Design plays leading role in the museum experience

It’s interesting how over recent years museums have espoused design to broaden the appeal of their collections. Where once we saw an array of Roman coins, say, grouped to show object rather than context, now we might see how that money was spent. We might even be able to earn or spend that cash ourselves, through digital simulation.

Curators are still key to maintaining collections, but a new breed of enlightened museum directors has placed design centrally in their teams, albeit largely through consultancies. There is now also closer collaboration between designer and curator, with much more scope for the arts to figure – take the Museum of London’s Twenties show, where paintings and movies sit alongside exhibits showing the era’s fads and fashions.

The shift dates from the late 1980s, when York’s Jorvik Viking centre opened to great acclaim, giving us insight not just into objects, arranged in realistic tableaux, but also into the sounds and smells of everyday life. It brought theatre into history long before TV historians became popular entertainers and with it the first inklings of ‘experience’.

Now it’s not just museums that are cashing in on experience. All brands of note reek of it, taking their cue directly from museums and setting up a visitors centre or by ensuring everything, from pack to website, exudes the brand’s essence.

Interestingly, museums and galleries now see themselves as brands, manifesting their brand values through their identities. Most national cultural institutions have memorable marques – Lewis Moberly’s keyhole identity for London’s Geffrye Museum, for example, took the concept way beyond the elegant logotype favoured until then by most other venues. Now the Tate is looking to build its brand by developing its Wolff Olins identity, thanks to its astute communications director Will Gompertz (see Client Profile, page 13).

Museums and galleries are also latching on to commercial practice in the way they use design. Where once it was all done in-house, major blood-letting in the late 1980s gave more scope to external consultancies. Some, such as the British Museum team, continued on to do great work, while others brought in design directors to manage the process – take the Science Museum’s exemplary design head Tim Molloy. But now it’s all change again, with the Tate and the Museum of London looking to build their internal strength, just as commercial businesses are seeing the merit of bringing good people in-house.

Expect our cultural bastions to pull out a few surprises. Watch this space, not just for what curators choose to put there, but for how museum directors go about it.

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