One-show wonders

For museums and galleries housed in protected historic buildings, the temporary banners and wayfinding signage used for individual shows can add that vital dash of colour and graphic experimentationto their offer, argues Emily Pacey

For a hungry culture vulture in a strange town, there are few more delicious sights than a museum banner strung from a classical portico, blowing stiffly in the breeze. These eye-catching splashes of often superior design tell you that behind the Ionic columns lies a treasure trove of fascinating artefacts, classy purchasables and maybe even a slice of Peyton and Byrne cake.

The popularity of exterior banners among museums and galleries springs largely from the fact that many cultural institutions are housed in historic buildings for which planning rules do not allow permanent signage. ’This is common among arts venues, but nevertheless, some planning rules can be very extreme,’ says Cog Design creative director Michael Smith, citing the case of Blackheath Conservatoire of Music & the Arts, where even temporary signage on the building is prohibited by planning rules. ’The building simply has a notice board that we have branded up, but other than that it is a matter of giving very clear directions,’ says Smith, less than half joking.

Earlier this month, Rose Design completed work on the Collect exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. Rose partner Simon Elliott explains the difficulties of working on shows at the converted former army barracks. ’From a visitor journey perspective, using external exhibition signage at London’s Saatchi Gallery is absolutely essential to guide people to the right place, as it is quite a complex journey, first through an arched doorway and then on towards an ornate portico and beyond,’ he says.

The advantage temporary signs have is the chance to change them regularly, offering museums with staid facades the opportunity to generate dynamism

Now working on exhibition design, marketing, signage and wayfinding for upcoming show The Vorticists at Tate Britain, Elliott says, ’There are about three or four temporary exhibition spaces in Tate Britain and several access points into the museum, so external signage really needs to ensure that visitors can navigate their way to the right place.’ Once the visitor is inside, Elliott talks about how the graphics serve as wayfinding, with the text ’helping people to navigate from room to room in chronological order’. He adds, ’This sounds easy, but in older galleries and museums the task is more challenging, since the rooms were not purpose-built exhibition spaces.’ He also points out that an important function of the signage is to support the exhibition scheme. ’It is vital that the exhibition signs ensure that the visitor follows the curatorial vision,’ he says.

Temporary signage may only be around for a few days, as in the case of Collect, but the same rules and values apply to it as to permanent signage, even if the materials are relatively throwaway. For the People’s History Museum, which reopened last year, exhibition design consultancy True North chimed with the museum’s overarching theme of democracy by first installing temporary signage that visitors could critique and vote on, before making the permanent signs. Printed on paper and pinned up, the temporary signs were altered according to visitor comments before being spray-painted permanently on to the walls.

’There are simple rules to follow. In the first room in an exhibition, you shouldn’t ask people to turn 180 degrees to look at the wall behind them to read the introductory text, because that is not an instinctive thing to do it is better to look left or right,’ says True North creative director Alan Herron of internal temporary graphics.

The implicit function of temporary external exhibition signage, to genteelly shout ’cultural oasis’, can tend to inspire restrained, ’tasteful’ designs. Yet the advantage temporary signs have is the chance to change them regularly, offering museums with otherwise staid facades the opportunity to generate dynamism and experiment with bold imagery and graphics unsuitable for permanent signage.

Projecting graphics on to the gallery frontage proved a good solution to strict planning laws and the sometimes overly tasteful nature of temporary signage for Manchester Art Gallery.

’Because we are a listed building, there is very little that we can do to attract passers-by and other visitors to our exhibitions we even had to get permission to install the little metal fixings for the banners,’ says Jane Wilcox, marketing manager of Manchester Art Gallery, which was designed by Palace of Westminster architect Sir Charles Barry. ’People would walk past the gallery and think it was a bank, because you cannot stand back from it as it is a bit hemmed in. All this makes it difficult to attract attention,’ says Wilcox.

For a recent exhibition on electronic interactive artist Rafael Lozano Hemmer that the gallery staged earlier this year, Hemmer and the gallery’s in-house exhibitions team decided to project sentences generated by one of his works on to the gallery’s pediment. ’So, after dusk, you just saw this ticker tape of words moving across the building,’ says Wilcox, describing an eye-catching and imaginative signage solution reminiscent of Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art’s display on its pediment of Martin Creed’s neon piece Everything is Going to be Alright.

Today, most areas of design including exhibition design inspire bold, challenging and sometimes breathtaking work, but perhaps there is a little more room for these qualities in the naturally conservative area of museum and gallery temporary signage.

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