Category Archives: Museums

I’d like to thank…

I was at the Museums + Heritage Awards show in swanky Northumberland Avenue in London last night as the Goes to Town project I worked on at the Museum of Natural History was shortlisted for an award in the marketing campaign category.

Happily, we won, and against tough competition – places with more people and bigger budgets (at least, I think they have bigger budgets and more people).

So as well as everyone at the Museum, I’d particularly like to thank Simon Meek at Okayso and Charlie Piggins at Mode of Thought, who worked on the branding and designs for the displays, mobile website and also on the promotional videos. Here’s one:

I also got to wear a Goes to Town labcoat on stage and  make a silly speech about a rabbit, hedgehog and flamingo. And look beardy and bespectacled with Marcus Brigstocke.

Museum of the Year Finalist

So, it’s well over a year since I published anything here. You know, very busy, no time to write, blah blah.

But just to prove that I have been doing something and not just being lazy, here’s a film that I scripted (and, in a moment of uncontrolled megalomania, presented) for the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015 which the Museum of Natural History has been shortlisted for. Thanks to Northern Town for producing the film.

It’s been a busy year and an even busier few weeks preparing for the announcement of this, and working for the Museum of the History of Science too: its new exhibition, Dear Harry…, opens on 14 May. Meanwhile, at the Museum of Natural History we are about to open a new contemporary science temporary exhibition, Biosense, and two new permanent touchable displays all about evolution. Rachel mentions this Sensing Evolution project in the video above.

There have been plenty of other things that I’ve been involved in over the past year that I should really have blogged about here. I’ll try and record more of that, but no promises.

What I might write about soon though was my chance to take Magnum photographer Martin Parr around the Museum of Natural History, as part of the Art Fund promotions. I got to watch him work and photograph the process myself at the same time. A treat indeed.

 

Shadowy work

I worked with Simon Meek at Okayso to create this video to promote the reopening of the Museum of Natural History. Well, he did most of the work on this; I just waved my arms around at a safe distance (oh, actually I did the music too, which was probably more helpful).

The film below came first actually and, as you can see, I was directly involved in this, as well as in the writing and storyboarding. This was all related to the Goes to Town project too; more on that to follow.

Reopening the Museum of Natural History

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One of the things I’ve been nestled away and working on in recent months is a whole batch of stuff related to the reopening of the Museum of Natural History after a fourteen-month closure. The Museum has been closed for essential roof repairs to its glass-tiled roof and we have been chronicling that work – and various other related happenings – on a special closure blog called Darkened not dormant.

In the photo above you can see how all the specimens were squashed up into one aisle while the roof work was carried out in the other areas. Everything is now almost back in its right place ready for reopening next Saturday, 15 February, from 7am to 5pm, or dawn till dusk as we’re poetically framing it.

During the last year I’ve been working on the new visual identity, internal signage, press and marketing, printed programme and floor plan, an audio app (to follow after reopening) and various other bits and bobs. Lots of stuff and lots of fun, so I hope it all looks good next Saturday.

A bit of housekeeping
When I was doing freelance journalism regularly this site provided a record of all my published articles. For the past two years or so, while I’ve been getting established in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Museum of the History of Science, the site has been neglected. But I hope now to retrospectively fill it with a few of the bigger projects I’ve worked on and then continue to add examples of work as they happen.

If you’re reading then great, thanks a lot! If not, it’s a record for me. Thanks me.

Augmented reality in the museum

In October last year, a pair of somewhat mischievous new media artists staged a wholly 21st century intervention at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It involved placing numerous extra artworks in the galleries and introducing a whole new floor – the seventh – at the top of the MoMA building. And all this without the institution’s permission or knowledge (at least at first).

If you haven’t guessed already, this seemingly impossible ruse was achieved using augmented reality (AR), the overlay of digital elements on a live view of a real space, as seen through a smartphone or similar device. The two artists were Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek and the We AR in MoMA guerrilla show was conceived as part of the wider Conflux festival of participatory art and technology that was taking place in New York at the time.

