Engaging rooms

Fancy a visit to a Victorian pleasure garden or a bit of Yiddish karaoke? It’s all about recreation, drama and excitement over static presentation, as three museums focusing on social history redesign their galleries. Maeve Hosea goes on a captivating and tactile trip through time

’The links between content and design are much closer than they were before,’ says Gail Symington, lead designer on the Museum of London’s Galleries of Modern London project. ’We can’t just have beautiful galleries – they also have to be engaging and easy to understand.’

In May, the Museum of London will unveil a £20m redevelopment of its Galleries of Modern London, featuring a design that focuses on conveying history in a dynamic way. ’The design brief was to tell the story of London and its people,’ explains Symington. ’People had been noticeably lacking in previous exhibitions.’

The social history on show here will include key moments in history, such as the Great Fire of 1666 and the suffragettes’ fight for voting rights. ’The design challenge was not to give visitors a version of interactivity and technology they already have at home – such as a small screen with a quiz – but to create an interesting and engaging environment so they can get a sense of time and drama,’ explains Symington.

Visitors will be transported into a Victorian pleasure garden, where mannequins wearing exquisite period costumes and hats by fashion designer Philip Treacy draw people back in time. Recreated scenes from daily life, such as a family picnic or a man seducing a lover behind a tree, have been dramatised and projected on to the walls. Lighting and sound installations capture the atmosphere and feed the imagination.

A 240-year-old printing press is being used as an innovative way to demonstrate the collision of old and new technologies. ’There are sheets of paper spilling out of it with images projected on to them to bring the press to life and show the importance of the printing revolution,’ explains Symington. ’On top of these kinetic projections a newsreader gives key gallery messages, so an original object, a key message and audiovisual elements are mixed together.’

Museums play a valuable role in providing neutral spaces for people to understand their history and culture, and reflect on contemporary society. ’Individual and community identities are built on an understanding of history, but a lack of understanding and knowledge about minority communities leads to increased racism and xenophobia,’ says Samantha Cairns, development manager at strategic development agency Museums, Libraries and Archives London.

It is on this premise that the Jewish Museum London reopens this month, three times the size of its former incarnation and with a new, inclusive emphasis. ’We aim to have stories that resonate with lots of people from all across modern Britain,’ says Sarah Jillings, exhibition project leader at the museum. The ground floor houses a café serving up kosher food, and the entrance hall has a large film installation using five interconnected screens with people talking about their identity.

The museum’s educational offering has various courses providing multiple ways into the collections. The senses are engaged across exhibits to create intimacy with the subject. ’Artefacts are shown in context to demonstrate that Judaism is a way of living your life,’ says Abby Coombs of specialist design consultancy Event Communications. ’You can plait the dough of a synthesised loaf of ritual bread, and lift the lid on a pan of chicken soup, smelling the broth within.’

A Yiddish karaoke exhibit uses the beckoning voice of a well-known actor and a mirrored screen with words scrolled across it to give visitors a sense of participation in the Jewish theatre exhibits.

In a holocaust section, graphics are used to powerful effect. A roomset tells the story of survivor Leon Greenman using the paraphernalia of his domestic life, including a toy made for the son murdered at Auschwitz. The sides of the space emulate 1930s rose-patterned wallpaper, and then, further in, start to darken with stains until it takes on the look of grey concrete, marked with the icons of the Auschwitz landscape.

Moving north, an eye-catching Corten-steel-clad building exterior makes a statement in Manchester’s up-and-coming Spinningfields business district. Nestled in the financial heart of the city, the People’s History Museum, opening this month with a revamped building and redesigned exhibition space, aims to communicate the history of democracy and modern politics in the UK.

’It was a challenge to make the visit fun while being sensitive to the story being presented,’ says Rosemary Allen, co-director of Headland Design. ’So much of the collection is made up of flat banners and posters, and we didn’t want to finish up with a labyrinth of display walls peppered with objects that people might not understand.’

Alongside the physical exhibits, viewers derive colourful context from devices such as the words of noted orators projected audiovisually through a ’speaker’s corner’, designed to make you feel you are part of a listening crowd.

More tangible still is a series of boxes that visitors can rummage through. This installation is typical of a growing design trend concentrating on the possessions of past lives, communicating the ’feel’ of those who owned them. It intensifies the role of the museum as a place for mental and emotional connection.

People’s History Museum, Manchester M3, and Jewish Museum London, London NW1, both reopen this month. Galleries of Modern London launch at the Museum of London, London EC2, in May

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.