Exhibition design must be seen as progressive art

Letters to the Editor should be sent to Design Week, 50 Poland Street, London W1V 4AX. Fax: 0171-970 4165. e-mail Design-week@centaur.co.uk

The exhibitions debate in your Letters page has been an interesting one. Peter Higgins’ letter was frighteningly accurate, Christopher Curtis’ reflected the sad state of our day-to-day business, and Terence Conran came within a whisker of telling the unchronicled history of Expo’ 92.

Alex McCuaig’s masterplanning letter offered us a solution, but in doing so only re-highlighted the main problem – exhibition designers are not taken seriously, especially by the Government, when it comes to masterplanning major events.

The Chartered Society of Designers does not recognise exhibition design as a discipline, listing it under interiors. One creative magazine described exhibition designers as a “shadowy sub-set of interior design”.

The question of the “here today gone tomorrow” civil servants remains frustrating when I know there are many able civil servants who know the exhibition medium well. I worked at the Central Office of Information where a team of more than 50 staff would open one exhibition a week in any part of the world.

Mrs Thatcher’s Government killed off the COI by imposing a market force management system without allowing them to compete in that market. Exhibition designers at COI managed to kill themselves off by reliance on system structures which caused the subsequent loss of any creativity.

Design Week gives annual awards for exhibitions and brings together experts in the industry to advise. Why can’t the Government do the same?

The New Millennium Experience Company would say it sought advice from Stephen Bayley. While paying every respect to Stephen Bayley’s knowledge, intellect and analytical mind, it was obvious to see that he was not at home entertaining the man on the Clapham omnibus. His body language said it all. He couldn’t even sit at the same table with us during one of the briefings. The public service needs people like Alex McCuaig and Peter Higgins who have their finger on the international attractions pulse and people who are more at home showing children round their exhibitions than they are circulating the exhibition with a sausage on a stick.

President McKinley said in the catalogue of the 1905 Oregon World Fair “Expositions are the time-keepers of progress.” Did we see progress in 1992 by having to focus on Marks & Spencer? Or in 1998 by being greeted with Cadbury’s face painting? If we need to have sponsorship it can work by being associated with a good idea – not necessarily blasting product everywhere. And sponsorship must be managed in a better way if central government can’t find the funds.

My real interest in the exhibitions of the Millennium Dome is whether they will prove that blockbuster exhibitions are a thing of the past or whether they will kick us off into a new glorious age of exhibitions (I hope so).

So where do we go from here? I would like to throw down the gauntlet to both designers and Government to do something positive. Should the phoenix of COI Exhibition Division be allowed to rise? I wouldn’t expect much support for that. As a last resort I reluctantly appeal to the CSD to make major changes in its organisation to see exhibitions as an independent major player and to make its officers aware of the true nature of international attractions and not rely on graphic displays.

Neal Potter

Visiting Professor

Hull School of Architecture


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