Using the special Layar augmented reality browser installed on a smartphone, visitors were able to look at the galleries through their phone’s built in camera, while the GPS location system and internet connection allowed the virtual art to be projected over the top of the camera’s image of the museum space.

Veenhof and Skwarek used the event to raise questions about the impact of AR on public and private spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating some of the frontiers of new media art. According to Veenhof, MoMA has not made any response to the event, despite having large numbers of visitors conspicuously viewing the galleries through their phones.

Although We AR in MoMA was foisted upon a museum institution, augmented reality is something that museums and galleries are starting to experiment with themselves. Whether MoMA’s curators rate Veenhof and Skwarek’s work as a valid artistic intervention or not, it does offer some glimpses of how a gallery might use AR in order to give visitors additional interpretive content. AR guides bring a new dimension over traditional audio guides, whilst remaining personal to each visitor. They might include an artist standing ‘next’ to their work describing their working processes, for example. In fact, artist Jan Rothuizen has already collaborated with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s ARtours programme on an AR exhibition of his work.

Other cultural institutions are also starting to use AR to mesh digital content with the real world. A number of early experiments in this area have concentrated on city spaces, overlaying historical or proposed architectural imagery on a live city view. The Museum of London’s iPhone app, Streetmuseum, is an example of this, where the museum’s collection of archive photography of London is delivered to users’ phones according to their current location and orientation.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia offers a similar AR mobile app, drawing images from the museum’s Flickr collection and presenting them via the Layar platform. Virtual buildings also feature in the Netherlands Architecture Institute’s UAR (urban augmented reality) mobile app, designed by Dutch interaction consultancy IN10. This overlays pictures of what used to present, as well as images of what’s to come, in the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. There’s even a Layar ‘layer’ of the Berlin Wall and its imposing sentry towers, reinstating the barrier that once divided the now reunited halves of the city.

AR is clearly fun, sci-fi type stuff. Like many new technologies, it is alluring and captivating. But is it of real value to the museum sector or is it a mobile-based gimmick? Tristan Gooley, author of Natural Navigator, told a BBC Radio 4 programme that despite our best intentions technology too often ‘gets between us and the experience’. His comments came in a discussion about the forthcoming mobile app from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so in this case Gooley was referring to the experience of viewing the natural world unmediated by a screen. However, similar objections could be raised in relation to objects in a museum exhibition.

Does AR add something to a museum experience or does it becomes the experience itself? What do we gain from looking at a composite digital/real world through a mobile phone and what do we lose? In the case of archive photography there is a thrill to be had by looking down the barrel of history whilst standing in very same spot from which the original image was captured.

And perhaps AR can liberate objects too. The Stedelijk Museum’s head of collections Margriet Schavemaker noted at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference that objects in a museum collection are permanently removed from their original contexts and placed instead inside a ‘white cube’. But AR has the power to return them. In theory, the collection of the ‘augmented museum’ could be geographically and spatially boundless, with objects appearing at relevant locations in the real-world by using an AR overlay.

In this sense, maybe AR is the museum’s best technology tool yet. Objects came from the world and only subsequently were they indexed, filed, curated and exhibited by museums. Perhaps AR allows collected objects to be returned to the wild, but this time with a valuable augmentation of their own – the attachment of expert knowledge and interpretation by the museum professionals who study them and care for them.

In the meantime, keep your eye on new media artists for suggestions of what’s to come. At the 2011 Venice Biennial International Art Exhibition there are plans for a whole uninvited pavilion, thanks to Veenhof and Skwarek…

This article was written for MuseumNext, January 2011.

Review: Ask A Curator

On the same day that Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, was published to considerable media reaction and controversy, discussion of another topic entirely was topping the trend charts on Twitter. Remarkably, it was an initiative to stimulate dialogue between the public and museum curators that had become the hottest Twitter subject in the world by mid morning on 1 September.

The one-day event, called Ask a Curator, was the brainchild of Jim Richardson, managing director of Sumo, a branding and design group which regularly works with museum and gallery clients. Frustrated that social media are usually used by such organisations to push out ‘bland marketing messages’, if they use them at all, Richardson wanted to harness Twitter’s networking power to drum up some direct engagement with curators across the globe. The idea was that a curious public would be able to question the keepers of cultural heritage about the objects in their care and what it is they do with them.

