Tour de force

Practicality is the key to designing exhibitions scheduled to tour the world, but as José Manser discovers, practical doesn’t necessarily mean utilitarian

The one-stop exhibition is an expensive proposition. So has the upturn in the number destined to travel come about because it’s cheaper that way? One package, many venues, and a broad spread of the constituent message surely makes financial sense? Well yes, maybe, but then again not necessarily.

Specialist exhibition designer and project manager Richard Greenwood knows the pros and cons. “The crucial thing about making a travelling exhibition cost-effective is that there should be enough different venues,” he says. “These have to be established in good time so the designer has all the location facts to hand when he’s working out a scheme. Otherwise hidden costs might spring up. Sufficient time also means the exhibition can be despatched by truck or train, rather than air. And when it comes to construction, you have to consider what part of the world the exhibition is going to. If it’s destined for the UK or Europe, it probably makes economic sense to get it manufactured in this country. But if it’s going to the Far East, for instance, all the extra costs mean it’s cheaper to get it done locally. But be prepared for surprises: some things may be done in a different, unaccustomed way”.

Bearing these facts in mind – as well as obvious ones like lightness of construction, simple demountability and strength – the touring exhibition has every potential for being a winner. Red Jacket is in the process of designing a travelling bar, located on the back of a lorry, from which Martini will dispense information and, presumably, its wares, and Greenwood has been associated with several exhibitions which come into that class. One such was Paul Smith – True Brit, curated by London’s Design Museum. Greenwood acted as project manager and also edited out potential problems in Tom Dixon’s brilliant design. Since its London debut, the show has been in Glasgow, and will move on to Nottingham, South Korea and so on. With its modular origins concealed to avoid the “sameness” which can afflict exhibitions designed to travel, its future is now largely dependent on efficient management, which was where Greenwood came in.

One exhibition which slipped through the net, though it had been intended to travel, was the BBC Design Awards show. Based on an idea by Ben Kelly, it had modular demountable display system masked by a tent-like roof of stretchy, translucent fabric, beneath which the exhibits pushed out their strong shapes. Kelly brought in graphics group Assorted Images to work on videos, and Richard Greenwood to manage the project. Sadly, initial lack of planning meant the show was only seen once, and never travelled – a classic case of wasted effort.

Roundel Design knew the exhibition it was commissioned to produce for Quantel would travel. Featuring the first ten years of the Quantel Paintbox, it highlights the release of Paintbox II. First shown at the Imagination gallery in London, it is now on a world tour. Principally a graphic design consultancy, Roundel sub contracted the 3D side to exhibition designer Association of Ideas, though both groups worked on the concept, which features a series of medium-density fibreboard (MDF) boxes in different heights. Some function as light boxes featuring Graphic Paintbox images from the past ten years, with the tallest ones acting as uplighters. Modular this design may be, but it requires little imagination to see how easily it could be packed for travel.

Peter Murray of Wordsearch Communications has been involved with travelling exhibitions for a long time. He curated Conservation Today, an exhibition designed by Alan Irvine for the Royal Academy. It travelled for ten years and when Murray caught up with it in Ecuador, no one had even bothered to wipe it clean. Its relatively fresh looks testified to robustness.

The magnificent Living Bridges show, on at London’s Royal Academy until 5 January 1997, is another RA/Wordsearch Communications enterprise, designed by Nigel Coates. Success means it will travel, necessitating a partial redesign for this site-specific enterprise. Anne Cooke of Branson Coates explains this will be less difficult than it sounds since every element is free-standing and can be rearranged. But for something so special, the designer will need to see and assess each projected venue.

The British Council has more than 20 exhibitions travelling the world at any time, and its senior exhibition producer, David Elliott, expands on the complexities this involves. Exhibition staff select three groups from a list of about 25 designers and give them (or even someone entirely new) a rough brief. Then they must explain how they would approach the job and handle the budget. Elliott insists that this is not a free-pitch, and no designs are required until a designer is commissioned.

On the evidence of past exhibitions, this method works, with small young groups as well as big names slotting into jobs appropriate to their capabilities. Jasper Jacobs, for instance, has just landed the job of designing a Biodiversity exhibition which is part of the New Images UK-Australian celebrations in 1997. It will be launched at the Australian Museum in Sydney and tour up to five Australian museums, finishing at the Natural History Museum in the UK. A big one, this needed – and got – an established designer with experience of presenting science in an entertaining way.

Meanwhile, young designers at Graphic Thought Facility, who were fresh from the Royal College of Art when they worked on its centenary exhibition last year, were asked to design Work from London, an exhibition of work by London’s graphic designers. After showing in the capital, this will travel 20 countries in two years. Spokesman Paul Neal explains Graphic Thought Facility’s idea of shallow fibre-board cases which open to reveal the work of individual groups, plus text. The open boxes are clipped on to mesh frames, providing a sturdy and relatively inexpensive vehicle for the show. Packing down for travel into these integral cases, it has a fresh look, with the frames on castors so they can be moved around to meet the demands of different venues.

Another small British Council exhibition, Management 2000, which extols the brilliance of British management education, went to Furneaux Stewart. With a first showing in Hong Kong, this one is destined for Indonesia, South Korea, India and a number of other venues.

Laurie Stewart mentions a hazard they took into account when creating their design: “These small exhibitions are usually put up and taken down by British Council professional staff, who may not be particularly careful in handling the stuff, so they have to be robust. There are five subject areas and we’ve fitted each into a two-and-a-half metre-long flight case. A roller-blind printed with a photographic image is simply pulled out of the case, fits on to struts, and then shape-coded message panels are screwed on to the rigid wires which hang down from integral lighting.” It’s an ingenious idea, neatly disposing of several problems in one well-conceived swoop.

David Elliott describes how the British Council aims to amortise some touring costs with the help of sponsorship and partnership arrangements – not a route open to everyone. And he warns that these exhibitions must be maintainable if they are going to survive up to four years touring. They must not look tired, they must withstand extremes of temperature, and they must be capable of displaying text in one of several languages according to the venue.

Cities of the Future

Wordsearch Communications has just created an exhibition for the British Council which will travel the Pacific Rim for two years, promoting all aspects of the British construction industry. Called Cities of the Future, and curated by Richard Burdett and Jane Priestman, with graphics by Atelier, it opens in Hong Kong at the end of January 1997.

Modularity seemed entirely appropriate in this context, and lightweight, easily mountable Dexion provides the low-cost framework for Foamex panels on which the long, complicated story is told. Sometimes the panels are replaced by clear plastic which house models of buildings, and horizontal text insertions which are easily changed to match different language requirements are used.

Peter Murray of Wordsearch explains that there is an oriental predilection for moving imagery, and this has been accommodated by banks of TV screens showing specially-made videos. Due to the fact that light levels vary in quality and direction from site to site, light outlets with magnetic fixings, designed by Shiu Kay Kan, can be easily moved about on the Dexion frames according to prevailing conditions.

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