design the Riverside Museum, or that the ‘Bilbao effect’ (triggered by Frank Gehry’s design of the Guggenheim Bilbao, opened in 1997) would become a more complex equation. .
Needless to say, our four firms have worked with renowned architects such as Hadid, Libeskind, Gehry, Foster and SnØhetta. This is another important research resource, as is the flip side – working with conservation architects on historic buildings.
Finally, don’t forget the unprepossessing lo-fi buildings that sometimes harbored remarkable experiences we had inside.
Our successors can decide what to draw from the archives of museum design as they face new challenges more daunting than those we have had to overcome.
Stephen Greenberg is the founder of Metaphor