Exhibition design could prompt more collaboration

Many design sectors have been slow to generate news in the New Year lull, but the exhibitions camp has proved to be an amazingly fruitful source of stories and new energy. If you thought that Government-supported museums work would dry up in the aftermath of the Millennium you were wrong, the British Museum’s much-reported cash crisis notwithstanding. Nor is there yet any apparent let up in other exhibitions projects in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001, in that few that had already been commissioned appear to have been put on hold.

We hear reports that attractions such as Manchester’s Lowry Centre need to boost visitor numbers and even Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners’ highly successful Eden Project in Cornwall is addressing how to keep its popularity soaring through the winter months. But the commitment to providing visitor attractions by national institutions such as the National Maritime Museum Cornwall and, on the commercial side, the likes of whisky brand Famous Grouse continues.

The public are being wooed back into national museums and galleries through the policy of dropping entrance charges for all but special exhibitions. Meanwhile, project funding already earmarked appears to be secure, regardless of any national economic blip. Famous Grouse parent Highland Distillers and other brand-owners can only cash in on the public thirst for knowledge and entertainment such moves create.

The great thing for design is the scope for collaboration between designers of different disciplines that each project entails. Digital attractions are a given these days, but that doesn’t detract from the need for sensitive 3D design, good writing and great graphics. The best examples follow through with promotions and other ‘brand extensions’, ideally conceived early on as part of the total package. Exhibition design is all about storytelling across all platforms.

But to be truly effective, the collaboration needs to be closer than each specialist just doing their bit. The best results involve shared vision, with everyone involved in all aspects of the project – Harry Potter creator JK Rowling showed in a recent TV documentary that even a writer can sketch out visual ideas. It also needs new skills that integrate interpretation with design.

We wish Central St Martins College of Art & Design every success in its bid to develop a new exhibition design course addressing these needs (News, DW 17 January). Training isn’t the only answer, but the thinking behind the course will highlight the possibilities and hopefully create a culture of collaboration from which other design sectors might learn.

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