Remembering Richard McConnell 1942-2020: the inimitable exhibition designer

Dick McConnell was an educator with a profound influence on the development of exhibition and museum design practice. Patrick Argent, who was taught by McConnell, charts his life and career.

“Exhibition design is the ultimate in multi-disciplinary design. It is the one discipline that includes all the others and is the most dynamic and exciting of all, because you are in control of so many elements, you can do anything to build the total experience. There is nothing money can buy that you can’t put in an exhibition.

“There is only one crime that an exhibition designer can commit – and that is to be boring!”

Interviewed for CSD magazine in 2000, this was Dick McConnell being typically forthright on the subject he taught for over three decades in Kingston-upon-Hull.

Rarely acclaimed for his work, Dick McConnell was a fiercely impassioned advocate for both the professional and public recognition of the specialist exhibition practitioner and his singular vision of the exhibition designer as both designer and artist was often articulated in the design press.

Born in Balham, London in 1942, McConnell was one of four children (Deidre John, Richard and Tom). His father was a self-trained accountant and his mother a history teacher who had taught at Manchester Grammar School.

The family background of teaching, both his mother and his aunt were in the profession, was to become an important influence on his later career.

Nearly hit by a V2 rocket

Having moved to Ruislip Manor, in 1944 aged two, a Nazi V-2 rocket exploding next to a garden where himself and John were playing and covering them both in debris, nearly vanquished the future careers of two men who would go on to be leading practitioners in their respective design fields.

Relocating to a village outside Maidstone, the family then established a grocery shop.

Inspired by their sister Deidre, a window dresser for Jaeger’s celebrated displays, both Dick and his brother John the renowned graphic designer and former principal of Pentagram, pursued vocational art and design as their chosen direction in life, thus creating the foundation for a burgeoning McConnell design dynasty.

Following John, he initially trained at Maidstone College of Art, before subsequently embarking on a product design course specialising in furniture at the Central School of Art in London between 1963-66.

As a student, his lifelong interest in museology developed from his regular lunchtime visits to The John Soane Museum located nearby, in which he would delight in the numerous extraordinary exhibits and their superlative collection of architectural drawings. It was a museum he would continue to visit for more than 50 years.

On graduation he established his early career as an exhibition designer for initially The Council of Industrial Design and subsequently The Central Office of Information in the capital.

A tireless campaigner

The unique programme of study at the School of Art in Hull had begun in 1947, just prior to the Festival of Britain in 1951. Joining the teaching staff in 1969 and initially expecting to stay only a matter of months, he soon realised that the department was no ordinary educational facility as it had an enviable reputation for its contribution to professional exhibition design.

Dick was to play a key role in both in the development and crucially the sustainment of the course itself, notably appearing on the Yorkshire Television news in defending it against the proposed axing by the college authorities.

Instigated by an intense student-led media campaign and armed with the irrefutable fact that the course had a well-established 80% success rate at placing its graduates in the profession, resulted in an immediate management climbdown.

During the 1980’s, he was also instrumental in establishing Museum Design studies within the curriculum, an area which was to acquire an ever-increasing status in professional design practice.

For decades, the course remained the only such degree-level qualification (or equivalent) in its subject, in the world.

The programme in later years became embedded within the School of Art & Design, part of the University of Lincoln as both BA (Hons.) and MA awards and today is based at the Brayford Pool campus at Lincoln.

Determined, always persistent with a particular prodigious and sincere dedication to his vocation, he employed the master/apprentice, one-to-one approach to teaching.

A disciplinarian possessing an exacting, no-nonsense and pragmatic attitude to design, he emphasised traditional drawing skills which he saw as a fundamental requisite for any designer to master, irrespective of their area of work.

For many years he worked closely with fellow tutor Keith Clark, a highly skilled practitioner and former assistant to the celebrated and pioneering exhibition designer James Gardner. Accession to programme leader followed in the late 1990’s.

Tributes paid to “stubborn, energetic, visionary”

Dick McConnell by Len Rye
Dick McConnell by Len Rye

Alumnus and designer Nick Townend, managing director of Ideas Group remembers, “Even after 40 years his passion and commitment to his students and the whole world of design remain firmly embedded in my memory”.

Joanna Jarvis, Design Manager at the National Railway Museum, recalls, “Dick’s teaching style being somewhat old school, but in a good way! His love for his job was evident. I highly value the vital design skills and disciplines that he taught me, for example, how to produce detailed technical and perspective drawings, all done by hand. I also have him to thank him for helping to me to get my first job in museum design in London”.

Former colleague Pam Locker, now principal teaching fellow at university of Lincoln says, “Everyone who was taught by Dick remembers him as a dedicated teacher with a passion for his subject. He was a fearless champion of exhibition design, at times risking his career battling for what he believed to be right for the students and their education. A true polymath, he could support just about any student project proposal with a good story. His knowledge of measured perspective and technical drawing was legendary, but not for faint hearted students as there were always corrections to be made.”