 

‘With Ask a Curator I wanted to do something which asked more of both the public and museums, something that could create dialogue and real engagement. I hoped the project could give the public unprecedented access to the passionate and enthusiastic individuals who work in museums and galleries and also break down barriers within these institutions, where all too often social media is still the remit of the marketing department,’ says Richardson.

 

The initiative comes at a time when many museums are just beginning to consider how online platforms and social media might dovetail with their on-site activities. Some institutions, such as the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, have blazed a trail with their online services and an open attitude to dialogue with the public. But for some organisations, taking part in Ask a Curator was a foray into largely uncharted territory.

 

According to Conxa Rodà, project coordinator at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, the event was the first time curators there had used Twitter. ‘[The event gave] museum professionals a real proof of the reach and influence of social media and it can awake an interest in what Twitter is all about,’ she says.

 

So was Ask a Curator a success? In many ways, yes. Despite being promoted solely through Twitter, the idea eventually garnered participation from over 340 institutions, each offering a curator to take part in a question and answer session at some point during the day. What’s more, together these museums and galleries span the globe and cover a huge breadth of subject matter and collection material – from the Museum of East Anglian Life in the UK to the Museum of History of Medicine in Brasil.

 

Questions ranged from the general – ‘Have you ever had a piece that you wanted to exhibit but was too large to get into the museum?’ – to the specific – ‘What is your vision for creating a participatory interactive experience with visitors using mobile guide technology? – to the analytical and academic – ‘Is a visual art exhibition a collaborative project between artist and curator? Is there a dominant player?’

 

‘For us, Ask a Curator was the start of an ongoing conversation,’ says Wenke Mast, events and website assistant at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. ‘Our communications department will now screen Twitter every day and pass relevant questions to our curators. We will keep on answering questions.’ Perhaps this is a first step towards breaking down the ‘barriers’ between curators and marketing departments that Richardson observes.

 

And if volume of traffic is a measure of success, the event was barnstorming. The rapid rise of #askacurator – the ‘hashtag’ linking Twitter messages to the subject – led a range of media, including the BBC, to report on the activity. Although these reports largely focused on the social media phenomenon of a trending hashtag, they also discussed the event’s principal idea of connecting museum curators and the public all over the world.

 

The day’s activities also increased Twitter followers for the organisations which took part. ‘We received 403 extra followers from Tuesday 30 August,’ says Maryam Asghari, online and digital marketing manager at the Barbican. ‘The average is 443 extra followers per week, so to get this number in three days is good.’

 

In short, Ask a Curator generated lots of activity around a worthwhile objective, namely giving the global public ‘one-to-one’ access to curators of cultural heritage collections, many of which are publicly held. This huge response reveals genuine interest in the sector’s work, says Museums Sheffield marketing officer for campaigns and digital Dominic Russell-Price. ‘When the calls for scrapping arts funding get ever louder it was heartening to know that the public want to engage and know more about how we work, particularly with questions being about collections, not just exhibitions.’

 

But there are also limitations to the Twitter platform and in many ways Ask a Curator was beset by problems of its own success. The popularity of the event and the fast trending of #askacurator swiftly led the hashtag to be hijacked by spam messages, polluting the stream of genuine messages with rubbish. Because #askacurator is the only identifier of relevant messages it becomes difficult to track associated questions and answers as they stream in from multiple sources. Additionally, many responses were made directly to questioners rather than ‘tweeted’ publicly, further obscuring the exchange.

 

Another inherent limitation is Twitter’s short-form message format of no more than 140 characters. Does this preclude the meaningful and detailed conversation needed to discuss complex curatorial work? Is Twitter actually better suited to providing basic visitor information?

 

‘I think it all lies in the expectations of the Twitter audience,’ says Richardson. ‘Everyone enters Twitter knowing that the messages are short and I think people expect short answers and a certain amount of chaos. Personally, I don’t equate depth of engagement with the length of the answer; the tone and speed of response are for me just as important as they can show that an institution is open and keen to engage with the public.’

