Watery exhibits let down by the signage

I defy anyone who’s just visited the London Aquarium to go straight out and order a plate of skate and chips. Even the most carnivorous among you might find that hard, having stroked the rays in the Beach area of London’s fishy attraction. It’s interaction at its most natural, and concerns about the fish picking up our bugs have to be weighed against the pleasure they appear to get from human contact.

But how sad that the care that has obviously gone into giving young visitors the best experience at the Beach – prompted no doubt by the man who bears the wonderful title of fish curator – isn’t evident elsewhere in the Aquarium where there is public interface with the exhibits (see Interiors Study, page 13). The signage is wholly inadequate, as our reviewer and her children found.

When I visited the London Aquarium shortly after it opened I thought the poor quality of the signs was a temporary thing – an element still unfinished in the rush to meet the opening deadline. To discover that little has changed since is disappointing, but what can you expect when there appears to be no coherent signing strategy for the project and no graphics consultant on board.

Signing is a common shortcoming with visitor attractions. Curators and their consultants often seem too obsessed with the objects on show to consider what the public might need to know – or to establish a clear route.

You might expect better things of the Design Museum, downstream from the Aquarium. But it too tends to go for “tasteful” tiny graphics that demand close inspection to learn anything or flashy, fashionable signs such as those that graced the Erotica show earlier this year.

The good news is that London at least is starting to get its external signage right. Take the riverside walkway that links the Aquarium with the Design Museum on the south side of the Thames. So well signposted are attractions ranging from the Globe Theatre to the Clink museum and various historic pubs that you can leave your A-Z London guide at home and still enjoy a fun day out.

In design terms, the highlight here has to be the area around the Oxo Tower and the adjacent Gabriel’s Wharf where contemporary street furniture, signs and banners have been commissioned by the South Bank Employers’ Group from architect Lifschutz Davidson (Review, DW 25 July). Let’s hope that plans for other areas along the South Bank follow suit.

But we still need some strong models of successful interior signage from which museum and gallery designers can learn. Please let us know of any schemes that get your vote for clarity and quality of information.

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