Why has all the fun gone out of exhibition design?

Exhibition designer Mark Magidson looks at the structural flaws that have taken the creativity out of exhibition design.

Martin Creed fills a room with balloons at Tate St Ives

Source: Julian Stallabrass

Martin Creed fills a room with balloons at Tate St Ives in 2011

Is the interpretation exhibition design industry today doing what Starbucks has done to coffee? Corporate, safe, everywhere at any high street near you and, dare I say, repetitive and bland?

I have just visited what is the antitheses of this condition, the sculpture exhibition by the (brilliant!) Martin Creed at the Hayward Gallery in London. It highlighted all the things the exhibition design industry today is NOT doing. It was funny (farting machine soundtrack), thought-provoking (full-size car with timed opening and closing of all doors and radio soundtrack), downright dangerous (humungous MOTHER neon sign revolving inches above your head), fun (a maze room full of balloons) and utterly shocking (giant video of a lady taking a dump and various people vomiting). All things VISUAL and communicated seamlessly, with hardly a word in sight.

Where today are the exhibitions that really matter and can make a difference, and that can be free to use the media of a ‘visualiser’ such as Creed? An exhibition about climate change that offers the science that is honest and populist enough to show the uncertainties and allow visitors a voice? In this centenary year an exhibition that traces the stories behind the outbreak of World War One and offers parallels and contrasts to what is happening now in the Ukraine?

I have just invested 72 of my hard earned pounds attending a conference entitled Chaos at the Museum, hoping to find some answers. US-based consultant Elaine Heumann Gurian was the keynote speaker. She not only brilliantly traced the history of our profession but alluded to where it all started going wrong.

In the halcyon days when interpretation designers were employed in museums, they were embedded within a tight group that worked on the content from the very beginning. Their visual perspective was valued and the day-to-day synergy of working with a development group allowed a project to develop seamlessly – a condition known as ‘joined-up thinking’.

Gurian rightly labelled the exhibition designers of today (myself included) as ‘mercenaries’; guns for hire who are rented on a daily bases and land into the in-house team. They are then expected, in a very short time, to all be talking (and visualising) in the same language – the Tower of Babel comes to mind. Gurian astutely observed that the ‘visualisers’ need to tell the wordsmiths what they needed in order to have a voice in the industry.

It was left unanswered that no one in any position of power is really listening to the voice of a ‘visualiser’, as almost everyone is calling themselves ‘designers’. Respect and much space is given to almost every other part of the design industry: to the professions of ‘architect’, ‘industrial designer’, ‘fashion designer’ and ‘artists’, such a Creed. ‘Interpretation designers’ now are more and more being pushed to the very end of the development process and are quickly becoming ‘decorators’ of preconceived half-transformed concepts, with very few willing to rock the boat. They take the money and run, as Gurian put it, they are ‘mercanaries’.

What can be done? Not an easy answer! At some stage the ‘mercernary’ ‘interpretation designers’ are probably going to have to emulate the ending of the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – a death-or-glory charge. It may not have a gory ending, as the sequel Blackthorn revealed Mr Cassidy alive and well.

Mark Magidson is creative director at Exhibition Plus.

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  • angela collins November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Interesting and thought provoking comments.
    As a commercial exhibition designer, I am now receiving design briefs a few weeks before a show rather than months ahead, which doesn’t give any time to fully understand the product, and therefore design becomes generic. Also a lot of business marketing managers (not all!), insist on following the corporate guidlines designed for brochures and websites. These do not translate into a 3 dimensional space. Why, as a visitor would you visit an exhibition if its only a carbon cut out of the existing website or brochure? There needs to be more interactive & inspiring content that cannot be fitted onto paper or screen.

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