Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 14: Exhibition afterlives: design histories and future practice

Panel Overview:

Lisa Newby (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UK) The Living Area at the Sainsbury Centre: looking back to look forward

Eric Langham (Barker Langham, UK) and Colin Sterling (University College London, UK) Resonant exhibitions: when interpretation becomes artefact

Matt Isble (Crocker Art Museum, US) Fostering institutional knowledge in exhibit design, fabrication, and installation

Individual Papers:

Lisa Newby (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UK)
The Living Area at the Sainsbury Centre: looking back to look forward

This presentation was available for the period of the conference only (1-11 September 2020)

The distinctive display of the Sainsbury Collection in the ‘Living Area’ at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich encourages close looking, discovery and an engagement with works from a wide range of times and places. Conceived by Sir Norman Foster, Kho Liang Ie and the Sainsburys in the 1970s, the exhibition design is rooted in an influential and contested history of modernist approaches to collecting and display. Given that the exhibition design is permanent, how can these historical contexts productively inform future experiences of the Living Area?

To explore this question, this paper focuses on the relationship between the Living Area exhibition design and earlier public displays of works from the Sainsbury Collection at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in the 1940s and 50s. Taking the controversial exhibition 40,000 Years of Modern Art (1948) as a starting point, I will assess how reactions to these experimental and problematic displays at the ICA relate to the conception of the Living Area and its consequent interpretations. I argue that by looking beyond the specific concerns of Foster and the Sainsburys, the complex implications of their exhibition design can be more fully assessed. This activates the significance of these exhibition histories and their potential for enhancing critical engagement with the current display at the Sainsbury Centre.

Lisa Maddigan Newby completed an AHRC-funded PhD in Art History at the University of East Anglia in 2017.  The title of her doctoral thesis is ‘Assemblage in Practice: Artists, Ethnography and Display in Postwar London (1948-85)’.  She has worked as an associate tutor at UEA, as a museum curator and as a project manager for artist-led galleries and studios.   She is currently a project curator at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. 


Eric Langham (Barker Langham, UK) and Colin Sterling (University College London, UK) Resonant exhibitions: when interpretation becomes artefact

Many exhibition histories continue to resonate in the present. This can be felt most clearly in large scale permanent exhibition and museum developments, many of which appear – on the surface at least – to have been altered little in decades or even centuries (e.g. Pitt Rivers Museum, the Capitoline, Italy). In some cases, museum interiors have even been given special protection to preserve their material qualities and unique ambience (e.g. The Pergamonmuseum). Other less permanent exhibitions resonate because of their wider socio-cultural impact (e.g. ‘The Family of Man’ (MoMA, 1955), ‘Documenta 5’ (Kassel, 1972), ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ (V&A, 1974). Such affective practices and material residues shape current and future museum experiences. To borrow from Sara Ahmed, “What passes through history is not only the work done by generations, but the ‘sedimentation’ of that work as the condition of arrival for future generations” (‘Orientations Matter’, 2010: 241).

This paper will explore a less visible but no less impactful strand of resonant exhibitions; namely, the afterlives of certain interpretive schema and devices within current museum collections and experiences. Drawing on a diverse range of micro case studies, we investigate the production, reception, conservation and sometimes re-display of historic modes of museum interpretation. What can the transition of certain objects and media from interpretation to artefact tell us about broader exhibitionary histories? How might such afterlives inform more sustainable museological practice? The paper concludes with a speculative discussion of the kinds of interpretive schema in use today that might be elevated to the status of museum object, becoming sedimentations for future exhibition design.

