London’s Blockbuster exhibitions road-tested

Most museums have trouble coping with the crowds generated by blockbuster exhibitions. John Stones road tests three current shows and concludes that the signage could be much improved

Picture the scene: you’re in a crowd, being jostled around and struggling to see where you should go. But you’re not trying to get on a rush-hour Tube, or worse still, shopping at Ikea on the weekend. Instead you have paid handsomely for the privilege of attending a blockbuster exhibition.

London is currently home to the global travels of three such beasts: From Russia, a politically sensitive show of early 20th-century paintings at the Royal Academy, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at The O2 dome, and The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army at the British Museum. In each case, the exhibits are stunning enough to draw crowds, but how well does the design and signage of each manage to deal with them?

While airports and Tube stations have highly developed and very conspicuous signage to help you find your way through the madd(en)ing crowds, exhibition spaces generally don’t. And the more prestigious the objects, usually the less adventurous the design.

Let’s start at the Royal Academy. In keeping with its 18th-century origins, the main galleries are utterly traditional, except now the head in front that’s blocking your line of vision isn’t carrying a freshly powdered wig. The design of From Russia, by Ivor Heal, is standard fare: small captions – one for each painting – ensure that if you want to read them you risk bumping into someone else’s head. Cue pursed lips and comments such as, ‘Darling, did you forget to bring your glasses?’ Not only is seeing the paintings and getting even the most rudimentary information a struggle, but so is the route through the gallery, which takes an unexpected turn at the venue’s central hall half-way through the show, to which you return at the end of the visit.

The art gallery is – excuse the pun – an artificial space, and there is absolutely no reason, aesthetic or otherwise, why a different approach to captioning and signage couldn’t be taken. The Royal Academy could do with rethinking the experience on offer to make it more pleasurable for visitors, rather than merely more lucrative for itself. The paintings in this show, particularly those by Matisse, are so magnificent that people will endure the discomfort of a visit, but surely the organisers could aim higher?

The exhibition design of Tutankhamun, by Mark Lach of Arts and Exhibitions International, has – perhaps unfairly – been panned as ‘theme park-y’, something the Royal Academicians would avoid at any cost. Staged entry by timed ticketing into the deeply uncharismatic space of The Bubble might not sound promising, and does initially make you feel as though you are flying EasyJet to Sharm El Sheikh. But it’s quickly apparent that considerable thought has been put into making the visit as stress-free as possible for the estimated 1.3 million visitors that will attend.

Once inside, it’s easy to find your way around and have access to all the exhibits, largely presented in free-standing glass cabinets. These are labelled above and below in four different places, avoiding the usual argy-bargy, while allowing children, adults and wheelchair users all to get up close simultaneously.

The space is awkwardly broken into two levels by an ugly staircase and lift, but clarity prevails over elegance, with large instructions on the walls and attendants guiding you though. There is only one ‹ route – or ‘snake’ – through the exhibition, reinforced by the amount of people who are following the path dictated by the commentary on their audio guides, but viewing the beautiful objects is never difficult and the journey is an easy one.

In contrast, the converted reading room of the British Museum is a very charismatic space, perhaps too much so, and Metaphor’s design for The First Emperor has the challenge of creating a journey around this circular space without seeming cramped or confusing. There is very little visible signage apart from at the very end – rather, you are kept moving without realising why or feeling overtly patronised. But it is clear that here, too, a lot of consideration has been given to the large crowds being pushed through the space – for instance, glass cabinets are captioned and viewable on two sides, and the centre of the show opens up around the display of the life-size clay figures, protected by a perimeter fence.

‘We never want people to be disoriented – it makes them insecure and leads them to turn back on themselves,’ says Metaphor’s creative director Stephen Greenberg. The consultancy always starts by building models populated with figurines, and Greenberg says just taking out 20 or 30 visitors makes it a much less claustrophobic experience. ‘But people who make exhibitions aren’t always the ones who are there when it’s busy,’ he points out. With ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences such as the Terracotta Army, popularity means the pressures are enormous, and the temptation to allow more people in than initially intended is considerable.

If there is one aspect of exhibition wayfinding that never fails, it is that all routes lead to the shop. It’s the opposite of the airport model, where you are left deliberately bewildered looking for your departure gate in the hope that a detour through a franchise might convince you to buy some Chanel. At the blockbuster exhibition, you are deposited at the shop in the expectation that you leave clutching a bag with a Monet-decorated tea mug for Auntie Emily as well as a heavy and expensive catalogue, which you may never get round to reading. But if you do, it’s often a route to a closer, more considered interaction with the works of art you struggled to find and actually saw at the crowded show. l

From Russia runs until 18 April at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs runs until 30 August at The O2, London SE10. The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army runs until 6 April at the British Museum, London WC1

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