“He argued with passion and insight”

Fellow tutor and former masters programme leader at the University of Lincoln, Dr. Geoff Matthews says, “I worked with Dick for nearly 20 years and all that time I knew him, he was driven man, devoted to the exhibition design course. He fought for it on numerous occasions whenever its existence was threatened. He argued with passion and insight; he thumped tables; he confronted the ignorant, the jobs-worths, the bean-counters and the stubborn, regardless of their position or seniority; and he marshalled support from leading figures in industry and in the design profession.

“He was not an easy man to work with, but I am so glad that I did work with him. His steadfastness, integrity, honesty, knowledge and sheer enthusiasm were undeniable and added something essential to the team. His anger was his energy.”

Highly esteemed by many leading professionals, a steady stream of illustrious names from international exhibition and museum design would regularly arrive as visiting lecturers – Neal Potter, Richard Fowler, Giles Velarde, Professor Derek Walker, Sam Marshall, David Gosling, Bob Baxter, John Sunderland and even ‘G’ himself, James Gardner.

Neal Potter, who became visiting professor to the museum and exhibition design course by Dick McConnell says, “Dick was one of the few people who understood the true potential of the museum and exhibition design medium. He taught the full spectrum of interpretation techniques and drawing skills related in communicating a vision. His students respected him and his vast knowledge. In 2000, I organised an industry visit to Washington DC and Dick joined in enthusiastically with the debates we had with Smithsonian curators and the American designers. He was very well read and could run rings around most curators”.

Not a fan of architects as “interpretive designers”

Museum designer Richard Fowler says, “He was a visionary who passionately believed in the importance of interpretive museum and heritage design as a specialist area. His course at Humberside University was a beacon of excellence in producing designers for this specialism, several of whom are leading figures in the profession today. It would be fair to say that Dick did not approve of architects undertaking interpretive design in museums. For him and his friend, exhibition designer Giles Velarde, this was a red rag to a bull!”

In 2001, he was elected to Fellowship of The Chartered Society of Designers (FCSD) for his outstanding contribution and exceptional dedication to design education.

Retiring in 2003, he continued to involve himself in higher education donating a day’s teaching voluntarily at the University, in addition to acting as an external examiner to other colleges. His enduring enthusiasm and commitment to educating design students never wavering.

Letters published in Design Week regularly expounded his invariably acerbic and outspoken views on design education and professional practice.  In particular he railed against the absorption of art and design education into what he saw as a wholly inappropriate and restrictive academic straightjacket, a policy which he decried as a catastrophe.

Specialist art schools as independent

In essence, his view was that specialist art schools should have remained fully independent, retaining their introductory level courses and never have been subsumed into the realms of the A-level university system which he saw as wrongfully discriminatory against the inherently creative, non-academic student.

In his late retirement, finding increasing disillusionment with the impending departure of Britain from the EU, he emigrated to his rural house in the South of France.

With the onset of continuing ill health, he returned to the UK in 2018 to be with his niece Nancy Morrow (formerly Williams), the eminent graphic designer.

Beguilingly eccentric, scholarly, independently-minded, tenacious and unforgettable, Dick McConnell was an inspirational tutor and mentor whose influential guidance became the catalyst for the careers of generations of exhibition and museum designers worldwide.

Immensely generous of spirit, he both created a sense of loyalty and commanded enduring respect from those he taught and worked with. He not only exemplified the consummate educator in his total commitment to his students, but surpassed this in his lifelong unyielding passion for and tireless championing of, the unique art and practice of exhibition design.

Photo of Richard McConnell by his nephew Sam McConnell
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  • Sallyann Mason May 1, 2020 at 11:45 pm

    A wonderful obituary in Design Week of a very dear Design Tutor to hundreds of us Exhibition and Museum designers in Hull currently in the industry today.
    I, as do many Exhibition designers have a lot to thank him for.
    For me, he took a young girl from Hull whom had never seen anything of the world and showed me I could have all the experiences I wanted if I put the time in and learnt the skills he and his team would drill into us. Before joining his course I had never met anyone like him and had many a good intentioned argument fighting my corner with Dick, but he loved it and respected everyone of us for standing our ground.
    Thanks Dick for giving me a glimpse of a world outside my Hull roots that I couldn’t have imagined, after nearly 20 years in the industry I can say all the places Ive travelled to and the incredible people and experiences Ive had through my work are all down to those impassioned critique sessions in the studio in George St. Hull, with you opening my eyes to a world that I could never have known was open to me.
    Ive savoured every minute of the adventure, and hope for more to come!

    Sallyann Mason
    http://www.designparc.london

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