Eric Langham is founder and director of Barker Langham. Since founding Barker Langham Eric has guided the company’s evolution into one of the world’s leading cultural practices. Eric has an impressive global track record in interpretation and curation, having led the development of some of the world’s most iconic recent cultural projects. Today he directs Barker Langham’s creative, visitor experience and curatorial services. Eric is recognised around the world as a planner of new museums and cultural projects and has lectured and published extensively on curation, interpretation and museum masterplanning. Most recently he authored the lead chapter in ‘The Alchemy of Cultural Planning’, a new publication from the International Council of Museums, due for publication in 2021. Major projects include the United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial, the National Museum of Qatar, the House of European History in Brussels, Oman’s ‘Across Ages’ Museum, the historical houses of Shindagha in Dubai and three signature pavilions for EXPO 2020. Eric is an expert advisor and mentor to the UK National Lottery Heritage Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund. He is also a Fellow of the Museums Association and an Associate Fellow at the University of Exeter. A former Commissioning Editor of the Journal of the Association of Heritage Interpretation, Eric is currently on the Advisory Board for National Gallery X and the Foundation for Jewish Heritage.

Colin Sterling is an AHRC Early Career Leadership Fellow at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. His research investigates the ideas and practices of heritage from a range of theoretical and historical perspectives, with a core focus on critical-creative approaches to heritage making. He is currently writing a book with Professor Rodney Harrison on more-than-human heritage in the Anthropocene, which aims to expand the framework of critical heritage studies to better address the urgent problems of a warming world. Colin was previously a Project Curator at the Royal Institute of British Architects and has worked as a heritage consultant internationally, specializing in curatorial planning, audience research and interpretation. His first monograph Heritage, Photography, and the Affective Past was published by Routledge in 2019. He has a long-standing interest in the relationship between art and heritage, and is currently working on a new project investigating the impact of experiential and immersive design across the heritage sector.

Matt Isble (Crocker Art Museum, US) Fostering institutional knowledge in exhibit design, fabrication, and installation

Maintaining institutional knowledge and fostering innovation is a perennial problem for any business, museums of any size and type included. This session will focus on those that take an exhibit across the finish line; from the design, to the installation, to the educational components. Attendees will learn techniques for cataloguing and sharing institutional knowledge, training and maintaining staff, and how to foster a culture of innovation.

How do you move forward without slipping backward? You retain your institutional knowledge and you encourage innovation. That may mean an improved documentation system, seeking and sharing advice between museums, or an enhanced staff orientation. Specific real-world solutions will be discussed.

Experienced staff with positive morale means fewer mistakes, fabrication and installation are quicker, and the end result is highly engaging. The audience will walk away with actionable ideas for onboarding new staff and retaining experienced staff. Maintaining morale is a central tenet when increasing the capacity of staff; fun and quirky ways of raising morale will be discussed.

The audience will discover how we cultivated a culture of innovation at the Crocker Art Museum, they will learn to recognize opportunities to help it flourish in their own museums. Without the building blocks of previous work history (institutional knowledge) coupled with experienced and efficient staff, innovation can stall. The audience will come away with methods of encouraging and advancing innovation in a time and budget friendly way.

The expertise in exhibit design, fabrication, and installation is often tied to the talents of individuals and happens behind the scenes. Since this know- how rarely turns into institutional knowledge, how can we effectively maintain and build upon the experiences of these individuals? This discussion will explore exhibit case studies and real-world examples to uncover how we can go from technique to training within a sustainable culture of productivity and innovation.

Matt Isble currently serves as the Director of Exhibition Design & Installation at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, and has been working in museums for more than 20 years. His emphasis has been art museums, but he has worked in history, science, and children’s museums as well. He graduated from John F. Kennedy University in 2009 with an MA in Museums Studies, focusing on education and interpretation. His thesis work, Collaborative Constructivism: A Case for Interdepartmental Exhibition Development in Art Museums, was boiled down and republished in the National Association of Museum Exhibition’s publication, Exhibitionist, in the spring of 2010. Since then his focus has been on establishing a new design and installation culture at the Crocker Art Museum after the 125,000 s/f expansion in 2009. In 2014, he began building for those that “get it done” in museums. Its mission is to serve the unsung heroes, those behind the scenes that make beautiful, awe-inspiring spaces for our visitors. 