 

Certainly, whichever online platform is used for engagement, it is not so much the mechanics that are important, but the content and intention. In this regard, Ask a Curator raised its own valid question: Is there an appetite for this kind of dialogue, from both sides of the exchange, and how can it can enrich the work, understanding and enjoyment of museums and galleries everywhere?

This article was written for Sumo and featured in Museum-ID magazine, October 2010.

Profile: Dunne & Raby

There is a tacit language held within every designed object we encounter. And as consumers of physical products we understand, perhaps subconsciously, that objects embody all sorts of references and qualities, such as safe, clean, reliable, futuristic, fashionable, hi-tech, manufactured, bespoke, corporate, ethnic, male or female. These references are delivered through design and really it’s the language of design that we understand.

It is this literacy that self-described ‘technology idealists’ Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are seeking to harness in order to pose questions about how our use of technology may affect our lives in the future.

Design is seldom used in this way, to ask hypothetical questions about wider social issues or the moral conundrums arising from changes in science and technology. But since forming Dunne & Raby in the mid 1990s, the pair have used their grounding in design to create physical objects that propose often quite difficult questions about the impact, use, control and distribution of new technologies.

‘We’re pursuing the idea that design can be a vehicle to pose questions,’ says Dunne. ‘For us, product design is a medium to explore ideas. We use the language of popular design and industrial processes, which people can relate to, to reflect back the types of questions they might normally expect to find in art.’

Both Dunne and Raby lecture at the Royal College of Art and since 2005 Dunne has led the Design Interactions course there. Many of the same lines of investigation are to be found on this course, where there is a blurring of the boundaries between design, art, science and academic investigation.

As a studio, Dunne & Raby also works with industry, usually with companies that see value in a freer, more questioning look at the future use of technology in society. But it is clear the pair feel most engaged when dealing with thoughtful, discursive ideas, free from commercial objectives. As well as this, Raby notes that much of their work undertaken for industry is restricted by non-disclosure agreements and so cannot be openly discussed, rather undermining its strength.

But in an exhibition of new work, created for the 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial, Dunne & Raby will present a series of ‘possible futures’ built around subjects as broad as synthetic biology, ethics and multiculturalism, neurotechnology and euthanasia. Four scenarios portray fictional futures where certain technological applications, all feasible, have caused society to change in some way. The exhibits ask: Is this good or bad? Do we want this? How and why might we end up here?

Writer Alex Burrett and photographer Jason Evans collaborated with Dunne & Raby to visualise these futures, introducing outline characters and mildly unsettling narratives. The scenarios are clearly fictional and not intended as predictions of, or designs for, the future. So in what way is the work a design project, as opposed to a science fiction vignette?

‘The objects we create are a fiction, and often we’re sliding towards science fiction, but they are designed to look realistic and mundane. If we move too far away from that it becomes more like sculpture or art,’ says Dunne. Raby elaborates: ‘Design can show the ordinariness and banality of objects, so the scenes are plausible enough to contain their own questions and contradictions.’

For Dunne, this work uses design to access our ‘consumer side’ – our understanding of the language of designed products – to engage our ‘citizen side’ to think about their impact. ‘In society, it’s not until we buy things that they become real. And in terms of changing and questioning things I think we may be more powerful as consumers than as citizens, so we are using design to bring these two together.’

It may not be design as we know it, but Dunne & Raby’s ‘critical design’ could offer a philosophy to a new generation of multidisciplinary designers wishing to work within a wider social dimension. Or perhaps it is an approach for the growing number of designers already jaded by the unfettered market forces that regularly drive their work.

The 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial runs from 20 November – 5 December – www.biennale2010.citedudesign.com

This article was written for Design Week, 28 October 2010.

Rebranding Wordsworth

A good brand development process typically means change, or at the very least a questioning of the place and purpose of an organisation. This process inevitably throws up hurdles to overcome, but in doing so, can produce some inspiring results.

This was the case with the Wordsworth Trust, an organisation founded in 1891 as a living memorial to William Wordsworth and his contemporaries in the Romantic cultural movement. Although willing to embrace the branding process, there were nevertheless some in the organisation who questioned its relevance and value.

