How to design engaging exhibitions: tips from the V&A and Nissen Richards Studio

Last week, we visited a conference on exhibition design hosted by the Museums Association, which saw talks from designers such as Pippa Nissen and curators including Victoria Broackes from the Victoria and Albert Museum. We round up the most important points to take away from the conference.

Make it multi-sensory

Installation Shot of David Bowie is at the V&A courtesy of David Bowie Archive (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For as long as they have existed, museums have been reputed for offering visual feasts for the public. But when it comes to stimulating visitors’ other senses such as taste, smell and touch through exhibition design they are “not so hot”, according to the director of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum’s department of theatre and performance, Geoffrey Marsh.

This single-minded approach was something that the museum set out to tackle in 2013 when it embarked on one of its biggest exhibitions to date, David Bowie: Sound and Vision. The follow-up to other pop music-focused exhibitions held at the museum, including one on Kylie Minogue and another about The Supremes, David Bowie went one step further in putting sound and vision “at the heart of the story” in order to “show the magic of life performance”, said V&A senior curator, Victoria Broackes.

An audio guide system developed by German electronics company Sennheiser was used throughout, with the aim of bringing exhibits to life, including Bowie’s handwritten lyrics, original costumes, set designs, instruments and album artwork.

The same concept was applied to the museum’s 2016 blockbuster exhibition Records and Rebels, which took visitors on a musical road trip through the political and cultural climate of the late 1960s, soundtracked by music from the day. Exhibition designer Pippa Nissen even recreated a hyper-realistic scene from the iconic US music festival Woodstock in one room, using a giant wrap-around screen that played performance footage on a loop, beanbags and fake grass.

The Helsinki City Museum in Finland’s capital city took an altogether different – albeit equally novel – approach to sensory design with its recent exhibition, Smell. Based on the fact that smells are directly linked to the brain’s emotion and memory centres, the exhibition looked to recreate what Helsinki smells like and was inspired by 200 “smell memories” submitted by locals – ranging from the scent of coffee wafting from the roastery in the Vallila district, to the stench of urine near the city’s railway station.

While the museum’s director Tiina Merisalo admitted that Smell had received mixed reviews from visitors, some of whom said they would have preferred for there to be more visual cues incorporated, she emphasised the importance of “getting out of your comfort zone” and experimenting with new ways in which to design and deliver exhibitions.

Design spaces to reflect different groups in society

A sex shop in Helsinki in the 1980s. Photo: Helsinki City Museum / Harri Ahola

Merisalo also highlighted the vital role that museums play in mirroring the values and practices of the communities in which they exist. After a law allowing same-sex marriage came into effect in Finland earlier this year, the museum paid tribute by draping a rainbow-coloured flag attached to a washing line across the entire width of its main lobby, while its upcoming HelSEXinki exhibition will focus on wider issues around sexuality, gender and sex, with the stories of individuals and sexual minority groups covering the walls of the exhibition space.

While many of the exhibits and installations in The Helsinki City Museum focus on nostalgia – including a recreated version of a grandparent’s home from the 1970s complete with volunteer grannies and grandpas – Merisalo has also been careful to dedicate time and space to capturing the diversity of Helsinki’s population and the spirit of the city today.

“We have a lot of immigrant groups who come to learn about Finnish culture, establish their roots in the city and try to understand why it is the way that it is here,” said Merisalo. “We have continually been asking groups of people to come in and make their own contribution to help define what Helsinki is today.”

Draw on other disciplines

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“There isn’t a typical exhibition designer,” according to Pippa Nissen. The Nissen Richards studio director is a prime example of this, having originally trained as an architect and later completed an MA in theatre design, as well as gathering everyone from graphic designers to filmmakers to work at the studio since it was founded in 2010.

Land Design Studio founder and Royal College of Art (RCA) visiting lecturer Peter Higgins also has a background in both architecture and theatre design, and in his talk encouraged universities and design educators to bring together different disciplines in order to help create the next generation of exhibition designers.

“Undergraduate students can’t do it because they don’t understand narrative,” said Higgins. “They can do interior and architecture but not communication, so you have to glue these disciplines together somehow. It can take eight years before you have any real coherent language.”

Higgins said he hopes the explosion of new experiential design courses at establishments including the University of Hertfordshire, RCA and University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, as well as established courses such as MA Narrative Environments at Central Saint Martins, will help to bridge the divide between different design disciplines. “One hopes if the courses are written well then the gaps will be narrowed,” he added.

Think about your impact on the environment

Next of Kin exhibition at the National War Museum, Edinburgh

While admitting that sustainability is now a buzzword among the design community, chair of sustainable exhibitions at Museums Network Nadine Loach emphasised that it still ought to be “at the forefront of everything you do” as an exhibition designer.

She shared a variety of practical advice for museums, particular when it comes to temporary exhibitions, which are arguably one of the least sustainable forms of exhibition design. This included tips such as touring an exhibition locally where possible, thinking about the most sustainable mode of transport available and sharing materials such as marketing communications and display mounts between different museums.

Loach cited the Edinburgh-based National War Museum’s recent Next of Kin exhibition as a good example of using this kind of design thinking. The entire exhibition – which has gone on to tour at eight other museums around Scotland – uses a design concept centred around a modular display system that is adaptable enough to work within exhibition spaces in different venues, while also being stable enough to house all of the different exhibits.

Use technology to enhance your work, but don’t let it replace the real thing

Lascaux IV: The International Centre for Cave Art

“Think about whether you can do this any other way before going digital” was Metaphor founder Stephen Greenberg’s advice for exhibition designers when considering how to incorporate technology into their work.

“People go to museums to see the real thing, so digital will always be supporting that and can never replace a physical object,” he added.

Ralph Appelbaum Associates director Phillip Tefft agreed, suggesting that technology within exhibition spaces ought to be kept “simple, direct and powerful”, while also making sure that visitors are encouraged to keep interacting with each other rather than disappearing into “their own little worlds”.

He referenced the approach taken by London-based consultancy Casson Mann when designing the Lascaux IV: The International Centre for Cave Art, which opened in the French Vézère Valley in 2016. The consultancy replicated the 20,000-year-old paintings from the original prehistoric Lascaux caves in digital form, using 3D scanning and casting technologies as well as environmental factors such as high humidity levels in order to recreate the feeling of entering the caves.

Be controversial

Climate Control exhibition at the Manchester Museum, University of Manchester

Manchester Museum’s head of collections and curator of zoology Henry McGhie emphasised the importance of sparking debate and challenging opinions through exhibitions, as well as being a place of learning.

“Information does not equal inspiration,” he said, adding that climate change in particular has been an area where museum curators and exhibition designers have let themselves down in recent years with non-politically engaged exhibitions.

Manchester Museum – which is part of the University of Manchester – tried to tackle this with its 2016 exhibition Climate Control. It included a series of immersive installations and experiences which asked visitors to reflect on their feelings towards environment and make their own decisions, for instance by having to choose either to enter a black room called “explore the past” or a white one titled “explore the future” at the start of the exhibition.

Grand Designs: New Thinking on Exhibition Design took place on 24 April 2017 at British Museum, central London and was hosted by the Museums Association.

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