Resonant exhibitions: when interpretation becomes artefact

Annebella Pollen Topic starter   

Great presentation, thank you. Very interested in your structuring of typologies in your project; this sounds like a system that will be useful for so many of us in this area. I was interested in what you said about the expansion of these categories in future and wondered if you could say more about your next steps and future project plans? Thanks,


Colin Sterling   

Hi Bella, thanks for your question. The typology is something Eric and I will be developing for a short book / online platform about interpretation. I’m particularly interested in the questions of sustainability that emerge when we consider exhibitions and interpretive experiences over a longer time frame, but also how the field as a whole is far more expansive than teaching and practice in ‘interpretation’ typically suggests. Coming at this from the perspective of heritage, I want to understand how artists, film-makers, poets, designers, architects etc. ‘interpret’ history, memory, culture in different ways and for different audiences. Exhibitions can act as a kaleidoscope bringing these different things together, but they always emerge from and feed back into a broader continuum of interpretive ecologies. It might be that we need a transdisciplinary Laboratory of Interpretation to begin to grapple with all these intersecting processes.

Thread: Resonant exhibitions: when interpretation becomes artefact

Laura Dudley Topic starter   

Hi Colin/Eric,

Really interesting presentation, some great ideas. I am particularly interested in the example you gave of the Assemble exhibition (2015) and how the leftover fragments remained in the space in some ways. I am looking at a similar idea in my presentation (in the reconstructing exhibitions panel) on how participatory exhibitions might be archived and collected to preserve the experience. It would be great to hear more of your thoughts on this! My email is if you would like to talk more.

Thanks, Laura

Colin Sterling   

Thanks for your comment Laura. This was something that really struck me when I started working at RIBA – the fact this very successful exhibition had been ‘adopted’ by the staff in an unexpected way. I’m not sure it helped preserve the experience as such, but it showed that the participatory element of the exhibition extended beyond the spatial and temporal confines of the display.

Happy to discuss further as your research is very close to my own interests. I think we also ‘met’ at ACHS?


Thread: Resonant Exhibitions: When Interpretation is Artifact

Barbara Fahs Charles Topic starter   

Thank you Eric and Colin. I really liked your analysis of how exhibitions (or at least some elements) endure. At the same time, I think we all need to recognize a 6th category: ephemera. With rare exceptions, such as Pitt Rivers Museum and the Kunstkammer at the MAE in St. Petersburg, which probably have survived first from inertia and more recently from a desire to preserve a museological past, exhibitions as gesamtkunstwerks have inherent life spans. Some survive beyond their due date, but in the end the whole experience will disappear, with some fragments possibly having a further life as you have so well described. Eric, I totally subscribe to your closing sentiments that as exhibition designers we must put value and deep meaning into everything that we do, but not because our work might survive, but rather knowing that it likely won’t, but that while it lives our efforts give meaning and joy and reflection, maybe inspiration, to others. Barbara Fahs Charles

Colin Sterling   

Many thanks for your comment Barbara. I think Eric and I would both agree that the ephemeral, intransigent nature of exhibitions and museum experiences is central to what makes them special – they are built with a sense of impermanence that has important lessons for navigating uncertain futures.

Thread: Recognition for the field of exhibition making and creative excellence

Timothy McNeil Topic starter   

Hi Matt – thank you for your presentation and the opportunity to learn more about museumtrade and your process for maintaining institutional knowledge. The empty blue tape rolling competition and putting the various brands of spackle through their paces were really fun. You are placing much needed attention on the process of how exhibitions are brought to life. I think of the exhibition designer as the conduit between the curatorial vision and making that vision a reality – at the end of the day nothing happens without a skilled and informed exhibition crew to make that vision tangible for a museum audience. Some of the other presentations at the conference touched on the importance of archiving the exhibition design process – Martha Fleming’s interesting talk Floppies, trannies, a CAD and the blues: unearthing the traces of late 20th-century exhibition practice cites the Eames office who had the resources and foresight to do this well – but this is the exception rather than the norm. If exhibition makers in the past had been better equipped to preserve their institutional knowledge then possibly all of us researchers would be better served at this point in time as we gather what little there is on the exhibition design process rather than been left with the final result. Your point about lifting our heads for a minute to reflect and share best practice is really important – not just to foster future innovation but also to build a history of critical practice and theory that will result in better recognition for the field of exhibition making and creative excellence. Thanks.

