Failures at an exhibition

The language of exhibitions has degenerated into rambling mumbles that are undecipherable by visitors, says Fay Sweet. The solutions? Drop the pretence of neutrality, encourage creativity in presentation and make the most of the resources and opportunitie

The most depressing visual experience of my year so far was The Great British Innovations and Inventions Fair at the Barbican a couple of weeks ago (DW 8 March). This illustriously titled exhibition – which appears to promise something of the energy, the sizzling dynamism of new human thought which characterised the nineteenth century exhibitions – was tragically lame.

There may have been interesting work on show; I might have walked past a slice of ingenuity that could reshape the 21st century. Who would know? The exhibition was so badly staged – beautiful ideas thrown away on clip-together frames that didn’t clip together and rickety tables draped and drawing-pinned with cloth. Inventiveness was reduced to a garden fête tombola.

Now, before any purists launch into the content above style argument, let us be clear. Exhibitions are a means of communication, a language in which we must be literate. Since the Innovation and Inventions Fair is about attracting venture capitalists and encouraging them to flap open leather-bound cheque books, I’m sorry darlings, but you’ll just have to play the game. Set one of your number to work on inventing a stand – flexible, cheap, stylish – which will improve your chances in a world hungry for total presentation.

What makes me angry is that poor exhibitions do double damage – the experience for the visitor is grim and the exhibits themselves are sold short.

Yet I’ve seen precious little of late where the exhibition designer has produced something to match the excitement of, for example, contemporary graphic design.

I’m excluding major art shows from my line of fire. Yes, I’ve seen the queues for Cézanne. I’ll probably join them soon. But this is not the sort of show where design input is at its most crucial. The Tate knows very well what to do with lighting and hanging and, anyway, Cézanne is big enough to look after himself.

My problem is with most other sorts of exhibition – the exhibitions where I don’t know the background, where I haven’t been primed by TV documentaries and colour supplement features and where I want to be entertained, have my opinions challenged and learn something. One element alone is not enough.

I was surprised to read the visitor questionnaire results for this year’s Design Week joint exhibition award winner Hongkong Telecom, designed by Met Studios. Apparently 87 per cent of visitors said they would recommend others to visit and 83 per cent said they “really enjoyed the visit”.

Perhaps exhibitions will not improve until we refine these kinds of questions – what does it mean to “enjoy” an exhibition? What was it for? Who was it for? Did the visitors enter into any kind of dialogue with the show? Did they come away with any new understanding?

Another disappointment for me was the Art & Power show at London’s Hayward Gallery. A laudable but essentially over- ambitious spectacular, it presented the potentially fascinating opportunity to draw comparisons between the art of those working inside and outside powerful dictatorships. I was led to the pictures and then left stranded without the simplest of flags – a small panel of text would have done nicely – to help me interpret what I saw. I could have spent 20 to buy the fat catalogue in the hope of an answer, but I was too cross and I didn’t.

In these, and countless other examples of art exhibitions and trade shows, the exhibitor and designers have forgotten their duty to the visitor. The quality of experience is basic stuff, but from recent trips, it seems that exhibition designers (and clients) have lost their force and their focus.

Where is the clear thinking? Where are the challenges? Where is the dialogue? Where is the visitor’s opportunity to be made to think and work? Let’s brush aside the pretence of neutrality and have more authored shows.

Happily, right now, we have the opportunity of a generation to really push the language of exhibitions forward. Equipped with its 200m National Lottery lolly and starring a cast of our most inventive and creative brains, Imagination’s Millennium exhibition team has four years in which to remit some of the old excitement and add the new. So let’s just hope it comes up with the goods.

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