From cliches to cutlasses: Pirates exhibition separates fact from fiction

Designmap’s spatial design uses a change in colour to communicate a shift from fiction to the bloodier, bleaker reality of piracy.

Interpretation design studio Designmap has created the Pirates exhibition at National Maritime Museum Cornwall, incorporating modular structures and elements of theatre.

Seeking to explore the history and culture of piracy and how it came to be viewed in film, fashion and literature, Pirates focuses in on what guest curator Dr Eric Kentley identifies as its “the golden age”, running through the 17th and 18th centuries. Designmap previously worked with the museum on the Monsters in the Deep exhibition and won the Pirates project through a competitive tender.

With a clear exhibition narrative created by Kentley and the exhibition team, Designmap interpreted the story through spatial design, graphics and audio-visual installations.

While the Cornwall museum generally has a family audience, Designmap wanted to avoid making the exhibition appear as if just for children. This meant “balancing the tone” and moving away from structures and graphics that might make it feel like a “theme park environment”, says Designmap creative director Daniel Sutton.

“Points of excitement”

Canvas sheets housed in “gallows-like frame structures” are hung and tied together with rope, according to Sutton, creating partitions and spaces to accommodate 2D graphics. He says that the studio tried to prevent the space from looking too much like a tv or film set in favour of a more “structured exhibition feel”.

Since the general public’s notion of what a pirate is “is quite theatrical and not based on the reality”, Sutton says the studio wanted to play on this and create an “immersive atmosphere” that was equally “theatrical”. Designmap created “points of excitement” in the graphic environment, such as “giant books and boat sails with films projected onto them”, he adds.

Kentley explains that, while there is more readily available in terms of fictional pirate artefacts, historical real-life objects are harder to come by, which presented some challenges when it came to curation.

Having fewer objects to display in the exhibition also “has a big impact” on the way it is designed, says Sutton. For object-led exhibitions, the design is based around the display of the collections, and other elements, including graphics and audio-visual, work around it.

He says that in Pirates “the graphic design and the audio-visual would have to do much more of the storytelling”. Sutton describes the objects as “bullet points within the exhibition”, adding that the studio had to carefully consider where objects were placed.

“Inverted” colour schemes

Designmap opted for a colour scheme associated with piracy and typically found on Jolly Roger flags: black, red and off-white.

Two variations on the colour scheme divide the exhibition into two parts. Effectively, the exhibition tells the story of pirates in reverse order, starting with modern day interpretations and ending with historic stories and artefacts.

The first section focuses on the fiction and features off-white canvas sails with black ink and print marks, which Sutton outlines as “a reference to the written stories and fictional narratives of pirates like Treasure Island”. At the midpoint of the exhibition, the tone changes as it starts to communicate information about real life pirates. The colour scheme becomes “inverted” and canvases are black with red markings, referencing “blood marks” and the brutality of real-life piracy, says Sutton.

Kentley suggested that Designmap used a typeface from the Garamond family, which Sutton says “captures the atmosphere of the period”. The studio took a paired back approach to typography, largely using the same font throughout the exhibition.

The Treasure Island section includes an audio-visual feature in which various objects illuminate in sequence with audio. In terms of broader lighting design, the site has a track lighting system, so Design Map had to work with the existing setup and form a lighting plan to advise on how lighting should work across the exhibition, says Sutton.

A “modular” structure

The point of exit for Pirates is usually the point of entry for the museum’s exhibitions. Design Map proposed to “turn the visitor flow back to front”, bringing people in from the upper level, down a ramp and into the main exhibition space. This change was driven by the fact that the studio wanted to visitors to start with the Sea of Thieves immersive AV experience, which they encounter before reaching the exhibition space.

Specifics in the brief detailed that the exhibition must be “modular” so it can be reconfigured for the National Maritime Museum Greenwich when it moves there in early 2025. The gallows-inspired framework makes it easier for the studio to reinstall the exhibition into the Greenwich space, which is around a third larger than the Cornwall space.

Because of the difference in size, the Greenwich version will expand to cover Barbary pirates and Asian pirates, with some additional content on contemporary piracy, while the Cornwall version largely focuses on Caribbean piracy.

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