Season 1, episode 9
Exhibition Design is a specific discipline requiring a balance between message and content, skills in spatial design, and clear communication of a narrative. Designing for temporary and permanent exhibitions requires different approaches, from something that is of the moment and perhaps can take some design risks, to an exhibition with lasting design quality that will still look good in 25 years time. Gary Shelly, from the Exhibition Design firm Casson Mann, discusses the process of designing the hugely successful V&A exhibition, Hollywood Costume, as well as the V&A’s permanent galleries, with Glenn Adamson and Moira Gemmill from the V&A.
(GA:) Welcome to the V&A Podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the V&A. In this episode we will be talking about Exhibition Design. Everyone knows that the V&A has extensive expertise in design, but that doesn’t stop with our collections. We are also important as a client and among our most important commissions are the settings for our permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions. How do we work with designers to achieve the best possible results? Here to discuss that subject are Moira Gemmill, Director of Projects, Design, and Estate at the V&A, and Gary Shelly from the design firm Casson Mann, which has worked on several projects at the museum including our recent blockbuster exhibition Hollywood Costume. Moira, perhaps I could start with you? And ask you just to describe the range of ways that we work with designers at the V&A.
(MG:) Well it’s very broad ranging. That goes back really to the founding principles of the V&A where it was established as a resource for, what we would now call the creative industries, but in those days for crafts people and manufacturers. I think it’s very important that we engage with as many different designers, established practices, new and emerging designers as we possibly can. We do that through two means, largely through FuturePlan, working with various different architects on the evolution of the building, the re-design of our galleries, the installation of new architectural interventions that make our buildings work better for our visitor. And of course we do that through our temporary exhibitions. We work with practices like Casson Mann and with designers like Gary to realise the very best design solutions for our temporary exhibitions.
(GA:) Moira, would it be fair to say that the V&A itself is a designed object in a way? Something that we are constantly thinking about aesthetically?
(MG:) Absolutely. That goes back to the very origins of the V&A, when the buildings were designed by many different architects and engineers, and embodied new materials and techniques, as a way of promoting design to the manufacturing and craft industries in London and the UK. That’s something that we have very much returned to over the past decade or so.
(GA:) Gary, you have just worked with us on this exhibition Hollywood Costume, a huge success for us last Autumn. Can you say a little bit about what it was like to work with the V&A as a client?
(GS:) It was unusual for us, this particular one, because for a temporary exhibition the program was extended, we were involved at the very early stages on this project to try and help the V&A define it. It’s enjoyable working with the V&A on this side of things because they have so many departments. You are working with the Conservation department, you are working with the Curatorial department, and with the Exhibitions department. As a big museum they have a lot of resource.
(GA:) Sometimes designers function as a point of contact between the departments in the V&A. That is something I have found very interesting. You become almost a common conduit for a conversation about the exhibition?
(GS:) Because you’re design is actually setting the plan, it’s not just a physical plan, it’s the actual process by which this exhibition will be produced. The ideas that you’ve come up with are the ones that set that in motion. You are then specifying the work that the conservators need to do, you’re specifying the work the curators need to do in terms of caption writing. The space that you have created is creating their work really for the foreseeable future.
(MG:) Moira, maybe we could take a step back to the beginning of that process? And walk through what happens and the delivery of an exhibition like Hollywood Costume. The first thing that needs to happen is that we need to appoint the designer. Can you talk a little bit about how that happens?
(MG:) In the same way as we appoint all of our designers, whether it’s for a major exhibition or a new gallery, we run competitions. Sometimes they are the full blown OJUE process, but with exhibitions we tend to compile shortlists ourselves in consultation with the head of design and with the curatorial staff who are involved in the project and the exhibitions department. We set a brief for the physical communication of the curatorial narrative that we want to present. The shortlist perhaps of five companies will respond to that brief and from there they will present their ideas and a decision will be made. I should also say that we pay for those concepts, it’s maybe a little bit tokenist but we pay for those concepts because we fully understand how much time and effort goes into putting those outline concepts together, and it’s hugely disappointing for those that don’t win the prize.
(GA:) It’s rather like an architectural competition, same model really?
(MG:) Exactly the same model.
(GA:) So that brief is a critical document in the exhibition project as a whole. Can you tell us about what makes a good exhibition brief?
(MG:) A good exhibition brief is one that explains very clearly what the curatorial narrative is trying to achieve, it gives a clear indication of the type of content that will be presented within the exhibition, and of what the constraints might be in terms of conservation. I think the most important thing is that we do not set any design standards or try to influence the design of the end product in any way, that’s why we want to work with external designers so that they bring their new, fresh, and interesting ideas to the project.
(GA:) So you leave the design to the designers?
(GA:) Gary, what about Hollywood Costume? What was the brief like for that?
(GS:) It was a good brief. It was a very detailed brief with all the aspects that Moira just explained, but I think one additional aspect it had was that it changed our perceptions of the subject. The curator was very clear in communicating that. One of the things we grasped onto very early on was that actually this was an important thing for us to communicate back to the public, this change of perception, looking at the subject in a new way. That was one of our key defining features of our response to it.
