Barbican’s Our Time on Earth offers a “radical alternative for sustainable exhibition design”

The future-facing exhibition, curated by FranklinTill, has been designed by Universal Design Studio with modularity and mobility in mind.

What will Earth’s future look like, and how will art, design and science influence that vision? These are the questions underpinning the Barbican’s latest exhibition Our Time on Earth.

The exhibition – a collaboration between guest curators Kate Franklin and Caroline Till and the Barbican’s Luke Kemp – showcases responses to the climate crisis from the perspective of design, art, science and technology.

Universal Design Studio (Universal) has designed the 3D elements of the show, while Hato has worked on the graphics.

“There is more scientific evidence than ever demonstrating the amplitude of the climate emergency,” explain Franklin and Till  (who make up research studio FranklinTill). “Science is essential – there’s no doubt about that – but art, design and culture have the power to move us [into taking action].”

The show is told in three chapters, under the headings of belong, imagine, and engage. Throughout these interconnected sections, visitors can immerse themselves in a video installation about the life of trees, to a piece from Brazilian, indigenous-led collective Selvagem about our connection to the living environment.

Space10 has also debuted an interactive installation entitled The Ideal City 2040 at the exhibition, which visualises how cities can embrace solutions to the climate crisis and improve people’s everyday lives (you can watch a visual in the video below).

“Radical visions for a sustainable future”

The ambition behind the exhibition design was to embrace the show’s theme as faithfully as possible. “Our main aim was how we can best showcase the narrative that FranklinTill and Luke Kemp were curating: radical visions for a sustainable future,” says Universal senior interior designer Lisl du Toit.

Du Toit and her team spent a lot of time working out the biggest impact they could have in a design capacity, deciding that ultimately they should show “visitors the beauty and richness of sustainable design”. “We wanted to present visitors with a different design future – one that feels positive and attainable – and offer a radical alternative for sustainable exhibition design,” she adds.

Unsurprisingly, materials were a significant part of that process. A series of modular plywood structures (which can hold screens on both sides) and material dividers make up the backbone of the exhibition. A sweep of hemp and felted wool curtains are used to further structure the sections.

These frames are combined with a variety of materials, which aim to mirror the themes of the section. Corrugated sheet panels are made at a farm in Cambridgeshire, formed from hemp fibres and bound in a sugar-based resin made from agricultural waste. It’s a good alternative to corrugated steel, du Toit points out. Other materials include a leather-like material from Latvian designer Sarmite Polakova, derived from the inner bark of pine trees and a by product of the foresting industry. Panels have been formed by reclaimed paper pulp from Barcelona-based materials start-up Honext.

Universal’s material exploration

The design team made sure to vary the layouts and material applications to keep things “dynamic and interesting”, says du Toit. Much of the exhibition is digital, and the design team’s focus on natural materials and organic forms aims to provide an engaging contrast. “We liked the idea of juxtaposing natural materials with the digital, because an important strand of the exhibition is to remind people that we are of the Earth and have an intrinsic connection with the natural world,” the designer adds.

Our Time on Earth is a touring exhibition – heading next to Quebec City, Canada – so the design team had to think carefully about mobility, du Toit explains. This involved stripping back inessential elements and keeping weight and mobility at the forefront when choosing materials.

Material use, ease of travel and adaptability have been a focus for exhibition designers for a while, but it was equally important to show that sustainably-minded exhibitions can look good too. “It can be rich, warm, intuitive and poetic,” she adds, pointing to the organic shapes, use of raw materials and “natural vibrancy” which contrast with more traditional exhibition staples like white plinths and stud walls.

The designer adds: “These are beautiful, versatile optimistic materials and, vitally, they’re already available to us.”

Our Time on Earth is open now at the Barbican, and runs until 29 August. Tickets start at £18. More information about prices and opening times can be found at the Barbican’s website.

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