When John Sunderland sketched out his ideas for the Jorvik Centre, the template for the ‘heritage experience’ had been set. Henrietta Thompson talks to him about dumbing down, skiving off from school and life in New York

The two Life cafés in Manhattan’s East Village and Brooklyn are something of an institution in New York. Meeting places for artists, designers and writers since the first was established in 1981, today they are known as much for their eclectic decor as the fact that Jonathan Larson wrote the musical Rent there. Stories line the walls, literally – the cafés are papered with issues of Life magazine and customers’ random drawings.

The cafés are not the subject here, but the fact that their founder’s partner, John Sunderland, operates much of his business from them these days – as a storyteller designer – is fitting.

At the height of his fame in the late 1980s, John Sunderland was known as the man who could bring history to life. Having kick-started the phenomenon now known as heritage culture with his design for the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, Sunderland went on to send tourists back in time at scores of cultural heritage experiences. The Canterbury Pilgrims Tales, The Oxford Story, The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre in Edinburgh, and The White Cliffs Experience in Dover are just four big names in a long list of attractions.

Sunderland spearheaded what was probably the biggest directional shift the tourism and entertainment industries had seen in decades. His talent for creating interactive and immersive exhibitions made many people in the industry a great deal of money. He combined theatrics and electronic wizardry with subjects that might otherwise prove mass-market non-starters – archaeology, science and geography – and millions flocked, and indeed still flock, to see the sort of attractions that, before Jorvik at least, had no place in popular culture.

Not everyone was pleased. On the one hand, such attractions were celebrated for bringing complex subjects to a much broader audience. On the other hand, however, Sunderland was accused of having a big role to play in the dumbing down of our cultural heritage. He was charged – along with his collaborators – with the ‘Disneyfication’ of Britain. It’s ironic, then, that Sunderland is now living in New York, and plying his trade in the US. There, as one can imagine, his problems are of an altogether different variety.

The archetypal storyteller, he was born and bred in Yorkshire, and has a store of tales to tell, going as far back as his early schooldays in a pit village. Sunderland – only ever any good at art and drama, and ‘especially useless at maths, science and games’ – one day persuaded his maths teacher, a Professor Snape-type character straight out of Harry Potter, that he was going blind and would need to skip class for hospital trips for the entire term.

It worked, and instead of enduring double maths, Sunderland found himself spending hours in the local museum. ‘Aged 12, I had this great idea that boring museums could be more like films and that you could be “inside” the story, and realised that everything in the museum had a story to tell,’ he remembers. Thus, a career was born.

Since then, Sunderland’s stories have continued to multiply. After the original sketches for the Jorvik Viking Centre, which would be his big break, came life-changing adventures with pirates while making Quest for a Pirate in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which eventually saw him put down roots Stateside at the turn of this century.

Sunderland, in the rather enviable position of having kept a diary every single day of his life for several decades, is now in the process of turning his stories into an autobiography – with the working title The Exhibitionist. Other current projects include, controversially, a ‘wall of honor’ for a wealthy community in New Jersey, a feature display about the last message sent by General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn for West Point Military Academy and a pilot conservation project for 16 000ha of public-accessed desert in Nevada, commissioned by the Bureau of Land Management.

That Sunderland was once attacked for dumbing down British culture seems laughable two decades later, in the era of YouTube, Big Brother and a national obsession with celebrity. But, designing cultural heritage exhibits in the US – a land where entertainment is prized above all – is an altogether different experience. ‘It is fascinating work. My challenge is in finding ways to interpret different subjects for the American public and keep them engaged,’ he says. ‘Simple does not mean dumb. I am fascinated by stories and storytelling, but one thing I have learned in life is that, once you’ve got the facts, you don’t need fiction.’

Latest articles

What to do and see at Designjunction 2018

From 20-23 September, London’s Designjunction takes place on the South of the River Thames, and will see installations, exhibitions, talks and its well-known fair spread across three venues including Doon