Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens seeks exhibition designer for major contract

With an estimated budget of £315,000, the chosen exhibition and interpretation designers will look to create audience-focussed displays that encourage learning.

Sunderland City Council is seeking an exhibition and interpretation design team to work on the redevelopment of the Grade II listed Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens (SMWG).

The project was awarded a National Lottery Heritage Fund development phase grant of £299,425 in November 2022 to prepare a Delivery Phase application for the redevelopment of the museum. The capital works programme for the entire redevelopment project is currently £8,017,000 (excluding fees, contingency and inflation but including interpretation), with an allocated budget of £315,000 for interpretation and exhibition design.

While some improvements to the museum and gardens have taken place in recent years, it has not seen significant investment or development since 2001. The building, Winter Gardens, collections, displays and exhibition spaces need refurbishing to “maintain current audiences, attract new visitors and increase revenue in order for the museum to be commercially independent”, according to Sunderland City Council.

Photo credit: Hazel Plater on Shutterstock. A view of the Museum and Winter Gardens from Mowbray Park.

The brief describes SMWG as a popular, free entry heritage site that is known as a  learning environment and regularly attracts more than 350,000 visitors per year. Built in 1879 by local architects The Tillman Brothers, the museum building is Listed Grade II and was the first civic museum to be purpose-built outside of London.

SMWG’S collection comprises around 108,000 objects in total and focus on the industrial and social history of Sunderland and the Northeast of England, such as its roots in shipbuilding, glass and coal. It is classified as a Designated Collection of National Importance.

As well as a large collection of Sunderland lusterware, glass, and fine and decorative art, including several paintings by LS Lowry, the SMWG also houses archaeological and natural science artefacts. Exhibits such as one on Wallace the first Lion to be bred in Britain and another on the first Nissan car made in Sunderland are especially popular, according to the brief.

It details that the chosen designers will work across all relevant 2D, and 3D design, key structures, interactives, AVs, display lighting requirements, systems and installations. Approximately 500m2 of newly refurbished exhibition space will include a refit of the existing Library to create the Sunderland Story gallery and an overhaul of the Pottery Gallery which will become the Creative Sunderland gallery.

The appointed designer must ensure that the displays are “collections and audience focussed” and consider new ways to engage visitors while being “adaptable and flexible” for all audience needs, says the brief. It also asks that the chosen designer puts learning at the heart of the design providing “layered interpretation” and a “hands-on, participatory and interactive” experience.

Interpretation design should include mixed media displays, objects, text, images, digital, audio and live interpretation, while considering physical, intellectual, emotional and social access, “ideally catered for in the main provision rather than as add-ons”, says Sunderland City Council.

New exhibitions must be hard wearing and cost effective when it comes to maintenance and displays should allow for easy updating and rotation of the museum’s collection.

Applications for this tender will close at midday on 27 October 2023. The contract is due to start on 14 November 2023 and run until 31 December 2027. Designers can express interest through the ProContract website.

Banner image credit: Jacek Wojnarowski on Shutterstock

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