Pray and Display

What is the best way to create a lively and informative exhibition? Clare Melhuish compares the design approach to two current exhibitions of similar themes

Exhibition design has flourished and expanded during the past decade in both the worlds of art and commerce. The increased pressure on cultural institutions and businesses alike to attract consumers and boost sales has resulted in the development of ever-more elaborate selling strategies, among which the exhibition has an important role to play.

Exhibition design has slowly but surely been evolving as the art of the all-enveloping interactive sensory experience, intended to transport the visitor on to another plane of consciousness. In the world of disappearing government subsidies for cultural institutions, survival depends on a new emphasis on communication. Artworks can no longer be left to speak for themselves, but must be explained and interpreted in order to draw in the consumer. The cultivation of big commercial sponsors has generated a whole series of blockbuster art exhibitions in which the exhibition installation itself, and its designer, has been as important as the exhibit. As this tendency has gathered momentum, so too has potential conflict between display, installation and the architectural space itself.

This summer, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral both mounted their own displays designed to commemorate 900 and 100 years respectively of existence as flagships of British religious life. However, the response of each has been quite different – reflecting, no doubt, 500 years of religious difference. The abbey stuck to its sober, no-frills Church of England principles in managing to encapsulate almost 1000 years of history in an extraordinarily compact display designed to be as homogenous and unobtrusive as possible. The cathedral, on the other hand, spread its mere 100 years rather sparsely around a much larger, more diverse display, reflecting the more flamboyant tendencies of Roman Catholicism.

Located in the adjacent church of St Margaret’s, 900 Years: the Restorations of Westminster Abbey, was designed by architect- designer Stanton Williams. The space was lined with white-painted false walls, white muslin and a false floor, concealing all its original features. The exhibits were displayed abstractly on a wide shelf and cantilevered from screens. As Stanton Williams partner Paul Williams explains: “The shell closed around the objects, purifying the space,” while the understated nature of the scheme was intended as “a foil to the facade” of the church.

By contrast, design consultancy Jasper Jacobs Associates’ installation for One Hundred Years of Art and Treasures at the cathedral is an altogether more figurative scheme, consisting of many different events strung together on a narrative basis. Jacobs explains that the scheme was deliberately designed to provide a “story-line”, comprising the life of the cathedral’s architect John Francis Bentley and the events that went towards the creation of the cathedral. The space is dominated by a carpeted ramp leading up to the stage down the centre, and a free-standing, canopied reconstruction of Bentley’s studio. His drawings are contained in chunky display panels. Glazed wall niches along one side provide illuminated grottoes for the cathedral’s gold and silver treasures. Visually, the exhibition is not terribly coherent, and there is an element of conflict with the colourful, newly restored decoration of the hall itself – visible above the level of the installation.

Organisers feared an exhibition consisting mainly of architectural drawings could have been too dry to draw in visitors, so the story-line concept evolved. Initially, Jacobs had even suggested that the process of refurbishment of the hall might itself be incorporated into the story as a “live” element of the exhibition, but finally the restoration work and the installation design were carried out independently of each other.

JJA also designed the recent 100% Design exhibition. Jacobs himself started out as an architect and turned to TV set-design in the Seventies, and from that moved on to exhibition design. At that time, he comments, there were perhaps four specialist firms working in his field; now he regularly competes against ten other groups for work, and is aware of about 25 outfits in the country working in the same area.

In order to remain competitive, at the forefront of new ideas, products and technologies, he employs a variety of graphic designers, architects, display designers and CAD operators. He also maintains a wide network of specialists in different aspects of audio-visual and interactive design, special effects and script-writing.

Stanton Williams, on the other hand, operates primarily in the architectural world, specialising in minimalist art gallery work. The consultancy is currently working on the conversion of Compton Verney House in Warwickshire into an international art museum. During the recession it had little choice but to cultivate its role as exhibition designer, but it has always striven for the solid architectural work that has only begun to come in during the past two to three years. Nevertheless, the group continues to value exhibition design “as a foil to the building side”, providing explorations into space, scale, rhythm and proportion.

Stanton Williams’ approach to exhibition design is based on the architectural principle of creating a certain quality of internal space conducive to contemplation, and then placing the objects in that space to be interpreted freely by the viewer. Jacobs too believes the object should speak for itself, within “an ambience which people find stimulating”, which lends itself to a much wider range of interpretations.

He agrees that “really we shouldn’t be noticed at all”, but in the current competitive situation believes there is little choice but to accept that the role of the designer has become more akin to that of the movie director on an enormous production.

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