Geffrye Museum

Never underestimate the power of a fridge magnet.

Last Friday, I went to the ACE Study Day ‘Aspects of Publishing: Guide and Souvenir Books’ at the Geffrye Museum. We’re in the process of redeveloping our guidebook at work, and it was interesting to see how other organisations and museums had come to their decisions about the kinds of books they produce, and who they are for.

It was great to hear people speak openly about what had and hadn’t worked in their institutions, and how they dealt with external factors, such as placement within their shops and ticketing areas, and the ways that staff help sell them as part of a visit. It was also interesting to hear people speak honestly about the tensions between commercial and curatorial needs within the institution, and the strategies for overcoming them. The title of this post comes from a response to a question about the needs of museum shops to ensure they make money while maintaining the voice of the institution.

The range of publications was wide, and raised a lot of questions about where we might go with our guidebook, what its function might be, and who it is for:

  • Does it need to act as a guide? Is its main function to help guide people around the exhibition and interpret the pieces on display? Does it need to contain a map? Is the intention that the book is used while at the centre?

Our current guidebook has a spread for each of our galleries, with key objects to see, as well as a map, and information about our other business activities, such as Education, Venue Hire and Weddings. We were shown examples of books which offered ‘A quick look’, and ‘containing 10 trails’, which were specifically intended to guide the visitor on the day.

  • Does it need to focus on the collection and exhibits? Should the book be specifically tied to aspects of the collection and the exhibits we have in the space, or should it be used to open up wider themes?

Prejudice and PrideIn the case of the Space Centre, could we use impressive images from Hubble or NASA’s archive to frame themes we address in the exhibition, rather than focusing on objects we hold or display? This potentially gives the guidebook a longer life, as the exhibition changes over time.

The National Trust recently published Prejudice and Pride, which celebrates and focuses on LGBTQ Heritage across the National Trust sites.

By focusing on a theme in the context of British heritage, the book is not a guide to a visit, but rather a resource that reflects on hidden or previously untold histories as part of a wider discourse on heritage, representation and visibility.

  • Who is it for? Should the guidebook be aimed at the reader who wants more in-depth information to supplement their experience at the centre? Should it be a visually led document that triggers memories and discussion about the visit? Is it aimed at all visitors, or targeted at a specific reader? Is it for kids?

Our current guidebook is a mix of all of the above, which over time (and with incremental changes) has become a tangle of information, voices and intention. One of the triggers for this new redevelopment has been the recognition that we need to focus the guidebook and ask who and what is it for.

  • Do we need more than one? Does it make sense to divide the guidebooks into separate smaller pieces which can appeal to different readers, uses and price-points?

100 PortraitsWe were shown great examples of institutions’ range of books, from text-heavy interpretations of the museum, to pocket-sized books selling at £5, to kids’ activity books, which were created in response to audiences needs.

A great example is the National Portrait Gallery’s 100 Portraits book, which is small (150mm x 150mm), image-focused paperback, and retails for £6.95. It sits within a range of other publications from the National Portrait Gallery and is the kind of thing that would make a great gift or souvenir.

As we approach our new guidebook, these questions will help us form our ideas and work out the best way forward. I’m hoping that eventually we will develop a range of books which enable us to tell our stories in different ways and appeal to different audiences with a credible and confident voice.

Grange Hill

Back to School!

I’ve just signed up for the Museum Association’s AMA professional development scheme. I’m really excited about the programme, and looking forward to developing new directions and ideas over the three years. I’m also excited to be able to have a framework to support critical reflection and looking beyond the everyday demands and restrictions of the space I work in.

I’m currently working as Exhibition Designer at the National Space Centre. I’m not sure it’s the same for everyone who has a similar role, but it’s one I’ve found my way into, rather than having a defined career goal from the start. I started out after university making visual art and performance before getting excited by web design in the 90’s, and via a wiggly path involving digital arts projects, horror film festivals, motion capture, teaching, and performing as Britney Spears at Glastonbury, I joined the National Space Centre as a web designer in 2011. Through luck and meeting some great colleagues, the role has changed over the years, and these days I’m mainly designing spaces, interactives and graphics, as well as being involved in the Exhibition Leadership Team.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have had such a varied work history. The transferrable skills, approaches and ways of thinking are all valuable things to have, but I’m not sure it’s consistent, and it makes me anxious that I’m missing fundamental experience and understanding of aspects of the Museums and Visitor Centre sector.