‘Historically, the Trust had seen marketing as a necessary evil and had probably never really thought about the brand at all: things like Mars chocolate were brands, but not the Wordsworth Trust,’ says Paul Kleian, who joined in 2007 as head of marketing and communications.

The Trust’s properties include Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Wordsworth’s home at the height of his creative output, and the award-winning Jerwood Centre. Together they present the Trust’s Museum and Art Gallery and its extensive collection on Wordsworth and Romanticism. Its range of activities reaches academics, tourists and the local community through an ongoing outreach programme.

But despite obvious strengths as a long-established and invaluable cultural heritage organisation, the Trust lacked a coherent commercial strategy at a time when guaranteed funding was  becoming scarce. To reach more people, more effectively, this needed to be taken seriously, says Kleian.

‘We didn’t have a brand or a clear cut ethos of what the organisation was for. Staff and trustee perceptions all differed and in each case was different from what most visitors thought. But I knew we would have to set aside our own feelings in this because it’s about what our customers think—the scholars, tourists, schools, artists and poets who visit us and work with us. The Trust is actually a very complex organisation that isn’t aiming at any one of these groups but all of them, and that has to come across.’

The Trust agreed to engage a branding and design consultancy and three groups were shortlisted, including Sumo. ‘Two companies were just selling logos, even though they barely knew the organisation, but Sumo stood out in a class of their own,’ says Kleian. ‘I was insistent that we went with designers who would engage as many people as possible within the Trust so that staff had ownership of the process and results. This is what Sumo were proposing.’

While the visible outputs of a branding process are often a new logo and colour palette, this belies the value and depth of the process. ‘Anyone who is thinking of starting a branding process should be deeply suspicious of any design group which immediately starts selling logos,’ says Kleian. The process is actually a careful examination of who you think you are, what your customers think you are and where you would like to be, as Sumo creative director Sarah Hanley explains:

‘We held workshops that are designed to draw out the vision and values of the organisation and everybody speaks at these. We used image prompts and analogies with other things like celebrities or vehicles to examine the Trust’s attributes. This is a good exercise to get people to think about what they are. It turned out that the perception of the Trust was of a highbrow organisation for older, middle class people. But they wanted to offer a journey and experience that is open to everyone.’

Sumo’s workshop gave staff the opportunity to discuss what the Trust is all about, says Kleian. ‘The designers appeared to have completely open minds and this in turn opened minds in the workshop. It was very well done. It became clear that we all think of the Trust in different ways, but we also started to look at it as if from the outside looking in. It was a clever thing and by the end of it a lot of heads here were nodding.’

After the workshop, Sumo produced a document of findings, but no new visual identity. From these findings Kleian and the designers identified four fundamental ‘pillars’ for the organisation—accessibility, knowledge, creativity and heritage—and distilled these into an expression of the Trust’s purpose, namely: ‘Sharing inspiration from the past for the future’.

Once these unifying ideas were in place they could be reflected in graphic designs, including the logo. Informal research showed that the two things people most closely associate with  Wordsworth are writing and daffodils, the latter being the inspiration for his celebrated poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. The designs for the Trust’s main visual identity captured these associations with symbolised renderings of a quill and daffodil. Along with the primary logo, Sumo produced a set of design guidelines that are now used by the Trust to create its own printed material, signage, exhibition graphics and so on.

‘We went backwards and forwards with these graphic ideas, selecting typography and a colour palette which reflected nature and the local landscape, for example, and also developed different visitor brands under a set of Discover icons,’ says Hanley. ‘It was important that everything is seen as academically authoritative to scholars, but the visitor brands need to attract tourists to the venues too.’

Much more than a new logo, the branding process gave the Wordsworth Trust an opportunity to look carefully at itself, from the outside as well as from within, and to forge a clearer vision of its identity and purpose. This identity is now communicated through bespoke graphic elements that are flexible enough to speak to its wide range of audiences and promote all its venues and activities.

