Why Design Matters

Sunniva Geuer

How do you go about interesting the visitor in a display of portrait miniatures in a 2,000 square foot space? Or tell the story of a one room school house that was built by the descendants of slaves who made their way from Oklahoma to Alberta in the early 20th century? How about installing an interactive exhibition about each of Rocket Richard’s 544 lifetime goals? And what does one do with 2,000 or so antique light bulbs in an exhibition about the earth’s resources that also tackles the subject of climate change?

Unsure? A designer can help. A designer helps clients identify and clarify what it is they are hoping to produce. Designing is about making ideas explicit, thinking, analyzing and producing comprehensive detail drawings, graphic layouts and specifications. Designers are aware of the latest technologies, building methods and materials that are on the market. They can assist in finding the best contractors for each task and will oversee the fabrication and installation of the project. A good designer will also implement a value engineering process to make sure that you get the best product for the lowest cost, whatever that may be.

It is best to bring the designer on board once the museum staff have decided on the basic theme of the exhibit, but before diving into the detail of how best to tell each story. Designers use many different methods in order to present content in an engaging way.

From the micro of artefact displays, graphic panels, illustrations, photographs, to modern interactives (both mechanical and digital), recreations, scale models, projections, gobos, audio visuals, light shows, art commissions, floor graphics, and augmented reality — the possibilities and combinations are endless. A good exhibition designer will also help you to explore an overall design look and feel that includes choosing a colour palette, fonts and design styles that will ensure the space works together as a cohesive experience.

Not all museums have access to extensive budgets with which to produce each exhibition but that shouldn’t matter. A recent project featured virtual mining technologies currently being developed to map all types of mines. This information could have been presented as text and images but we felt it would be a better experience if it was more interactive. We considered building a replica of a mine that the visitor could enter but budget issues led us to a virtual approach located within a simple structure that evokes the entrance of a mine. The visitor can now go into the space that we designed and using a joy stick they can virtually ‘travel’ through a mine of their choice.

In another project, we worked with the Arnprior and District Museum to develop, design, fabricate and install a new exhibition about the history of lumbering in the region. This is a small museum with a small budget to match so we worked with the museum staff to come up with a content document and volunteers wrote and translated the text. We borrowed display cases from a larger museum, produced scaled drawings of the artefacts so that we could group them in a way that made sense and then proceeded to produce a drawing package that indicated where everything in the exhibit was to be located including artifacts, videos, props, text panels and labels. This took only a few days to accomplish so not a very costly undertaking and volunteers referred to these drawings in order to build the exhibition and install the graphics and the artifacts within the cases.

Should you find that you are working within an even tighter budget than we had for this project and you feel you could use some design advice, contact a designer and have them come in for a few hours of consultation before you start your project. Good design does not need to be expensive and the end result will be worth the small amount it will cost you up front to get some good creative advice.

Sometimes it’s difficult to explain why good design is so important to the exhibition development process, but it is. Find an excellent designer with a good track record who has museum experience and who will listen to you, and you will find that the entire process runs more smoothly with a result that is cogent and creative — you will have produced a unique experience that people want to see.

Paul Rand was both concise and poetic:
“To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.” — Paul Rand

Adventures in Design
I Know You by Heart

In 2011 our company was awarded a contract to design a travelling exhibition of portrait miniatures for the Portrait Gallery at Library and Archives Canada, I Know You by Heart.

While we were working on the concept, a colleague who was travelling in Europe visited an exhibition about portrait miniatures. Lined up row after row about an inch apart with labels underneath, the decision to display the miniatures in this way was legitimate if the point of the exhibition was to show what must have been a very extensive and impressive collection but it was also overwhelming. More importantly, it negated the importance of each individual artifact.

The curator for I Know You by Heart reminded us that these tiny paintings of loved ones were created in the time before photography — pre-selfies, pre-Snapchat, and pre-Instagram. Being mindful of the intimate nature of the artifacts, each portrait was allocated a generous amount of space, with individual mounts as would be done for precious jewels, and each image was displayed at the optimum viewing angle under specially designed light fixtures.

Dark, muted wall colours were chosen and the ambient light in the gallery was turned down so that each person’s face seemed to radiate under a soft glow, drawing the visitor in for closer inspection. A minimal amount of text was located on slim reader rails illuminated in a way so as not to interfere with the light on the objects. The floor plan allowed enough space so that the visitors could take their time and study each individual face carefully, much as the original owners must have years ago. The visitor could get close enough to study each individual portrait, close enough to notice the wear marks on the leather case that had been used to carry the portrait where the owner had obviously opened it often to gaze into the face of a lost child. The visitor could understand the importance of each one of the tiny portraits and how each one may have been carried close to the heart of the original owner.

World War Women

The exhibition World War Women at the Canadian War Museum was divided into several sections surrounded by a curvilinear corridor. The visitor traveled along this curved wall to discover a series of touching personal stories, images and artefacts housed in cases that were recessed into the wall every few feet. These stories, researched and beautifully written by museum staff told us how women struggled through anxiety, loss and grief to contribute to the war effort, building the emotion as the visitor moved through the space. 

Carefully selected music and lighting along this wall added to the experience. It was important that the design of this exhibit ensured that this highly emotional experience would be private. The design helped to create a moment of recognition between the visitor and the subject that would not likely have been possible if the artifacts had been presented without privacy, allowing the visitor to feel safe in their emotions.

Danika Grenier of the Ottawa Tourism Journalist was able to speak to the experience of this exhibit:
“As I stood there looking at a more than 62-year-old piece of lace, tears began to roll down my cheek…Beside me, two War Museum visitors also sniffled quietly and wiped their eyes as they walked by.”

From Earth to Us

Designed for Ingenium, the From Earth to Us gallery included a section about climate change with a focus on the extraction of glacial ice cores by scientists, something they do to check climate change data. The original idea was to present a real ice core and keep it in a freezer on the floor but we felt that this did not speak to the importance of the topic, only the size of the sample. Instead, we suggested a melting glacier be placed in the centre of the exhibit to make much more of an impact and the content team agreed. We designed and built a seventeen-foot-high glacial wall and projected a specially produced, animated video on the front of it.

For the same Museum we were also asked if we could use a collection of almost two thousand antique light bulbs in the gallery somewhere and we agreed, though at the time we had no idea what they might be used for. The bulbs had been donated many years ago but had been stored in boxes ever since and the curator felt that visiting public had a right to see them. So we took an artistic approach with the artifacts. The bulbs were suspended from a grid on the ceiling along with 500 LEDs. The visitor can choose one of four animations by pushing a button causing the LEDs to light up in different patterns and sequences. Without the creative use of design and art — the light bulbs would probably never have be seen or at best would be seen in open storage where the visitor would only see row upon row of the things and not contribute to the narrative or experience of the exhibit.  M

Sunniva Geuer
Sunniva Geuer is the principal designer at Bouwdesign, one of the award-winning design firms behind last year’s CMA Award for Outstanding Achievement 2018 for the new galleries at Ingenium, the CMA Award for Outstanding Achievement in the category of Cultural Heritage 2018 as well as the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence for the exhibit Footprints: A Walk Through Generations. Here she shares her thoughts on why designers are essential, along with some of her favourite design projects. 

This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, May/June issue, 2019.