I’m also, to be honest, not entirely sure what Exhibition Designer means! Should I be writing and proposing stories and treatments for the galleries and the visitor experience? Should I be walking round with a pencil behind my ear, or heavy rimmed glasses and a turtle neck jumper? Should I be providing detail drawings and material lists to contractors? Should I be writing interactive software, or briefing someone else to do it? Should I be researching audiences, trends and new ways to engage visitors? Instinctively, I think it’s all of these things, but I’m aware that as I look around at jobs with that title, it’s sometimes a tiny, specialised bit of that list that people are looking for, and sometimes all of it and more!

The National Space Centre opened in 2001, and in some places, you can really tell! That’s no criticism, it’s the reality of any museum or exhibition space. Knowledge develops and changes, stories gain or lose relevance, audience expectations change, and parts of the exhibition begin to look dusty and dated. We are lucky to have an exhibition team in-house who can continue to refresh and redevelop the centre, whether replacing a damaged graphic or reimagining a space to communicate an idea better, or to allow our visitors to experience it in a new way. As a team, we are developing new ways to make the exhibition more accessible, inclusive and participatory.

I’m lucky that work is giving me the time and space to work on the AMA, and to be part of a team that values the need for research and reflection. I’m looking forward to asking the tough questions about what my role is and should be, and what the National Space Centre is and can be. I’ll be posting my thoughts and questions here as I go (I’ll tag them as AMA), it would be great to hear from you!

 

BSA Icons

BSA Scientist Top Trumps

I’ve just finished working on a set of Scientist Top Trumps for the British Science Association : Brighton and Hove Branch. They were launched on the 5 September, as part of the British Science Festival 2017, with different cards being placed in venues across the city, encouraging collectors to visit the different spaces and take part in the talks and activities there.

It’s been a really fun project to work on, and it was great to have the opportunity to work with the BSA. I really liked the diversity and range of scientists who were featured, and enjoyed reading their stories. The colours and fonts were chosen to fit the BSA branding guidelines, and I made an icon pattern for the back of the cards. The portraits were found on Wikipedia, with the background headers coming from stock, or public domain libraries.

Here are some of my favourites. If you’re out and about in Brighton, try to collect the set!

 

Eden

Eden: Journey into Space

Earlier this year, I worked with the Eden Project on their new summer holidays exhibition, Journey Into Space. The exhibition formed their summer programme, and included an Alien Encounter, Astronaut training, a Solar System Safari and a VR Theatre, alongside talks and activities.


 

The key areas we were involved in designing were the Solar System Safari, and the VR Theatre.

The Solar System Safari is a walkthrough exhibition which takes the visitor through the Solar System, starting from the Sun and returning to Earth at the end of the journey, via ten interlinked spaces. Each space in the exhibition uses elements of sculpture, lighting, audio and video to give the viewer an experiential view of the planet or Solar System object.

The process of working with the team at Eden involved collaborating (mostly remotely) to fix ideas, scope the needs of the individual rooms and to design the piece to make a coherent journey. It was important that each room gave the viewer a different experience, and that the story of returning to Earth was key to the exhibit.

Our initial process involved using Mural to throw together visual ideas and inspirations. The advantage of using Mural, especially in remote meetings was the potential to update live and add new elements as they were discussed. From this early collaboration, we were able to map out the space, and to begin to design the elements of each space.

I mapped out the space in Sketchup, which allowed us to get a real sense of the space, and to begin to work out the sizes and technical needs for the projections, as well as the set elements.

Eden Sketches

Sketchup designs of the Solar Safari exhibit

Our team at NSC Creative was responsible for creating the media elements for the exhibition, which included an animated Sun, volcanoes on Venus, a Pepper’s Ghost projection of Saturn, and a five screen animation of the Earth as seen from the ISS.

On-site install.

In early July, Kyle and me headed down to Eden to spend a week installing the media and helping to get the exhibition ready for opening.

The Solar Safari is built on the stage area of Eden, a temporary exhibit space which is used for Eden Sessions, holiday exhibits and special events. This meant that the exhibition was installed in a week, from start to finish! There was a large team working throughout the day to build, install, troubleshoot and tidy the space. The atmosphere was great, and the team was fantastic.

It was great to see the exhibit forming around us, and to be involved in such a concentrated burst of activity.

It’s been an honour to work on such a large and fun project, and to spend time working with the team at Eden. It’s been great to see people’s reactions to the project too!