But where the design process stops, the new Wordsworth Trust culture is only beginning to emerge. ‘It’s not over internally—it’s an ongoing process,’ says Kleian. ‘I think we’ve done a lot to make everyone think about our customers and people here now ask about the story behind the things we’re doing. Sumo’s consultative attitude really helped our own processes to become more consultative too; it was a really great way to work.’

This article was written for Sumo and features in its Insight: The Branding Issue, Autumn 2010.

In the dark

At last year’s Tokyo Game Show the prototype for a rather unusual video game was unveiled by Tokyo Communication Arts school. While most game studios use expos to wow players with the latest in 3D graphics rendering, TCA’s Blind Braver was built almost entirely around sound. Designed for the blind, the Xbox game put players in the shoes of a partially sighted character, forcing them to navigate through an auditory rather than visual world.

Although a more complete version of Blind Braver has yet to materialise, another title currently in development in the UK will bring the basic idea to a new audience. Created for the iPhone by production company Somethin’ Else, Papa Sangre is an adventure game that takes place entirely in darkness – the phone’s screen remains impenetrably blank throughout play. Trapped in an eerie, beast-inhabited underworld, the player must travel through Papa Sangre’s various palaces using only sounds for orientation.

‘It was inspired by a theatre game called Sangre y Patatas, in which players are blindfolded and made to walk on different materials,’ says Ben Cave, Papa Sangre’s producer at Somethin’ Else. In the dark, each person is trying to avoid Sangre, the player who is the killer.

What makes Papa Sangre special is its complex 3D sound design. The game would not work without a delicately balanced sound field in which ’sound objects’ – surface textures, instruments, creatures and the like – are located precisely all around the player using ordinary stereo headphones.

Funded by Channel 4’s Innovation for the Public fund, 4iP, and developed by a multidisciplinary team, including sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, Papa Sangre uses binaural sound placement – special recordings that mimic the way the ears and brain perceive the location of sound in the real world. Binaural recording of 3D sound is not new, but unlike other binaural iPhone games such as Soultrapper by Real Time Audio Adventures, in Papa Sangre the spatialised sound effects are computed and triggered in response to the player’s movement through the environment. In other words, the binaural sound is dynamic, not pre-recorded and fixed.

Computational 3D audio on a phone is the latest breakthrough in a long history of 3D sound research and implementation, demonstrating what can now be achieved with the processor in a tiny handheld device.

‘We have been working with 3D soundscapes for ten years, so it doesn’t surprise me that people are building a binaural game for the iPhone,’ says Martyn Ware, director of Illustrious Company, a venture he co-founded with fellow musician and producer Vince Clarke. But unlike the audio world of Papa Sangre, which is created specifically for headphones, the majority of Illustrious projects have been designed for physical spaces.

‘The implications of 3D sound for exhibition and public spaces is very interesting. It’s about creating a totally immersive experience. The better the technology is at creating a sense of reality, the less apparent it is and the more affecting the experience becomes,’ says Ware.

The Dark, for example, was a touring installation produced in 2004 by Braunarts to tell the story of Britain’s role in the slave trade during the 18th century. Visitors were taken to a pitch black room containing a 3D audio environment designed by Illustrious. Left only with sound and imagination, the audience could explore ’ghost’ voices from, for example, the decks of a slave ship.

The development of a complex, three-dimensional sound world presents particular problems for sound designers and software developers, says Cave. Even with the algorithms and processing power to handle a dynamic binaural environment, some sounds are inherently easier for people to locate spatially than others. And in a system without visuals, some sounds require context, while others don’t.

But when these challenges are overcome, responsive 3D sound environments may provide a new component in interaction design. ’Could you use a 3D sound interface as a menu structure, or to browse collections of data, such as a music catalogue?’ asks Cave.

In fact, Mark Sandler, a Professor at the School of Electronic Engineering & Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London, is researching this very idea.

As an alternative to graphic user interfaces on portable audio players, Sandler is developing ’a purely audio means of interacting with a playlist’ of songs in a music catalogue. In this system, four songs are played simultaneously through headphones, but they are separated spatially to different points in the 3D sound environment. This allows the user to listen to all four distinctly and simultaneously, navigating to the one they want either through buttons (real or virtual) or by titling the device in the appropriate direction.

