First look: designing the IWM’s exhibition on the lives of refugees

The show, designed by Nissen Richards Studio aims to tell “the wider story of displacement alongside individuals’ narratives”.

Nissen Richards Studio has developed the interpretation design at the Imperial War Museum London’s (IWM London) latest exhibition, which examines the life of refugees.

Refugees: Forced to Flee is an exploration of the refugee experience over the last 100 years. Beginning with World War I, and ending in the present day, it aims to take visitors through the various events and consequences of displacement and demonstrate the feelings and motivations behind the decision to flee conflict.

The exhibition, which is located on level three of the South London museum in a 620 square-metre space, marks the sixth time the studio has worked with the Imperial War Museums.

The first section put visitors in a domestic setting. Photo credit: Gareth Gardner

“Establish a sense of home, then fragment it”

In a bid to capture all aspects of the refugee experience, the exhibition is split into three sections: Leaving, Moving and Settling.

As Nissen Richards co-founder and director Pippa Nissen explains to Design Week, the idea for these distinctions came from wanting to “establish a sense of home, then fragment it and finally rebuild it”, since this is, in simple terms, the experience of refugees around the world.

The three sections are underpinned by Nissen Richards’ 3D design approach, she adds – the first, which deals with “life before and the decision to leave”, sees visitors step into a domestic setting.

The wallpaper is designed to represent the refugee journey “abstractly”. Photo credit: IWM

“We were really interested in the idea of the home and that feeling of safety it brings,” says Sophie Mitchell, Nissen Richards architect and project lead for the exhibition. “So we’ve designed the space with well-recognised homely features like windowpanes and dado rails.”

This section is also where the main four strands of the wider exhibition narrative are established. While many wars and conflicts are acknowledged throughout the showcase, four examples are highlighted in particular: World Wars I and II, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

In this first “home” section, each of the conflicts has been given its own wallpaper, which is made up of “tessellating patterns that represent the refugee journey abstractly”.

As visitors progress, the domestic setting is “broken down”. Photo credit: Gareth Gardner

“To make the space feel more temporary”

The point of this first establishing scene, Mitchell says, is to show that the places discussed in the exhibition were not always ravaged by war. She says: “It makes the conversation all the more meaningful to know that these were not always places of conflict and that there was life and there were homes before”.

But as visitors move further into the exhibition, the domestic atmosphere is gradually “broken down”, Mitchell continues. Wallpapered surfaces give way to exposed framework, and then eventually to bare walls completely.

Eventually, the warmth of the first section gives way to stark, sterile lighting. Photo credit: Gareth Gardner

“These decisions were made to make the space feel more temporary,” Mitchell says. The middle section, intended to represent the journey refugees make from a place of safety to one of uncertainty, introduces onlookers to the environments that displaced peoples find themselves in often for months at a time.

The objects on display range from emergency aid packages from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to graphics of shelters found in refugee camps around the world. Prominently displayed on one wall even, is a large, makeshift wooden crucifix from the Calais “Jungle” migrant camp.

Lighting in this section is stark and sterile, and this was a deliberate decision, according to Nissen, so as to contrast with the intimacy of the previous space. The overwhelming feeling, as Mitchell says, is that all aspects of life here are temporary and indeterminate.

The 3D design is intended to look “temporary”. Photo credit: Gareth Gardner

“This isn’t the case for one or two individuals”

Following on from the journey, visitors enter the final stage of the exhibition – settling. Here, onlookers get an insight into the bureaucracy of the refugee experience.

Identity documents and forms accompany a startling wall graphic which reveals around half of all asylum claims are rejected by the UK’s Home Office. Most successful claimants are only given permission to stay in the country for five years and are given less than £5 a day to live on. This graphic, along with others on display have been created in-house by the IWM London team.

An installation by Indrė Šerpytytė. Photo credit: Gareth Gardner

This is an example of the dual approach the studio has taken for this project – large-scale data is positioned next to individual stories and experiences from real refugees. Their stories are told in the form of artwork, letters, interviews – there is also three bespoke installations for the exhibition from Grace Schwindt, Indrė Šerpytytė and Shorsh Saleh.

“What we were really keen to show was the really touching personal narratives, but also give a sense that this isn’t the case for one or two individuals,” says Mitchell. “It impacts millions of people, and it could happen to anyone.”

Nissen echoes this: “It was about striking the balance between being generic – telling the wider story of 100 years of refugees – and being specific and telling individual stories.”

The final part of the exhibition sees the reintroduction of the patterns found at the beginning. Photo credit: Gareth Gardner

“Part of the healing process”

As visitors enter the final stages of the exhibition, the reality of life in a new country is explored. Xenophobic and racist newspapers and graffiti provide a snapshot into what awaits many refugees, while meagre care packages hit home the little support that many are left with. The everyday nature of some of these objects presented a challenge to the Nissen Richards team, Nissen says.

“Contextualising these objects was a main focus for us – a can of soup, a jar of baby food and a pack of razors in any other setting would not necessarily provoke a second look, but the context of this exhibition we wanted to provoke an emotional response, because this is often all these people are given.”

The patterns are reimagined at this stage. Photo credit: IWM

As the exhibition wraps up, visitors are reintroduced to the patterns found on the wallpaper in the initial home section. Except now, in this new version of home, they look different.

“You’re back in a space that looks somewhat like home, like the home from the beginning, but it has lost some of its vibrancy – it’s more generic,” Mitchell says. But while end point is significantly different from where things started out, Nissen explains the intention is not to end on a completely negative note.

“The idea is that the home has been fragmented and put together in a different way and that displaced people, no matter what they’ve been through, are capable of building a home once again,” she says. “This can be part of a healing process too.”

The exhibition aims to balance personal stories with wider political events. Photo credit: IWM

Making the space seem “more generous”

As has been the case with all exhibitions slated to open in 2020, Refugees: Forced to Flee’s debut to the public was pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. Mitchell explains the space has been “ready to go” since April, though some changes have had to be made to ensure the exhibition complies with social distancing requirements.

“In the first section where you enter the home, we did originally have a kitchen table in the centre,” she says. “But we took that out so that the immediate space when you walk in feels more generous.”

Other decisions taken by the studio include the reduction of audio and soundscape elements only to parts of the exhibition which they deemed “absolutely necessary”. But while some changes have been made, Nissen explains that the “linear” nature of the experience meant it was already relatively well-suited to life in the era of social distancing.

“From the outset we wanted everyone to experience the exhibition the same and so what we’ve done is create a narrative that unfolds in a very controlled way,” she says. “The good thing about linear routes is that you can always keep your distance and judge for yourself how much space you have – it makes it feel like a safer environment.”


Refugees: Forced to Flee is now open at the Imperial War Museum London and runs until 24 May 2021

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