Exhibition designers’ voices must be heard

We have to thank Neal Potter for kicking off a debate that is long overdue (Letters, DW 7 August). Exhibition designers have been having a tough time of it for too long, particularly where the Government has had a hand in projects.

It’s great that the Government and agencies such as the British Council are using design to promote Britain, at home and abroad. The British Council is pretty well sussed about commissioning designers, but the exasperation expressed by most designers working for central Government smacks of poor procurement practice. Civil servants show a lack of conviction about the projects and seemingly little respect for design consultancies. And that is no way to get the best results.

In his letter (opposite) Terence Conran writes of the “crass stupidity” of the Department of Trade and Industry over the contents of the British Pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo. Muffled outcries from designers involved in the Millennium Dome – gagged by their New Millennium Experience Company masters – suggest that all is still not well there. For all the good work going on to improve Civil Service procurement practice, New Labour appears to have no more vision behind its exhibitions strategy than the previous Tory administration.

Exhibition designers are a resilient bunch. They have to be, given the fast-track nature of much of the work. They generally don’t run slick businesses in the way branding consultancies might, working instead with an itinerant band of artists, craftworkers and other specialists to interpret, educate and entertain a fairly wide audience. The real challenge they face is keeping workload in balance – and working against inevitable constraints of time and cashflow in what can be a highly precarious business.

Overly bureaucratic clients don’t help. The ideal is to work with people of passion, such as Anthony Shelton, keeper of anthropology at the Horniman Museum (see Feature, page 17), who share ownership of the project throughout. Earlier this month I called, in this column, for the Government to train civil servants empowered to commission exhibitions in the art of interpretation. I’d like to add to that plea a call for better project management, to prevent the Dome scenario ever happening again.

But I also urge exhibition designers to pull together to bring these issues to the fore. As the letters from Potter, and now Peter Higgins of Land, show, they aren’t afraid to air their grievances. A concerted push to get their voice across to Government – and to advise on commissioning and running projects – might lead to a positive outcome.

Latest articles