The accessibility implications for the blind or partially sighted are obvious. With more powerful processors available each year and with gesture control emerging as a digital interaction technique, the possibilities for exploring three-dimensional sound worlds are tantalising.

 This article was written for Design Week, 2 September 2010.

The big picture

“I have a particular beef with the notion of authorship,” says Bob Baxter, one of the founding directors of London-based design consultancy At Large.

It is a preoccupation that seems to underpin the consultancy’s approach to exhibition design work, perhaps with good reason: for people who are wary of designers – those who fear a creative prima donna figure, intent on stamping a singular vision over a project – Baxter’s is an allaying reassurance.

“Authorship doesn’t come into it because you’re dealing with all sorts of creative inputs,” he says. “It’s not even art directing because we’re not necessarily focusing people on what we want; it’s a collaborative endeavour. If you’re working together as a group of people the excitement is when you find something, not when you create something, but when you find it – it just jumps out.”

Having already worked together in various configurations over the years, the group’s three founders – Baxter, plus architects Ned Phillips and Helen Abadie – came together on projects for the Millennium Dome in London in the 1990s. While few involved with the Dome recall the experience fondly, for Abadie, Baxter and Phillips it forged a unit and working method that seemed too fruitful to relinquish.

“We put together [the Dome’s Money Zone] with a very tight but incredibly talented team. For me, it was not wanting to let go of this really good working practice that had established itself, this natural combination of skills,” recalls Baxter.

This working practice has served them well so far, helping the consultancy build a portfolio that includes the Holocaust Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London, giant educational plants and insects at the Climbers & Creepers play area in Kew Gardens in London, and the British Museum’s Lost Tomb-chapel of Nebamun gallery.

On the eve of the group’s 10th anniversary, At Large has just finished what is arguably its most high-profile project to date, the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) Darwin Centre exhibition, which opened in September last year. As with many major museum projects, the Darwin Centre is the outward manifestation of cultural and institutional change; in this case, it is NHM’s desire to illuminate its role as an important scientific hothouse, as well as every kid’s favourite dinosaur haunt. To this end, the contents of the Darwin Centre’s beguiling “cocoon” structure provide a publicly visible union of exhibitions and scientific study.

What stands out in the Darwin Centre exhibition is precisely what “jumped out” in At Large’s consultation with the museum’s staff – namely, that the best people to talk about the work of NHM’s scientists are the scientists themselves. As a result, visitors are guided through the linear, spiralling exhibition by four NHM scientists, liberated from their labs via a series of video presentations.

“When we started they spoke only of scientists and their expertise and their collections. But they also wanted it to be personal – they wanted people to get involved with the work of the museum as a scientific institution,” says Baxter. “So we said ‘let’s stop talking about them as scientists for a moment, let’s talk about us all being curious about the world’. And we built the exhibition around this notion of curiosity. It became clear that the scientists’ excitement about the research and their advocacy of the scientific method, which is what the Darwin Centre is really all about, could perhaps be communicated directly to the public. The design challenge then lay in making the link between the scientists and the public as direct as possible.”

A similar search for the voice of the exhibition informed a much smaller project, the Household Cavalry Museum in Whitehall, London. Better known as the Horse Guards, the Household Cavalry has guarded the main entrance to the royal residences and provided protection for queens and kings for more than 300 years. Along the way, it has collected an array of objects, treasures, achievements and stories. But unlike most museum collections, these objects were never the subject of academic inquiry. Rather than being studied and interpreted by curators, the cavalry’s collection was merely “kept” in Windsor by volunteer soldiers and ex-soldiers. Inevitably, this raised questions of how to exhibit and interpret the material for the public.

“This is the oldest British regiment and it has an extraordinary quality in the relationship between the officers and men that’s really so strong – they all feel it. Squaddies and officers are all talking about the same thing. They talk about ‘our’ regiment. So it was fascinating to try and tap in to that,” says Baxter.

