“It needs to reinvent itself”: designing for travelling exhibitions

We speak to exhibition designers to find out how they navigate the unique challenges of designing for a show that will occupy multiple venues.

The nature of designing for exhibitions requires studios to accept their work is often temporary. “We can be working on a show for well in excess of 12 months, for it to be open to the public for four, maybe six months at a time,” says Angela Drinkall, co-founder of consultancy Drinkall Dean.

Drinkall admits it can be “a little bit soul-destroying” to see exhibitions dismantled. It is a welcome change then, she says, that cultural institutions are increasingly opting to tour their exhibitions. “It’s heartening to think a project can have a life beyond its initial run,” she adds.

Exhibitions travel for several reasons. Often it is a way for museums to earn more and widely publicise a collection. It is also a good way to strengthen connections between international institutions. And Drinkall says the sustainability angle can’t be ignored either: “There is a value in reusing.”

Robots, Science Museum. By Drinkall Dean

“Confronting the challenges of space and structure early on”

For temporary exhibitions – which never move – designers work on developing a narrative to fit within a given space. Travelling exhibitions come with an entirely different set of requirements and challenges. All of these need to be considered to make sure a show is cohesive from one venue to the next.

As Drinkall explains, there is no one way to go about it. Sometimes museums are set on touring an exhibition before the project has even been offered out for tender. For others, the decision to tour comes much later in the design process, she says.

Drinkall Dean’s work on the Science Museum’s 2017 exhibition Robots was an example of the former. Drinkall says the museum team knew very early on that the exhibition would travel – across national venues like the National Museum of Scotland and the Museum of Science and Industry, and international venues like the Hong Kong Science Museum.

As a result, one of the first pieces of briefing information given to the design team was the dimensions of the crate the exhibition would need to travel in. “It was a really organised way of doing things, which allowed us to confront the challenges of space and structure very early on,” she says.

Robots, Science Museum. By Drinkall Dean

“A modular structural system which became the bones of the exhibition”

Modularity was key throughout the process, Drinkall explains, because it allowed the exhibition to move and fit within the next space, however it was laid out. She likens the experience to designing a theatre set, which has to be at home on any stage it sits on.

“[For Robots], we found a modular structural system which really became the bones of the exhibition,” she says. To this, the Drinkall Dean team added “layers” to create the narrative and experience. This included graphics, textures and other scenography.

There are many benefits to this “bones” approach. A modular structure allows the team to combat venues with low ceiling heights (“It’s as simple as lopping off the top,” Drinkall says); but it also ensures the structure can withstand multiple builds and rebuilds.

California: Designing Freedom, Design Museum London. By Plaid

“Something we can give people instructions for easily”

This approach is also championed by exhibition design studio Plaid. When it comes to designing for travelling exhibitions, co-director Brian Studak says the challenging elements of the brief are usually the parts that end up taking centre stage.

Like Drinkall Dean, when Plaid designed the space for the Design Museum’s 2017 California: Designing Freedom exhibition, they did so with a modular structural system. Four-metre-high “totems” demarcated the different sections of the exhibition, Studak explains, and these were made from a ball-joint space frame system. The exhibition travelled from London to Helsinki, the Netherlands and Italy.

Studak says one of the main reasons the team opted for this “off the shelf” space frame was because it is an easier system to “direct”. “We’re not always in the country that an exhibition is touring to next,” he says. “So from an organisational standpoint it makes sense to have something that we can give people instructions for easily.”

California: Designing Freedom, in Helsinki. By Plaid

“We try and develop a synthesis with a site”

Beyond the frame, Studak says Plaid also tries to bring in the “textures of travel” to the infrastructure of an exhibition. Using the very crates and boxes the exhibition will be shipped in can add an extra layer to the visitor experience. “It’s a simple way to add texture, but it’s also incredibly practical,” he says.

Huge effort is put in to make sure the content of the exhibition fits into different venues, but Studak and co-director Lauren Scully stress the idiosyncrasies of the venue itself shouldn’t be forgotten either. “We try and develop a synthesis with a site,” says Scully.

Architectural details like archways and high or low ceilings will all be considered, as will technical details like power sources, connectivity and ability to integrate lighting rigs. Studak and Scully both say in-house teams are invaluable in understanding the functionality of a space. In particular, Scully says understanding the lighting capabilities of a venue and requirements of an exhibition are a huge part of ensuring the proper narrative gets carried to the next venue.

Meet Vincent, by Event

“Translation needs to be considered both figuratively and literally”

Traveling graphics present a separate challenge. Graphics are typically printed on less durable material and often need replacing between venues, says Event studio creative director Eithne Owens. Additionally, translations may need to be carried out.

“Translation needs to be considered both figuratively and literally,” she says. “We need to consider how graphics and text can be translated from English into other languages, but also if something needs translating ‘culturally’, like adding more context, for example.”

Event’s work with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, for example, used immersive lightboxes to ensure that visitors could interpret and experience the painters’ work, without the pieces themselves. “The museum does not tour its paintings, but wanted a way to bring them to other countries still,” Owens explains.

Using graphics and lightboxes, the team was able to create an experience that allowed visitors to “step into the paintings they know so well”, Owens says, adding that the experience has travelled around Europe, Asia and North America.

Meet Vincent, by Event

“There is always an element of ‘bespokery’”

As with other examples, Event’s Van Gogh exhibition used a modular system to arrange the lightboxes. A lot of effort was expended trying to find ones that were durable enough to travel. Interactive elements were selected for the same purpose.

However, Owens says the end result still differed in every country it went to, and that is to be expected. “There is always an element of ‘bespokery’ when it comes to touring exhibitions, and while they’re similar you’re never going to have exactly the same experience in one venue as another.

“They need to be capable of reinventing themselves – the trick is to just try and picture as many scenarios as you possibly can,” Owens says.

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