Paint flow

Clare Dowdy discovers how wayfinding graphics and traffic flow systems are easing the congestion at Tate Modern’s Matisse Picasso exhibition

If you’re keen to take in the Matisse Picasso exhibition at London’s Tate Modern Gallery this summer, you’re not alone. The show has been packed with more than 4000 visitors a day since it opened last month. But don’t be put off: large visitor numbers needn’t ruin a good show, if the designers have done their job properly.

Nowadays, museums and galleries like to try to predict how many people they’ll get through the door for a temporary exhibition. This information is fed through to the designers, and can have a significant influence on the design brief.

At Tate Modern’s current show, the visitor numbers were an integral part of the brief for the architectural design group John Miller, and for Philip Miles, which created the graphics. However, even the curators were surprised at how popular it’s proving. They had expected just over 3000 people a day, and even that had seemed a generous estimate at the time.

While the curators dictated the way in which the paintings were paired or grouped, John Miller worked on the size and shape of the rooms where they were hung.

It’s crucial at busy shows to keep the crowds moving, and that depends on the layout of graphic information as much as exhibition display. A lot of information on a wall in the first room, for example, is likely to create a bottleneck.

At Matisse Picasso, the walls themselves were included in the strategy to create flow. Rather than designing solid walls, angled gaps were created in the partition, ‘to give a glimpse through to the following space’, explains Sophie Clark, assistant curator at Tate Modern.

A similar trick is used at the Barbican Art Gallery’s current Game On show. Shelton Fleming senior designer Jane Livermore introduced sounds effects of what’s in the next area, to move people through. ‘I like to have teasers throughout the show,’ she says.

Even in a very popular show, some objects are going to prove bigger crowd pleasers than others. At the Royal Academy of the Arts, curators tell the designers which will be the most popular works, and the designers create the space accordingly, says exhibition organiser Lucy Hunt.

In an ideal world, according to Livermore, the main attractions would be distributed evenly throughout the show.

Concise information in big type is another aid to continual movement. But many curators are known to favour a more discreet approach to text. Small type on small labels the same colour as the wall may well be less intrusive, but they can lead to visitors performing what Casson Mann partner Dinah Casson calls ‘the gallery dance – three steps in and three steps back’.

At Tate Modern the type is big, and visitors to the Matisse Picasso show get free exhibition guides, which must go some way to reducing the need to do the gallery dance.

And audio devices can contribute to good traffic flow – indeed, Matisse Picasso has just such a tour. However, Casson is ambivalent about the use of audio. ‘One measure of a show’s success is if it stimulates discussion. But earphones tend to isolate people,’ she says.

It’s easier to keep visitors on track, literally, when the show is chronological rather than based around themes. At Matisse Picasso, which runs chronologically, visitors follow a single path. Multiple route choices can confuse people, which means they end up doubling back and upsetting that precious traffic flow, says Clark.

But with less popular shows, it’s possible to give audiences more route choices, she adds. And if all else fails, there’s always timed entry. Matisse Picasso, like the Warhol show before it, is operating just such a ticketing system. Just like queueing for groceries, really.

Matisse Picasso runs at Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 until 18 August

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