SBHD: Giles Velarde looks back at the life of James Gardner, best remembered as the man who single-handedly brought museum and exhibition design to the world
James Gardner – the exhibition, industrial, jewellery designer and author – died on 25 March. The broadsheets covered his death with appropriate obituaries. Sir Hugh Casson’s was typically generous; he was after all one of the few architects who respected, understood or even knew of the existence of the profession that James Gardner established virtually single- handed: that of museum exhibition design. If that sounds like proselytising then so be it; G was never one to mince words so neither will I.
A few years ago, at the launch of his frankly pretty dire last book, James Gardner: The ARTful Designer, he quipped to me that as I would probably be writing his obituary any day now, he had better be nice to me. He did not need to be – I may not have liked his book, but I have had enormous respect for him both as a designer and as the unquestioned leading light in my profession for more than 30 years.
Though I never worked for him, I did work with him – together with his redoubtable then assistant Simon Muirhead – on the Britain Before Man exhibition in the Geological Museum in 1977. It was a privilege to do so, and he was decent, honest and generous enough to share both the work on the exhibition and the credit for it. Five years earlier he had finished the Story of the Earth exhibition in the same museum to international acclaim. It was an exhibition that changed the face of natural science museums from then onwards . Curators came from every corner of the globe to see it and, as I travelled in Europe and North America in the years after, I saw pale or real imitations of it wherever I went.
G was a true innovator; he had a peculiar facility for getting to the root of any complex subject and reducing it to terms that the layman could not only understand but actively enjoy. He had a style which might seem a little dated today but is still very effective – particularly in the developing countries. This consisted of anthromorphosising machinery, objects, light bulbs and geological formations so that they themselves explained their complexity to the visitor: a sort of three-dimensional animation which delighted viewers at the same time as involving them.
Others have written in obituaries and articles of his involvement with Britain Can Make It at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1946 and the Festival of Britain in 1951. These were undoubtedly important, and they influenced style and presentation from then on; but to me the opening of the Pilkington Glass Museum in 1965 was when I realised that museums could be special, accessible and a delight to visit. The ill-informed still talk and think of museums as dry and fusty places. They are not. Design Week is constantly drawing our attention to new projects in new or old museums; some of these new projects are replacing comparatively modern work and all of this activity stems from the lead given by G.
Evoluon, Philips Industries’ museum in a mushroom-shaped structure sticking up from the flat of The Netherlands is the daddy of all science centres. Opened in 1966 (just before the seminal British Pavilion at the Montreal World Fair, which G co-designed with Sean Kenny), it is a credit to the imagination of its sponsors, but also to the imagination of James Gardner. Every science centre since then owes its existence to the fact that G showed it was possible to talk accessibly about science and technology and to interact with it. A museum designer who has not studied Evoluon is like an English scholar who has never read Shakespeare.
G was a polymath. He took time out from museum work to supervise the design of the QE2 in 1966 and was very proud of a Stern-wheel Mississippi riverboat he designed a few years later; he lectured entertainingly and co-wrote a very good book, Exhibitions and Display, in 1960.
Back in museums, he did a permanent display for the Independent Broadcasting Authority which was used for years to introduce schools and professionals to the mysteries of TV production in its offices off London’s Knightsbridge. Story of the Earth at the Natural History Museum followed, and it is an absurd tragedy that the museum proposes to remove the magnificent rock-face, the one piece of true museographical drama known and admired worldwide, from its Earth Sciences Wing (ex Geological Museum). It should be a Grade I listed monument to G’s – and British – design genius.
Then Britain Before Man was built concurrently with the Baltimore Science Centre and the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Centre in 1977. G was responsible for the museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv in 1978, again to international acclaim. In the early Eighties his small practice fell on hard times, as did a number of design practices. I interviewed him for a chapter in Penny Sparke’s book, Did Britain Make It?, in the mid-Eighties, when things were just beginning to perk up again, but meanwhile Simon Muirhead had moved on to the British Museum and a new team of associates was beginning to grow around G, headed by Martin Pryant but helped enormously by the continuing presence of Eve Harrison, his loyal and able administrative director and researcher.
With that regeneration the work started pouring in again. 1988 saw the opening of a massive project: the National Museum of Natural Science in Taiwan, where G was able to have a real influence on the structure of the building with regard to its content, a “privilege” usually denied designers when it comes to new museums being built. He designed the Museum of Tolerance which opened in LA in 1993 and he was still working, creating and innovating when he died at the age of 86.
We should be proud that he was an Englishman. I say that not out of jingoism, but to remind myself that Gardner started this profession, that his influence around the world was massive and has made British museum exhibition design unequalled. The profession that he effectively founded has produced designers who work all over the world, even emigrating to work abroad, and I am saddened by his death.
It makes me sadder still that a few weeks ago an architect who is involved in a major new museum project in this country, without the assistance of an established museum exhibition design practice, did not know of the wealth of museum design professionalism that exists here. When I asked, tentatively, if he had ever seen any work by James Gardner, he replied, after a pause, “Oh, I did see a little something once by him – it was quite attractive”. G would have squinted knowingly at him through a cloud of foul pipe tobacco smoke and walked out.
Some of the highlights of James Gardner’s museum work (clockwise from above): Mirror exhibit at the Pilkington Glass Museum, 1965; tolerance workshop and Berlin street scene from the Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, 1993; animated kiln from the Pilkington Glass Museum; Evoluon, Eindhoven 1966; Story of the Earth, Geological Museum, 1977