Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 10: Interviews with exhibition makers

Panel Overview:

Jon Ould (Designer, British Museum, UK), interviewed by Kate Guy (University of Brighton, UK)

Nima Poovya Smith (Alchemy Anew, UK), interviewed by Hajra Williams (University of Brighton, UK)

Alex McCuaig (MET Studio, UK), interviewed by Chris White (Winkle-Picker/University of Wollongong, Hong Kong)

Individual Papers:

Jon Ould (British Museum, UK), interviewed by Kate Guy (University of Brighton, UK)

In conversation with Kate Guy, Jon Ould will reflect on his career as an exhibition designer to examine the changes and continuities of the role and its practices and processes. The discussion hopes to explore the similarities and differences between exhibition design and museum exhibition design to consider what makes museum exhibition design unique.

Kate Guy is undertaking an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Award with the University of Brighton and British Museum. Her project explores the history of exhibition design practice at the British Museum (BM). It will assess how museum exhibition professionals have responded to the changing contexts of museum funding, legislation and core purpose over the last 60 years — setting the development of the BM’s Design Office within the national context of temporary museum exhibition design practice. Before starting her PhD research, Kate worked as an Education Officer at Amberley Museum in West Sussex, UK.

Jon Ould (MCSD Exhibition Designer), trained at Twickenham College of Technology, specialising in Museum and Exhibition Design. After work experience projects with interior decoration companies including Crown Paints, he became an Exhibition Designer at the Commonwealth Institute, Kensington, where he spent ten years designing popular permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions. Since 1989 Jon has been an Exhibition Designer at the British Museum where he has continued to design galleries and exhibitions.

Nima Poovya Smith (Independent, UK), interviewed by Hajra Williams (University of Brighton, UK)

An insightful look at exhibition making, negotiation and relationship building between national and local authority museums, between curators and between the museum and the community. This interview is an opportunity to explore the work of Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith, from the early groundbreaking exhibitions at Cartwright Hall in Bradford in the 1990s, to the Transcultural Gallery, to her independent work as Director of Alchemy.

Hajra Williams is a Design Star CDT PhD student at the University of Brighton. Her AHRC-supported research focuses on the engagement of South Asian communities in the UK through exhibition design. Looking at three exhibitions held in different institutions in the UK from 1971 to 1999, the research aims to highlight the experiences of South Asians. Previously, Hajra worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum as South Asian Education Officer and then on capital projects-she was interpretation lead for four permanent galleries at the V&A.

Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith is a curator, writer and historian. She has held a number of prominent positions in the arts, including Senior Curator of Bradford Museums and Galleries, Director of Arts for Arts Council, Yorkshire, and Head of Special Projects, National Media Museum. As the Founder-Director of Alchemy Anew, until 2019, she developed independent cultural projects and is Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Fine Arts, History of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds. In 2016 she was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to arts and museums.

Alex McCuaig (MET Studio, UK), interviewed by Chris White (Winkle-Picker/University of Wollongong, Hong Kong)

Using a qualitative approach to examine illustrative case studies from MET Studio’s portfolio of projects over four decades, the aim is, in conversation with Mr McCuaig, to present a critical account of the evolution of museum and exhibition design from the early 1980s to the present day. This will touch upon a number of themes of the conference including: the changing responsibilities for delivering exhibition design in museums; the professionalisation of exhibition design in museums; changing technologies in exhibition design; the material culture of museum exhibition design; and the nature of interactions between the commercial and public sectors.

The design processes, interpretive approaches, exhibition materiality and financial conditions that have influenced outcomes in selected case studies will be contextualised with reference to prevailing theories in design, museology, education and popular culture. The conversation will trace historical influences and pressures on commercial museum and exhibition design within both the public and private spheres in a variety of different global markets and cultures; identify any elements of continuity that may be instructive; and tentatively highlight any emerging trends that may be of importance going forward.

