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)

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