(GA:) Because the curator, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, was a costume designer from Hollywood in her own right, and she had very strong ideas about putting costume design into the pantheon of design professions.
(GS:) Yes, it was an invisible profession really. It was deconstructed in such a way in the brief that it made this visible to us, that actually these things are designed objects, and they are quite important to the film, and yet the better they worked the less you see them. It was that idea that we were trying to communicate.
(GA:) Because if you noticed the costume design that means you’re not noticing?
(GS:) Yes, you have sort of failed, it just becomes a theatrical show, whereas actually the costume is about the character, fleshing out and making a character.
(GA:) Can you give us some examples of design decisions you made in that show that helped communicate that idea?
(GS:) What was unusual from the beginning on this project was that the objects themselves aren’t particularly nice. You can almost guarantee that any other project that the V&A does they at least have beautiful objects in it, whereas these weren’t. This was explained to us in the brief, they are almost like the cast-aways of the process, they’re the industrial waste from making a film, and they’re generally thrown away, some people had kept them. I often compared it to a snake when it sheds its skin, you are left with the skin which doesn’t look particularly good but it looked good on the snake, it was trying to put the snake back into the skin really that was the biggest challenge. To make these things alive again, they were only alive in the film, once they are off the character, once they are out of the film they became these dead objects, so we really tried to put the life of the film back into the costume.
(GA:) And those who attended the exhibition will remember this extraordinary effect you were able to achieve of projecting the actors face onto the costume itself in a way, to personify the costume. Can you talk about what the challenges of that process were?
(GS:) One of the aspects with the costumes was that we felt that they had to be in character, they had to be on a mannequin in a pose that was reminiscent of the character from the film. We did a number of exercises where we thought that was enough actually, that they didn’t need a face, you would get it. I know film pretty well myself, I’ve seen most of the films that were in the show. I did a little exercise at the office where I took all the faces off the costumes and looked at them, and actually I couldn’t tell, where these films came from. So we knew we had to put faces back in to make them recognisable, but also we didn’t want to go down a Madame Tussauds route. We were talking about cinema, so we wanted the feel of cinema, we wanted a walk through film, a texture of film, a projection of light. Our idea for these projected faces came from those two strands, one putting a recognisable character in, and two trying to express filmness in that sense.
(GA:) Another thing that people will have been struck by in the exhibition was the soundtrack, which had this very theatrical and emersive quality, the swell of music when you first walked in and then it really accompanied you all the way through, rather like a soundtrack in a film in fact. How do you work with composers, or people who work with sound? Because you’re work presumably is primarily visual?
(GS:) Yes. Again you’re in control of the whole space, whether it’s the sound, the vision, everything, you’re working with all consultants on that front. The difficulty with the soundtrack is the difference between an exhibition and a film. To state the obvious, going to an exhibition is a three dimensional experience, which you can come at from many different directions, whereas a film is a two dimensional experience on a linear narrative. The soundtrack on a film helps with that narrative, if you’re coming in at any different point in the exhibition, how do you build up those crescendos? You might arrive at a crescendo. We really worked on a soundtrack that could cover the whole space, and the composer really helped with arranging the speakers in the space and getting the acoustics to work.
(GA:) Moira, what did you think of the show Hollywood Costume? Because I had a lot of people say to me ‘this is something like I have never seen before’, ‘this is incredible innovative, beautiful, a magical experience really’, so it set quite a high bar for us. I wondered what you made of it as a purely design experience?
(MG:) I think it was an exceptional exhibition, in the way that the curatorial narrative came together, and how it was physically presented. I really do think that it was, as you say, innovative and exceptional, and yes, it’s going to make life quite difficult for us hereon in, because we have a very high bar to jump over.
(GA:) I was going to ask you about that, because working as a curator myself at the museum, on the one hand you see an exhibition like that and it’s stunning and impressive and on the other hand you realise what a high bar you might have to meet in the future, and part of that of course is cost, because it is not cheap to do these things. How do we balance the costs of an exhibition like that with the experience we are trying to deliver? Are there ways of doing it on the cheap?
(MG:) I don’t think there are ways of doing it on the cheap, but there are ways of being clever about where our budgets are spent. What we have proved through Hollywood Costume is that there is a great expectation for some sort of digital quality within our exhibitions, rather than simply static displays of objects behind glass, although these are very popular too. But with certain types of exhibition, particularly when you are dealing with costume and performance related subjects, it is inevitable that we will have to figure out a digital element that enhances and brings the whole thing to life. As Gary very eloquently described we are talking about the aftermath of the performance here, I love that analogy with the snake skin, bringing that back to life is a very challenging thing to do.
(GA:) Moira, can I ask you about the distinction between the temporary exhibitions and the permanent gallery displays? Because you look after that for us as part of FuturePlan, as you were saying earlier. A lot of that has to be about the V&A as a building, and the history of our architecture. This is a very different approach to what you might see in a temporary exhibition, which is maybe a more isolated theatrical experience, as in Hollywood Costume. How do you think about permanent galleries in a way that might be different from the temporary shows?