Dr Chris White is a curator, museum designer and founder-director of Winkle-Picker, a company providing interpretive planning for a wide range of clients, including museums. He received his doctorate from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2016. Chris began his career at the MET Studio in 1992, going on to become Managing Director of MET Studio Hong Kong in 2003. He has recently published Heritage Revitalisation for Tourism in Hong Kong. The Role of Interpretive Planning, Routledge 2018.

Alex McCuaig, founder and CEO of MET Studio, has been at the forefront of museum and exhibiton design for nearly 40 years, nationally and internationally. He was a protégé of James Gardner (1907-95), a leading exhibition designer at the time, whose archive is held by the University of Brighton Design Achives. In 2016, at the FX International Design Awards, Alex was presented with the ‘Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Design’ award for the impact of the educational, cultural and immersive experiences he has created.



Thread: Experiences of the interview

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear Panellists, Thank you for these fascinating interviews. They add such a richness to the conference. I very much enjoyed them all. I was struck by the very different relationships you each had with your interviewee/interviewer, and wondered if you’d be kind enough to reflect on your experiences of the interview process – lessons learnt, unexpected and expected benefits/limitations, and how your relationships with each other might have influenced the dialogue. I have been interviewing exhibition makers a lot in my own work, as an outsider (researcher), but often with a personal familiarity with the speaker and the subject through my previous work in museum practice. I’ve been intrigued by the impact that this role has had on the various interviews I’ve undertaken and would really appreciate your insight. With thanks, Claire Wintle

Hajra Williams   

Dear Claire

Thank you – so glad that you enjoyed the interviews. My own perspective is very much coloured by my experience of working in education in museums, and almost all of that in a national museum (V&A). I very much wanted to foreground Nima’s experience of working within a more local setting of Bradford – in some ways I’ve always envied the work that is possible when you have an institution rooted in its community and you have people who are committed to that work and Bradford has a long history of that – I absolutely admit to finding it difficult to sustain community partnerships in my own museum work- you could build them but sustaining was a whole different ball game. In terms of other similarities and differences as people, we are both South Asian women, but whereas Nima grew up in India and arrived here to do a postgraduate degree, I arrived in Glasgow from Pakistan as a child. She worked as a curator of art, whereas I worked as an educator with a background and interest in design. Being older than me, she also started her career earlier (during the 80s). In terms of the difference of curator and educator,  I have to state that as a curator in Bradford, Nima’s role would have been more expanded and covered areas traditionally thought of as education in a national museum. At the V&A for me, those structures were more visible and roles and responsibilities are more strictly adhered to, although there were instances they were sometimes blurred.

In terms of the interview, I was interested in finding out more about the relationship between Bradford and the V&A at the time and also the background to some of Nima’s work, particularly community collaboration. What I found out is the freedom she had and I think you saw that in Nima’s responses- the trust that Bradford Museums afforded her. She was able to do a lot because apart from her own energy and enthusiasm, the institution also supported her and gave her a free rein. I feel what also came out is the friendship and solidarities that are formed – but I wanted to ask what comes first the institutional collaboration or the alliance between two curators? Having looked at the history of Bradford (Cartwright Hall specifically) I know there is a historic collaboration but then the ongoing alliance has to continue through people there at the time (and it did between Nima and Susan Stronge). I think the other thing which in retrospect is not surprising but which I didn’t know about, is that Nima had built strong community networks through her earlier role of running Adult education courses for Bradford Council.

So far as the physical process of interviewing goes, I only had one shot at it and am not a natural interviewer so I would have loved to had a practice run – we had only spoken once before on the phone and we hadn’t scripted the interview at all although I  had given her the questions ahead of the interview. I hugely respect and admire Nima for the work she has done and that probably showed – it was very much an interview, although we broke into conversation occasionally and I wonder if it had been billed more as a conversation, I might have challenged her in some areas but I feel there was not enough time for that anyway. The interview format and timing was a limitation in some ways.

