Concepts on a theme

With museums and exhibitions increasingly relying less on artefacts and instead engaging with visitors in more contemporary ways, so designers are having to be ever more creative. Laura Snoad looks at designers conjuring up atmospheric, yet believable, presentations

The growing number of exhibitions focusing on concepts rather than artefacts provides a challenging opportunity for designers. They are able to enter the worlds of set design and audio-visual projection to create immersive environments more akin to theatre and cinema than traditional museum interpretation.

Event Communications executive creative director Steve Simons likens his approach to collection-less exhibitions to script-writing. He says, ’These exhibitions have to be dynamic enough to replace the thrill of a real object. It’s about taking the salient moments and translating them into space, whereas with a movie it’s doing to same but into time.’

Event lead designer Arnaud Dechelle adds, ’In this type of museum, clients are a lot more flexible. There’s less of a sense of taxidermy. It’s not just about showing everything you’ve got.’

As with any good film, a well-paced script must be matched with an atmospheric and believable set. The Event-designed Titanic Signature Project, due to open in Belfast’s dockyards in 2012, transports visitors directly into different parts of the ship’s narrative using immersive audio-visual interactives and theatre-like sets.

Visitors will journey into a hot and noisy replica of Harland & Wolff shipyard during a two-storey audio-visual ride and can engage with the Titanic wreck one-on-one in a glass walkover, by seemingly treading into scientist Robert Ballard’s high-definition film as if into a glass-bottomed submarine.

It’s a big step away from the traditional. It’s fun at times, but also challenging psychologically and physiologically.

Alex McCuaig, Met Studio

For the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is due to open in 2012 on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, Event has created a replica of a bustling pre-war street, a reconstruction at 85 per cent scale of the Gwozdziec synagogue’s intricately painted wooden ceiling and a birdsong-filled forest populated with local legends, both in audio files and swarms of projections.

The forest’s aim is to mimic the emotionally charged experience of the Jewish people as they first immigrated to the area, inspiring wonder as visitors walk through tales of new forested lands, strange animals and first experiences of snow, while staying true to primary sources, says Dechelle. ’There are no artefacts but the space is infused with the historical accuracy of the written records,’ he adds.

Whether it’s flicking through a medieval text using a touch-screen glass book interactive in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews or being immersed in a three-angle projection of volcanic eruptions at the Giant’s Causeway visitors centre also in the design stages by Event for the National Trust physical interaction with sources or events can be created without conservation fears.

Dechelle says, ’Written sources can be animated and projected. You don’t have to have a “museum voice” as people can engage directly with the words from people of the time.’

Direct engagement is also integral to Met Studio’s design for the Museo Interactivo Sobre Las Adicciones, a museum dealing with the effects of addiction, which is due to open in May in the Mexican city of Culiacàn.

Working closely with American consultancy Academy Studios on the project, Met Studio has created a number of immersive exhibits to mimic the effects of drug and other addictions, such as sex and gambling.

Claustrophobic, hot and distorting nightclubs warn of the paranoia of cocaine and a game, which gives a prize for a win but an electric shock if you lose, mimics gambling addiction. ’It’s an exhibition that you’d struggle to get away with in the UK,’ says Met Studio founder Alex McCuaig.

Met Studio has used 3D projection techniques to engage visitors in drama and danger. As visitors enter the extreme paranoia of crystal meths, they hear a scream above them and a woman falls from a window above, and plummets harrowingly complete with sound effects on to the transparent ceiling above.
McCuaig says, ’It’s a big step away from the traditional. It’s fun at times, but also challenging psychologically and physiologically.’

Rather than build a filmic set that involved singular moments of 3D projection, Casson Mann took the concept further, combining the two for the Atmosphere climate gallery at London’s Science Museum. It created an entire Pangaea-like landscape using an intricate map of projections and masks and a ceiling ’atmosphere’ made from delicate swirls of multi-layered gossamer.

When fossil fuels are burned in the central multi-player game, designed by All of Us, the oceans rise in the rug of projections and tiny white projected triangles symbols of greenhouse gases swell and move in the atmosphere.

The exhibition’s interactives had to mimic the gravity of this imagined Pangaea, as well as its look and feel. Interactives featuring people or buildings had to be on vertical screens, whereas maps are always displayed horizontally. Casson Mann director Roger Mann says, ’All the technology contributed to the illusion that you’re a giant standing on the surface of the earth. Concepts like that can be fragile, so everybody had to obey those rules.’

Event’s Dechelle agrees. ’The look and feel of the theatrical “big impression” must be ingrained at every level of the hierarchy. You don’t want to break the historical spell working in the period,’ he says.

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