Sara Woodbury   

Hi Matt, I’d also like to thank you for a wonderful presentation discussing the pragmatics of fostering innovation and the importance of preserving institutional knowledge. I especially appreciated your suggestion about filming art handlers and other museum staff demonstrating different techniques or approaches. I think this could be especially useful for preparators and art handlers learning the house style in terms of matting, framing, etc., while also leaving open the possibility for innovation and new techniques. I also liked your emphasis on acknowledging the agency and expertise of museum staff by having everyone contribute to learning about new techniques, solutions, etc, as when you discussed new ways of printing labels. It’s so important to let staff know that they’re respected and appreciated for their work; after all, it’s why we hired them! I could see this being the basis for a wonderful series of training videos for supervisors and other administrative professionals.

I don’t have a question per se, I just wanted to congratulate you on a fantastic presentation.



Matt Isble   

Wow thank you Tim and Sara, I was really fun to think through things that I take for granted.

Tim, thanks, yes there are so many touch point between design, curatorial, education, and installation; often the lines blur. With ever tightening budgets there are quite a few people who wear many hats. It’s nice to hold onto some of that information for future generations.

I agree that more attention can be paid to the design process, adding a layer of transparency to our process gives folks in other departments at least the notion of how much goes into mounting an exhibit. They will then be better equipped to not only appreciate the end product but will be better prepared to engage with the design process from the outset.

Sara, thank you, yes, archiving is really great for the install staff. Pulling other departments into the process I’ve helped shape the design process. If installations extends their capabilities, by innovating, it gives the design team more “tools” to play with. With new capacity comes new ideas, it’s an interwoven relationship and I just really love working in museums for this very reason.

It looks like I just missed meeting you at DMA, I spent a week there doing research on the C3 area in 2009. I met other McDermott folks during an “opening” behind the scenes in the offices. It seemed like a nice place to work. BIG staff though, I kind of enjoy the mid-sized scene where you can be a little more nimble. Then again, we don’t get to mount exhibits like DMA has, excellent stuff!

All My Best,


Thread: Histories for Futures (Lisa Newby)

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear Lisa, thank you for sharing your wonderful research with us! I was really grateful for your attention to the issue of how histories of exhibitions (and beyond a particular institution) can be a productive force for the future. I especially liked your attention to the diversity of ways in which people have engaged with the display of the Sainsburys’ collection over time – it is a critical reminder to avoid the assumption that Primitivist perceptions were singular and fully accepted across the twentieth century. I also like the idea that an increased awareness of this multiplicity of historical perspectives can ‘open up’ debate on the Sainsburys’ collections today. Can I ask, have you noticed any completely new critiques that have been added to the range that you outlined, or do contemporary critiques all have their roots in debates articulated by Fagg, Hiller, Leach, et al? Sometimes the debates seem to go around in circles to my mind! Thanks again, Claire

Lisa Newby   

Hi Claire, thanks for listening (and organising!) and for your interesting comments.  In answer to your question about completely new contemporary critiques and the circularity of the historical debates between Fagg, Hiller, Leach etc. – for me these two things are connected because I am interested in institutional histories, but this is of course never the whole story, so new research highlighting previously unrecorded or misinterpreted experiences of modernism in Britain is one of the most exciting aspects of contemporary critique for me as an art historian (eg Kobena Mercer’s recent text about Aubrey Williams: Abstraction in Diaspora comes to mind.  In terms of institutional histories, I find the repetition of debate fascinating – and that the historical examples help with unpacking the different terms, issues and assumptions at stake in different historical moments.  I found breaking down historical interpretations of these big terms (primitive, modern, art, anthropology, etc.) gives something more solid to work with in trying to untangle the British arts establishment’s continuing obsession with primitivism in the postwar period – and its legacies in contemporary experiences.  As a broader methodology I think we see a lot more of this in (some) contemporary critique which is exciting and marks a shift from the historical debates.  At the same time, elsewhere the debate is becoming more polarised/narrow – making it even more important in my view to keep on talking about it! Also, coming back to the Sainsbury Centre Living Area exhibition design – I focused on histories but there is much more to say about the new critiques/interpretations that the display generates.

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