The final thing that I want to stress and that I would like people to take away is Nima’s assertion that she did not see a distinction between fine art and decorative art and this points to the future work she undertook – the Transcultural Gallery (and later Connect), one of the largest and most significant collections of art of South Asian practitioners. There was a blurring between art and artefact in how the displays were arranged – thematic instead of geographic locations. When I was asked her, what shall I put as a title for you in the context of this conference- curator with a focus on South Asian art, for example – she said “just put curator – I am interested in all art forms, to me they are all the same”. We talked a lot about South Asian work and whilst our South Asian identities are important to us (albeit in differing ways) we are not bounded by that – that is a recurring theme for me in my conversations with South Asian designers, practitioners, researchers, people..

Sushma Jansari   

This was fascinating, thank you Hajra and Nima. What came across strongly for me is the part that can’t be quantified: the longevity and depth of the relationships you form, cross-institutionally and beyond organisations, too.

Hajra Williams   

Thank you Sushma – you are so right.

In Nima’s case there was an insight into the warmth, trust and mutual respect of relationships she formed and I think that then does show in the collaborations that followed.

Chris White   

I suppose the honest answer is … it’s hard to say. I’ve known Alex for nearly 30 years. We are both white, middle-aged+ men with similar political outlooks on life. So I suppose the main thing in terms of interviewing him was to be aware of the “shorthand” that we may share when talking about things. There were various parts of the interview that were unusable due to familiar reference to people or events we both know (that listeners wouldn’t) as illustrative of a particular point (but only to us). So I was conscious of trying to “leverage” my understanding of what he was talking about whilst trying to preserve enough distance to ask the questions that made it understandable to others. Very much like the process of interpretation for museum exhibitions, I suppose the trick is to try to put oneself in the shoes of a “lay” audience with no prior knowledge of subject matter. Thanks to you Clare, Hajra, Kate and all the organizers.

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Lovely, thanks Hajra, this is such a useful and insightful reflection… I thought it would be a wonderful introduction to a publication of the interview, but then you’d loose so much of the oral specificity that made the interview such a joy! We can talk about this…

Thanks too, to Chris, for your useful thoughts – I have very much found the same with my interviews (which are now at the British Library, so I had to think about a very broad potential audience with all sorts of interests!) I’m rarely the same age as those I interview (which has its own complications!), but trying to contextualise shared professional and disciplinary knowledge so that other listeners can understand has been a real challenge. Sometimes I ask interviewers to explain something ‘for the tape’ and they think I’m completely bananas! 😀

In my interviews, I also wanted the designers and curators to try to articulate their practice in very close verbal detail so that I could really understand what went into everyday acts of exhibition making. Of course, they had never had to do this before, and completely understandably they often struggled to articulate the minutiae of intuitive practice. I’m not sure I’ve really cracked that one yet! Anyway, thanks again – it was a great contribution. Claire


Hajra Williams   

Thank you Chris for your interview and to Alex. I loved hearing about the influence of James Gardner and how designers are inspired by other designers – respect, appreciation and learning that happens in professional contexts. We don’t often get to hear from the designer’s perspective. Hajra

Kate Guy   

Thank you Claire, I am so glad you enjoy it. I would also like to thank both Hajra and Chris for your wonderful interviews. I found them both incredibly interesting.

I have known Jon since I started my PhD last October. Jon is one of the members of the Exhibition Department, I feel, I have got to know reasonably well, though I am not sure this comes across in our interview. Having listened to the other interviews in this panel, I wish our interview had been more conversational. I also think we needed to provide more context in areas for our audience. For example, I could have outlined what the Commonwealth Institute was. But this has taught me a valuable lesson to consider the audience.

Undertaking the interview, I was mindful that I am not a designer; I am a design historian, so I did not want to skew Jon’s responses with leading questions. Jon has always been incredibly generous with his time, but I was aware he was preparing to return to the British Museum after lockdown, so he was incredibly busy. At times, I feel, you can sense I am ushering the interview on.

I wanted this interview to explore how Jon felt his practice had changed and developed over time. I also wanted Jon to examine the similarities and differences in his approach to designing exhibitions for the Commonwealth Institute and then the Museum. I believe we successfully explored these.

I have found the process incredibly helpful to my research, as I intend to undertake several oral histories which will be deposited in the Museum’s Central Archive. Jon will be among them. Jon has been invaluable to my research, and I am very grateful he agreed to do this interview


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