A walk through Nissen Richards’ exhibition design of China’s Hidden Century

Three-metre banners and subtle lighting changes take visitors on a century-long journey led by defining characters in each of the exhibition’s six sections.

Nissen Richards has designed the China Hidden Century exhibition at the British Museum, with paper-like translucent screens that “interplay with shadow and light”.

The exhibition focuses on the period between 1796 and 1912, leading to the end of over 2,000 years of the Qing dynasty’s rule and the beginning of the modern Chinese republic. While it was a period of turmoil, it was also one of great innovation and creativity, driven by political, cultural and technological change, according to Nissen Richards.

A Tyvek wall as a theatrical backdrop to the Introduction with dramatic light

A four-year research project came before the exhibition, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by the British Museum and University of London. More than 400 people from 20 countries worked across the show and research project.

The studio sought to bring the exhibition’s content to life through stories of individuals, and each section is assigned its own key figure. The studio favoured a “stripped-back, clean and architectural” design that does not take away from the objects themselves, says studio co-founder Pippa Nissen.

Section titles and painting names appear in English and Traditional Chinese characters, with body text in fonts that follow the British Museum’s accessibility/inclusivity guidelines. With the Chinese version, Nissen says the chosen font gives “a subtle nod to a brush-like quality from handwriting”.

Shadow photography barrier in Court, with focus red wall leading to the next section

To create “a sense of place”, Nissen adds that the studio used paintings of landscapes, the mountains and the sea, taken from images of the period in the exhibition.

The “language of layers” starts immediately in the dimly lit introduction section, playing on the hidden China concept. Moving further in, a “neutral, translucent screen made of a paper-like material called Tyvek” comes into view, says Nissen, glowing with light and marking the beginning of the exhibition’s people thread, with its characters silhouetted on the screen.

Based on the Imperial Palace in Beijing with its “warm, red wall”, the Court is the first themed section, says Nissen. She describes it as “a very light area” with elements of “symmetry, order and layering”. Graphics depict the timeline of Qing dynasty rulers while Tyvek screens aim to give visitors “a perspective through the space” as it tells the story of Cixi, the Dowager Empress, Nissen explains.

Shadow Bannerman within Military (courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum)

The second area adopts The Military theme. Three “monolithic wall fragments” measuring 3 metres by 4 metres serve to house objects from military costumes and paintings to documents, ruins and weapons, says Nissen. The highlighted individual here is an elite soldier, known as a bannerman.

The next “gentle and composed” space seeks to celebrate beauty and innovation “rather like an artist’s studio”, as the theme here is Artists, according to Nissen. It pays homage to Jiangnan, a location south of the Yangzi River, and is slightly brighter than previous spaces with lighting by Beam Lighting Design, which is responsible for the lighting across the exhibition. Banners were chosen to “illustrate artists’ brushstrokes” while the key featured individual is artist Ren Xiong, Nissen reveals.

Artists section with shadow photography at fore & calligraphy video

Everyday Life is the fourth area and is inspired by the streetscapes and interiors of cities such as Shanghai, Ningbo and Tianjin. The story told here is of Lady Li, a middle-class woman of the era, whose portrait hangs among the exhibits, together with that of her businessman husband. Black fabric mannequins in costumes dominate much of this space along with high-level banners featuring genuine shop signs from the period, from noodle shops to painting repairers or milk tea sellers. “The feeling is as if the visitor is standing in a street and meeting characters within the showcases, with a large graphic backdrop and an ambient audio of street noises playing all around”, says Nissen.

Costumes and banners, Everyday life

Moving on to the fifth Global Qing themed area, Nissen describes “a dramatic circular space” which features a two-way window “showing China looking outwards at the world”. Dark blue walls reference the sky and seascapes while 3.2-metre “elusive, ethereal” graphic banners follow the circular shape of the gallery. Deep showcases contain paintings and artefacts, which Nissen says are “all contained within a series of windows looking outwards, with the final window also serving as a threshold to lead to the final space”. The key individual in this space is the rich merchant Mouqua.

Global Qing section (courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum)

The Reform to revolution section illustrates the final years of Qing China and is split into three sub sections that look at educational reform, diplomatic reform and military reform. In a bid to reflect “the closing moment”, Nissen says the studio opted to make this a darker area, dedicating it to the final key person – Qiu Jin – who was a poet and feminist martyred for the revolution.

Upon leaving the exhibition, visitors hear the song that Qui Jin wrote to encourage women to take action, performed by the London China Philharmonic Choir.

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