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‘We light, frame and stage, says Dinah Casson about the anarchic, sensorial and invisible world of exhibition design’

The Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network features Dinah’s thoughts on the pivotal if often overlooked role of exhibition design in A spotlight on the exhibition designer

2013_Dinah_Casson“Like theatre design, exhibition design plays a supportive role that has the potential to elevate an experience from the ordinary to the extraordinary”.

Read the full piece below or on the Culture Professionals Network blog

Two seconds of reflection after entering an exhibition should make it clear that someone has decided where things go – that each thing affects another; that colour, light, materiality and space are key components of any installation; that labels can affect the pleasure or irritation of a visit.

But few notice. These things are the responsibility of the exhibition designer and the lack of understanding and critical debate of this pivotal role continues to surprise me.

An invisible craft, its creative merit is often overlooked yet its power to bring objects and ideas to life is tangible. Remember what solemn and inaccessible places museums and galleries used to be? With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, exhibition design has revolutionised public engagement in our art, history and cultural institutions, which are now encouraged to regard visitors as a source of income and ideas, rather than of sticky fingers, dust and requests for the WCs.

Our design process is guided by considerations for story, space and people. We gather up the objects and stories that the curators feel best explain the subject in hand. Standing as mediators between the specialist interests of the curator and the more general interests of the visitor, we begin the task of interpreting, editing, sorting and directing, asking difficult questions such as: why is this object so important; which objects need to talk to each other; what is the real story behind this?

Once the stories are clear, we then work on how best to tell them. The objective is to create a strong narrative that will enable the objects to speak, and compel visitors to listen. Curators, understandably, tend to believe their objects speak for themselves – and some do, but many don’t.

The epergne in the British Galleries at the V&A, for example, is no longer the centrepiece of the contemporary dining table ; and the double ended metal bar in Nelson Navy Nation looks like an old tool – not a lethal spinning weapon that ships lobbed at each other during sea battles. Such objects need to be given a voice. To create that voice, we juxtapose, we light, we frame, we stage – everything we can to engage the visitor, and contribute to understanding and personal reflection.

Like theatre design, exhibition design plays a supportive role that has the potential to elevate an experience from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Apart from the many technical complexities to resolve – light levels, conservation issues, circulation issues, fire issues, structural issues, technology issues – we seek solutions that surprise and enhance, and these are often spatial. The mirroring of the wall in the Nelson Navy Nation exhibition, for example, gives us the exact dimension of the deck of the HMS Victory, and the lighting baffles create a feeling of bright sky but within conservation standards.

The complexities of this work require a process with long development times, from a few months to several years: the Stanley Spencer gallery at Somerset House took seven months, but the British Galleries at the V&A took five years, and the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia seven.

Few visitors care about the details, and, when they arrive at a venue, they become anarchist. Unlike the more passive experiences of watching a film or play, or reading a book, exhibition audiences are on their feet and will go where they like, when they like. They are wonderfully unpredictable in what catches their attention and how long that can be sustained.

The skill of the designer is to plan and balance the experience – tempting the visitor with sensorial pleasure, encouraging thoughtful contemplation, developing a journey through the subject, piquing and rewarding curiosity. In Hollywood Costume, the intimacy of the conversations that visitors were invited to join were a strong contrast to the spatial explosion immediately afterwards.

Museum technology, however, is one thing that does provoke discussion. It is frequently associated with dumbing down and kid’s free-fall into mindless button pushing but, used appropriately, technology can enhance the subject, creating opportunities for deep and dynamic engagement, as demonstrated in the Churchill War Rooms.

It is also one of the tools that will help us create the next generation of museums and liberate visitors to connect with objects, art and ideas on their own terms.

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