British Museum blog

A wooden O



Alan Farlie, Exhibition designer,
RFK Architects Ltd

Explaining the job of an exhibition designer is not straightforward as it depends on the type of exhibition and the type of story being told. For a paintings and drawings show we may work with existing gallery walls and the job is about placement and selection of wall colours. Designing Shakespeare: staging the world was far more complicated than that.

We were finishing the installation of Treasures of Heaven in 2011 when I was asked if we would pitch for the Shakespeare exhibition. The British Museum was already working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of the reasons for the pitch was to see how we would work with Tom Piper, Associate Designer at the RSC. At RFK we believe there should be an intellectual foundation to all of our design work and the first stage, before putting pencil to paper, is research. In the case of Shakespeare that involved research into the objects and the story, but also a look at Tom’s work for the RSC and thoughts on the differences between exhibition design and theatre design.

People often talk about ‘theatrical’ design, as shorthand for flamboyant, noisy and in many cases over-blown design. Tom’s designs for the RSC are consciously modern and often stripped back, which immediately struck a chord with us. And an interview with the Guardian reinforced the sense that Tom had a similar approach to his work: “Perhaps surprisingly, Piper starts with the text: reading the script, picking out words, themes, politics – any hook that might snag an idea”. For us it’s the objects rather than the text but the principle is the same. Unless you understand the objects and the curatorial story any exhibition will just be a repeat of some standard formula.

In our pitch to the BM we included sketches that illustrated the principle differences between exhibition and theatre design.

Sketches showing one of the fundamental differences between Theatre and Exhibition – the narrative in a play is defined by the passage of time; the narrative in an exhibition is defined by the visitor passing through space.

In the theatre, the audience remains in a fixed location as the spectacle changes everyone starts the play at the same time and finishes at the same time. The experience is a shared one that unfolds over time.

In an exhibition, the spectacle is fixed. It tends to be an individual experience that unfolds as the visitor moves through the space at his or her own pace, encountering new points of view with every step. Our challenge was to blend the visual language of performance-based stage design with that of object-based exhibition design and to come up with something new and unexpected.

The original section titles as briefed and a diagram showing visitor circulation with London at the heart and non-linear circulation.

The exhibition is structured around the idea of nine ‘Imagined Worlds’ each of which represents different aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. Our first sketches showed the first of these ‘London 1612’ at the heart of the exhibition with all the other sections linking to it. As the design developed it became apparent this would not work practically but we felt it was important to retain the sense of London being at the exhibition’s heart, if not its physical centre.

Early sketch illustrating the idea of seeing through to the books.

We were also struck by the resonances of an exhibition about ‘the text’ being staged within the Round Reading Room, which is still a working library and from the outset wanted to express that connection. In the final design this was achieved by cutting a series of slot windows that give views onto the bookstacks.

The first draft of the design model

To develop the design, we used a series of models at various scales. Models are perfect for collaborations of this kind and allow for immediate exchange of ideas. They are not precious and are there to be cut and carved as part of the process. The first draft, shown here, has just four elements (the large ring is the lighting ring originally installed for The First Emperor exhibition): at bottom left is London or the ‘Wooden O’ as it became known; at top right is a second curve that enclosed ‘The New World’ and in the centre of the room, two large walls that carried two of the largest objects (Fialletti’s view of Venice and the Sheldon Tapestry Map, which featured in previous blogs) and also began to define Venice, Arden and Great Britain. This basic structure of circles, arcs and straight walls was overlaid and developed to become the exhibition now on display.

Final version of the model

This photo of the (almost) final design shows how the circle of the ‘Wooden O’ breaks down and is repeated at different scales in combination with the flat painted walls to create the different worlds. In the first section the curved walls are finished in stained plywood fixed vertically to reference the architecture of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. In the next section the plywood breaks up to form the ‘trees’ of the Forest of Arden with a sandblasted and stained finish. In medieval England and the Classical world of Julius Caesar the plywood is laid on its side and whitewashed to reference monumental stonework. And to represent the world of Macbeth a charred and blackened finish combines with a deep red and a series of slots to create a sense of menace and uncertainty.

The final section focuses on the strange and foreign New World of The Tempest. As the new lands were so full of surprises for the Elizabethan and Jacobean explorers, so this final space in the exhibition speaks of a blank canvas, a liminal space, full of potential and wonder. This is invoked using the vocabulary of contemporary art galleries and cinema. The walls, floor and ceiling are white and the lighting is diffuse so that this space evokes the starkness of the White Cube and the other-worldliness of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

This is just a taster of the work that went into the design and there are many other collaborations that are an essential part of putting together an exhibition of this scale. In particular we worked closely with the lighting designer (Zerlina Hughes of Studio ZNA) and digital media consultant (David Bickerstaff at Newangle) as well as the in house graphic designer at the British Museum. So finally – a couple of images of the completed exhibition – I hope you get a chance to see it.

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” (Henry V prologue). Above the First Folio the ceiling beams radiate to reach out, beyond the wooden O, to Shakespeare’s imagined worlds. © Nick Rochowski Photography

The final section takes its cue from the white walls of modern gallery spaces to invoke ‘the shock of the new’. Strange objects and creatures from the new world are displayed in a soft diffuse light. © Nick Rochowski Photography

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. L Parkin says:

    Just spent 3 hours enjoying this exhibition – ALL EXCEPT FOR THE READINGS. I found them intrusive, repetitive, preventing concentration on the exhibits and hindering my immersion in the world of London in the 16th century. And mostly they weren’t even very well read.

    An exhibiton like this requires close attention, not extraneous noise, and these readings severly impaired mine. Tiring, as well as frustrating.

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  2. beeseeker says:

    Would love to visit the exhibition, especially after reading this- thanks for the insight into the behind-the-design thinking.

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  3. GabeD says:

    I spent four hours enjoying this exhibit. I was taken back four centuries to vicariously experience bits and pieces of the world Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived in. It was truly and educational experience.

    Like L. Parkin above, I found the loud audio continuously playing in each of the sections of this exhibit rather intrusive and distracting. I could have used silence to focus on what I chose to pay attention to.

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