Design in 2021 – what will exhibition design look like?

As part of our series of design in 2021, Pippa Nissen, director at Nissen Richards Studio looks at what will happen in exhibition design in the next 12 months.

What do you think 2021 will hold for exhibition design?

What a rollercoaster year 2020 has been for exhibition design! With many museums closed for much of the year and needing to furlough staff, a lot of short and long-term projects had postponed openings. As a consequence, many institutions and design agencies have used the time to rethink the future completely – and on many levels. The pandemic impacted in so many different ways, from budgets and timescales to new sensibilities and outlooks and more practical visitor journey issues, including the implications of touch and the importance of circulation routes.

As we go forward now, I think the appetite for exhibitions will shift down different paths. On the one hand, we will see some really exciting installations that come and go in a flash. Exhibitions that are cheap to put up and embody creative and free-thinking solutions, making maximum use of light and AV.

On the other hand, we’ll see beautifully-crafted, uncluttered and materially-rich displays that are very considered. I think exhibitions will become immensely popular as we emerge from the pandemic. I predict an explosion of creativity too. People are so hungry for exciting ‘real’ things that embody value and craft, as well as new and stimulating designs, especially after the lack of experiential, 3D culture during our housebound, screen-based existence of recent times. I also think there will be a hugely-increased commitment in exhibition design to sustainable materials and more flexible, modular and re-usable designs.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens in 2021.

What is your favourite example of exhibition design from 2020 and why?

The year was so divided between pre lockdown exhibitions in January and February and what came next.

At the beginning of the year, I just managed to see a great exhibition called Sense Me at the Trapholt Museum of Modern Art in Kolding, Denmark. It was a wonderful sensory trip, with textured curtains you could walk through and discover effects; a reactive digital box you could enter and create moving images within and a room full of bent timber trees that emitted sounds with a disorientating and distorting mirror, plus a cloud you could look into up a ladder (pictured above). It was a brilliant, immersive experience that seemed all the more impressive when nothing like it was possible for the rest of the year and beyond.

We’re currently designing an exhibition about Touch at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which opens this month and whose subject will have a totally different resonance post-Covid -one that was completely unforeseen when the exhibition was first conceived.

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