(MG:) There is a fundamental difference, temporary exhibitions run for three of four months, they are of the moment, they may tour afterwards, but they are in the V&A for three or four months. There is more flexibility to take some risks with the design. With permanent galleries we are designing those galleries for a life of about 25 years, so those galleries need to look as good in 25 years time, as they do on the day they open. One of the things that is difficult about that is changing styles in graphics that date a gallery particularly to say 1998 or 2004. The other difficulty is changing technology, that’s where it becomes difficult for us, 75% of our visitors have smart phones, that’s an extraordinary number, and we need to recognise that and build on the ability to provide additional information, useful, interesting information in relation to our collections through that means. Rather than having lots of hardware that we design or build into our new galleries, which lets face it, within a few years is going to be obsolete, out of date, and old fashioned, and we can’t allow that to happen to our permanent galleries.
(GA:) Gary, that must be something you at Casson Mann are thinking about quite a bit?
(GS:) Yes, generally we always think that it’s the content, it’s the message, not the media, if your message is the right message, and it’s a strong message, whether the media goes out of date, it becomes less important, because the public are interested in the message. We never try to do technology for technology’s sake because that very quickly goes out of date.
(GA:) All the same it is definitely providing you with more opportunity as it’s a new pallet to work in as a designer?
(GS:) It is great, from an interpretive point of view it’s fantastic. We’re working on a couple museums or galleries now with hardly any objects, where a lot of the interpretation is coming through digital media, because it’s the place that we are talking about rather than the object. For the public it is a very accessible way of learning.
(GA:) Where do you see Exhibition Design going in the next few years? Do you think it’s a discipline that’s in a process of radical change because of technology?
(GS:) I think it is changing, whether it is radical or not, because like you said earlier, there is always a budget consideration, and you can’t have both with the current budgets. You can’t have secure display cases, and new media, there is a push-pull of that sort of thing. It is changing from that rather dry approach to a much more emmersive, and exciting, and also emotive, particularly Hollywood Costume really hit an emotional button with people, they were really engaged, and the media helped them engage. In the end they end up learning without necessarily knowing they are learning.
(GA:) Moira, what do you think about the future of exhibition design from the V&A’s perspective? What can you forecast for us at the museum in years to come?
(MG:) Well I would certainly like to see more exhibition design of the standard that we’ve seen with Hollywood Costume. But we will have to change, we are moving the location of our major exhibition program into a new purpose built gallery below ground, which will actually give us much greater flexibility than we have now. For anyone who knows the V&A, they will realise that our major exhibitions are set in historic spaces, three individual rooms with corridors running through them that are really pretty unattractive to the visitor, they are confusing.
(GA:) It’s an extraordinary thing isn’t it, because in a way they are this great platform for our exhibitions, but in another way they are shoehorned into this nineteenth century space in a very awkward manner.
(MG:) Exactly. Those nineteenth century spaces, well two of them at least, are the most beautiful spaces on the entire sight.
(GA:) But you can’t seem them?
(MG:) But you can’t see them exactly. They haven’t been seen for more than a generation. It is a very exciting project to move exhibitions into a single unified space with no internal structure so that the space can be re-designed in any way we like without the current constraints that we have, and the knock on from that is that we will be able to reveal those amazing nineteenth century interiors.
(GA:) Something to look forward to. Gary can I ask you one last question? I know a lot of listeners out there will have a very strong interest in exhibition design, and some of them may even be exhibition designers themselves someday. Do you have any advice for people who want to get into your field?
(GS:) The traditional way, or the way I went through, was art college and then studying interior design, and from there into an exhibition design practice. I think you need some sense of spatial design because you’re always going to be beginning with a space, whether that’s architectural training or interior design training, and then it’s that narrative bent really.
(GA:) So you have learnt to be a great story teller?
(GS:) Yes. It’s studying the briefs that your given and finding the underlying story and then communicating that spatially, and understanding the spaces your in is key.
(MG:) Gary, I wonder if I could ask you a question? I think there is a very specific discipline in designing for museums, whether it’s temporary exhibitions for museums or new galleries, but it isn’t recognised at the moment, or there doesn’t seem to be a course out there for people to do that specifically. Do you think that’s something worth pursuing?
(GS:) Yes. It’s funny because we are doing a couple of projects in France at the moment, and we have now learnt that our name in France is sonographer, and it is something that we had never experienced in the UK, being called that, but it is that, it is theatre tricks and magic, and to help communicate the narrative. There aren’t any courses, there’s museum based courses, and then there’s interior design or architecture courses, but there is not a cross over. I think there is a wider problem with design education in the country at the moment anyway, as to whether a course could survive in that sense in the UK at the moment. We’ve got a lot of new staff from Italy actually, that seems to be some of their courses there bring out designers that are multifaceted, with that basis, with the sound spatial understanding, you’re designing spaces.
(GA:) Well great, thank you very much both of you, Gary Shelley from Casson Mann and Moira Gemmill from the V&A. I hope you’ve enjoyed this walk through the world of exhibition design. Please join us again for the next episode of the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
Listen to the V&A Podcast on iTunes U.
The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com