Visitor attraction

Exhibition display design in museums is testing the boundaries with new materials, formats and methods. Pamela Buxton explores how audio visual installations, virtual technology and the use of light, sound and objects can create a mesmerising experience for the visitor

National Maritime Museum Cornwall, Falmouth

Design: Land Design Studio

Architect: Long & Kentish

Contractor: Scena

Graphics: BCD

Lighting: Maurice Brill Design

Interactive consultant: Richard Glassborow

Software: New Angle, ROM & Son, ISO

Content developer: TGA

Designing the £3.7m display for the new National Maritime Museum Cornwall proved an interesting practical challenge for Land Design Studio.

The museum had a collection of 120 boats of all shapes and sizes – the largest with a mast 12 metres high. But the building only had room for a fraction of them. Land’s ingenious solution was to devise a theatrical main display with a hanging system adaptable to all the sizes and that was also demountable to allow for a complete, swift change in exhibits.

This display is the centrepiece of the £21m museum, which has recently opened to the public. Eight boats are displayed on the ground, but 25 are suspended by stainless steel cables using a bespoke system of straps and pads designed by Land in conjunction with engineer Arup. Lighter boats are cradled with straps while heavier exhibits are suspended and supported within cast steel cups cushioned with leather pads. The whole hang will be changed in 2004 with the old display taken out of the building through three-metre access doors.

This dramatic visual display is accompanied by seven interactives along the viewing ramp that enable visitors to find out more about any of the boats through a clever combination of object and technology. Visitors use a traditional boat winch to activate a scroll down the screen through the flotilla boats displayed in the room. When they’ve selected they boat they want, they touch the screen to find out more information.

‘We wanted something quite analogue on the outside with the winch, and then the touch-screen,’ says Land director and project manager Katherine Skellon.

Boats displayed on the floor have information units that dock up against the boat with an interchangeable framework to allow for new graphics when the display changes.

This is the centrepiece of the nine galleries within the museum. Others include a hands-on boating pool for visitors to sail remote controlled boats and a ‘dark’ gallery displaying nine boats against a background of projections and audio-visual effects, which tell the visitor the story behind each boat.

Luton Life, Luton Museum

Design: Objectives

Lighting design: Richard Aldridge

Graphics: Surface 3

Not all museum revamps have the luxury of multi-million budgets with the scope to commission lavish audio-visuals and complex interactives. For its £500 000 redesign of Luton Museum’s first floor galleries, Objectives instead used bespoke displays and different presentational approaches to tell the social history of Luton and to create a bit of drama and impact with set pieces in order to make the exhibition material more engaging.

‘The over-riding aim was to look fresh and modern – certainly not a fusty old museum,’ says Luton Museum visitor services officer Rosalind Lee.

First, the rooms were adapted to create one large space rather than a number of small galleries. This space is then arranged in a series of set pieces linked by a graphic style and accompanied by oral histories, accessed at listening stations and databases of images. The fine display of hats to symbolise Luton’s millinery heritage is shown simply in Click glass cases – with such quality exhibits, nothing else was needed.

For Luton’s Peace Day riots of 1919, Objectives selected one of the archive images as the backdrop to the story with a piano to symbolise one looted from the shop by disgruntled ex-troops.

Jaunty graphics are used to enliven the service and leisure sections with Shopkit display system and Click showcases, and the health and welfare section is displayed on a structural display system built out of drainpipes to emphasise the subject matter. The same contractor, Mark II, sourced steel pillars and metal mesh panels for Objectives to create a mock-up of the car factory floor at Luton’s Vauxhall car works.

Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw

Design: Event Communications

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, due to be designed by Frank Gehry, is not scheduled to open until 2008, but already Event Communications has been working on it for one and a half years.

The museum’s aim is tell the story of Jews in Poland over the past 1000 years, showing Poles how much their culture is influenced by the Jews and celebrating the achievements of Jews of Polish origin.

Such an enormous subject, exhibited over a display area of 3-4000m2, presents huge curatorial and display challenges. The museum has identified 40 000 documents and objects to draw on, but for some periods of the history there is little to work with.

Event is therefore planning to employ a full range of display techniques from the allegorical to the conventional right through to the use of virtual technology to help visitors to fully engage in the subject matter. The display will begin with an allegory. Visitors will enter a forest of timber sculptures to symbolise the wandering Jew and will hear sounds of the forests and voices describing their travels.

Display is chrono-thematic, with the use of a series of ‘schism’ devices, representing important events that influenced the history of the Jews in Poland, physically crossing through the chronological narrative. This may be in the form of light or sound or a physical dividing wall such as the wall of the ghetto. For the 1939-45 ghetto years, Event intends to create a ‘laboratory of the senses’ using light, sound, objects, reminiscences and projections of the sort used to great effect for the Big Picture at the Imperial War Museum of the North in Manchester.

Interactives will be used carefully. ‘We don’t want people to go to a museum to watch television. They can stay at home to do that,’ says Event creative director Steve Simons. He says that where used they will be a group, rather than one-to-one, experience – in the Golden Age gallery a conventional model of the town of Kazmierz could be animated on-screen to highlight particular buildings and activate giant images projected on to the gallery wall. Interactives will be used to create virtual versions of some documents to allow the visitor to turn pages and read more of the electronic version than they could of the real document.

‘We have the medium now to explore objects in a way we never have before,’ says Simons.

Some £38m is needed for the museum to go ahead, with fund-raising being led by the Jewish Historical Institute Association. m

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