Earthly pleasures and delights

The Natural History Museum’s Earth Science Galleries, due to open this month, take a radical and exciting approach to a difficult subject. And it’s largely thanks to Neal Potter, says Beverley Cohen

As a designer, how do you receive commissions? Perhaps you hear about a project, contact the relevant person, hope to get invited to pitch. If you’re prominent, you may be asked to pitch. If you’re a bit renowned you might be offered the job outright.

For Neal Potter, of Surrey-based consultancy Neal Potter Design Associates, a 1m job arrived on his fax machine from a client in Lisbon.

“Knowing the great quality of your work as an exhibition designer… it would be a great honour for us if you could think about an eventual collaboration as the designer of our exhibition,” said Gabriela Cerqueira, director of Parque Expo ’98, which is organising a major exhibition called Looking at the Century as part of Lisbon’s Expo ’98 (DW 28 June).

“The British Council and the British Embassy in Lisbon flew me over at once to meet them, then said ‘But who are you? We’ve never heard of you’,” says Potter.

For those not au fait with exhibition design, this is a valid question. Potter employs only two full-time designers and acknowledges: “A lot of clients come and say ‘where is everybody?’ They expect lots of flunkeys making coffee and often it’s only me.”

But despite its size, the consultancy has worked on some of the decade’s most high-profile projects, alongside many of exhibition design’s larger heavyweights, including Met Studio and Event.

All three have collaborated on the National History Museum’s 12m Earth Science Galleries. Potter’s contribution is a radical concept in the main atrium of the galleries, which will be opened by the National Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley on 17 July.

Potter’s globe device lures visitors in to view Met Studio’s Restless Surface gallery and Event’s Powerful Earth gallery. The 418m2 main atrium is 20m-high, and is the first area a visitor will see.

The old Geological Museum has not had the best of press in the past. It has been perceived as musty, dusty and fusty, with lots of boring looking things in glass cases… the sort of place that not even school parties visit. So the Natural History Museum hadn’t much to lose and a significant amount to gain by going with Potter’s minimalist approach.

But given the traditional client aversion to all things radical in exhibition design, Potter acknowledges that the Natural History Museum “had a lot of courage to choose my concept. It’s a big risk really, they could have gone for something safe.”

Six sculptures by Michael Whiteley Associates “set up and establish science as the only way”, according to Potter. A man in a spacesuit looks back at the earth and realises “what a great planet he lived on”. Medusa seems to have turned a stalagmite into stone, and Atlas bows under the weight of the earth.

But it’s hard to concentrate on the sculptures when you see what Potter means by the “big risk”. One of the longest escalators in the country lures your eyes up to an 10.5m-diameter revolving globe clad in fossils, footprints and tyre marks. The solar system spans the slate walls, theatrical lights provided by DHA will move constantly and the museum’s most important specimens will be recessed into the wall.

That’s it. No clutter. “Other clients would insist on throwing all the specimens they had in this space, it’s so huge. We’re holding back, pacing it. A globe could be seen as predictable, but sometimes a simple idea is what you need,” says Potter, who got the idea “after three bottles of Rioja”.

In terms of career turning points, Potter’s came with his design concepts for the Museum of the Moving Image on London’s South Bank in 1988. Potter designed all the exhibitions for the museum, and it’s the work he’s probably best known for.

With regard to the compact nature of his consultancy, Potter says he doesn’t like the way a lot of the bigger consultancies work and finds it hard to win a project only to pass on the client and design work to someone else.

He has experienced being part of a big consultancy, having worked with RSCG Conran Design and at a director level with Event. “I left after two months. Event wanted me to go out and win jobs, then hand them over to someone else. I’m not a salesman,” says Potter vehemently.

Cerqueira did her homework before she asked Potter to be part of the design team. He designed the British Pavilion at Seville’s Expo ’92 alongside the RSCG Conran Design team, and pavilions at Expo ’85 in Japan and Expo ’86 in Canada.

He’s also been working on a 10 000m2 complex to act as “a public face with an entertaining slant and exhibition space” for the Singapore government, which will be unveiled on 23 November.

Potter is a master of entertainment. “I provide entertainment from an educational base. I think I have a feeling about how to balance the academic with popular appeal.” He takes pleasure in feeling his way through a design problem in the most radical way possible. “It reached a peak on the Seville Expo. We employed a mime artist to stand up in front of Peter Lilley. People left over it,” he says. But he got his way and the mime artist won through.

The Earth Galleries are perilously close to opening. Yet they are still a building site, and it’s hard to picture Bottomley switching on the lights in two weeks’ time. But Potter is calm…

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