To present this sense of belonging, the exhibition’s text – its narrative – is written in the first person as a series of stories and observations told, or retold, by the same soldiers who are working in the stables behind a wall of glass. This approach to the text, along with the fact that the building is the cavalry’s home, helps to personalise the otherwise rather disparate exhibits.

“If you took those objects and put them in a temporary show in the V&A [Victoria & Albert Museum, London] or somewhere else, it would be different again,” says Phillips. “That’s their home, and one of the ‘exhibits’ is looking through the window and in to the horses. It’s a real place, it’s happening there, just like the scientists in the Darwin Centre labs. The people who are telling you this story, you’ve just seen them outside.”

Unlocking the stories in museum collections – and finding a perspective for an exhibition – requires an open, collaborative approach, Baxter says. In this way, At Large is more facilitator or producer than creative auteur. “If we’re talking about what sits behind our work, the key driver is probably in working with people to find the purpose of what they’re trying to do, the vision for their project,” says Baxter. “And once you’ve got it, you have to test it in all kinds of ways. Then it’s really important that everyone hears the same thing together so you’re building something consistent, because as the project changes – and these things are three or four years [long], with huge changes – what is it you’re going to hang on to? What is your measure of success at the end of it? Our job is to reflect that back all the time, to say ‘remember three years ago when we were talking about this, this is what we came up with and this is what we’ve still got’.”

In developing an exhibition space, it’s important to plan to scale and “in physical proximity and association, see the real material scaled in relation to each other,” adds Baxter.

More broadly, the group approaches exhibition design and development by taking a view of the “entire visit”, starting before a potential visitor has even contemplated walking through the door and continuing after they have returned home. This demands a very clear idea of what the museum is all about. Partly, a “design” process helps clarify that role for individual institutions, but it’s also a question that all museums are repeatedly asking. Are museum exhibitions about entertainment, learning, stories, collecting, or, increasingly, social interaction?

“I sense that museums are more certain about their role and purpose these days. Going back 15 or 20 years museums lost their direction and started to look to other models like entertainment. Everyone used to go off to the States and look at other things from a visitor management point of view and experience point of view – Disney and all kinds of things were used as models,” says Baxter. “It’s a long time since I’ve heard the remark that people get up on a Saturday morning and decide whether to go to Thorpe Park [theme park] or the British Museum. That was said a lot 20 years ago and you never hear it anymore, which implies that museums are more confident in their offer and how they are perceived.”

This renewed confidence seems to have come largely from a conviction that museums are places for learning. “Everyone seems to be much more relaxed now about going to a museum because it’s a learning experience. And there’s been a broadening of what learning might mean,” says Baxter. “It’s something that we’re trying to work through, the expectation people bring with them to museums, the reason that you decide to go in the first place. You go to learn something. Even the notion of it being a fun learning experience has started to mature in a lot of museums. People are less anxious about it being seen as fun. There’s less emphasis on things like immersive environments; we’re not asked for those very often now.”

For the the permanent London, Sugar & Slavery gallery at the Museum of London Docklands, confidence in the museum as a place of serious learning and discussion was crucial in reaching out to new audiences and giving treatment to a sensitive and emotive subject. Working with At Large “way beyond the confines of a curatorial department”, the Museum of London Docklands used community advisers to talk to black and ethnic minority groups to create an “authoritative support for exploring really difficult things, way beyond entertainment”. The space itself is developed as part gallery, part workshop and part multimedia presentation, with a simple son et lumière show taking over the environment every 20 minutes.

Increasingly, At Large considers the adaptability of an exhibition space for ongoing activities and interactions. In all the projects mentioned here, there are some points in the galleries that are specifically designed to allow interpreters to move in quickly and easily, as well as areas for equipment to be added and removed. “We’re increasingly finding aspirations to allow semi-formal events to happen and chance encounters to take place,” says Phillips. “It’s interesting that real physical spaces, with real things in them, encounters with objects, are still immensely powerful in a world where you can now have all kinds of encounters with perhaps much larger groups of people with much wider ranges of opinion. But that real place with other people is still incredibly potent as an experience.”

This article was written for Museum Practice, Spring 2010 (Issue 49)