Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 2: Methodologies in exhibition design history

Panel Overview:

Kelvin Chuah (Institute of Education, UCL, UK)
The crit as methodology: re-staging the 1973 ‘Instant Malaysia’ exhibition as intervention

Roberto Gigliotti and Nina Bassoli (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy)
Mapping the landscape of architecture exhibitions

Kate Bowell (University of Edinburgh, UK)
A history in labels: the science and technology label collection of National Museums Scotland

Liya Wizevich (University of Cambridge, UK)
Researching historical changes in exhibition design at the Soviet Union’s state-planned national exhibition

Martha Fleming (Independent, UK)
Floppies, trannies, a CAD and the blues: unearthing the traces of late 20th century exhibition practice


Individual Papers:


Kelvin Chuah (Institute of Education, UCL, UK) The crit as methodology: re-staging the 1973 ‘Instant Malaysia’ exhibition as intervention

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

In 1973, the Malaysian government initiated a national exhibition to showcase and soft-sell the country at the Commonwealth Institute in London. Realised by the London architectural group Archigram, ‘Instant Malaysia’ (as the exhibition was known) is an under-researched political agency of the then Malaysian government, with the pavilion becoming a façade for promoting the nation-state.

In 2019, I set up a crit at UCL’s Institute of Education (as part of my PhD research) to critically engage and develop a narrative for ‘Instant Malaysia’; still largely unknown and unpublicised. The re-staging of this transnational exhibition as a crit aimed to ruminate on and unpick a show without sufficient documentation. Only fragmentary information retains the proof of its existence. My research traces incomplete facts through echoes, meta-narrating previously unexhibited resources to articulate the exhibition. A reframing of ‘Instant Malaysia’ occurs by employing the crit as a lens to contextualise collated archival materials. Separate resources became webbed connections; mediating exhibition history derived from the Archigram story (and other sources) with an unexhibited political event; the 1969 Malaysian racial riots and its consequences. The complexity of these parallel developments underlayer the utopian exhibition display with embedded dystopian politics; widening the research by contesting a government’s version of the truth, news, propaganda, and state-controlled media directed at a particular audience (Londoners).

The presentation also traces many of my deliberations: the crit made it possible to walk through an exhibition before my time physically; it is a construction of a memory theatre; a place to analyse Archigram’s ‘Instant Malaysia’ images appropriately; make contemplations through my writings of the exhibition; to experience contemporary visitors’ responses – as a form of primary resource. Performing the crit, therefore, intertwines 1973 and 2019 content. These are the issues that I will be discussing in my presentation – how the crit (the exhibition, its re-staging, presentation, walkthrough, and the conversations this generated) as a site raises/contests fixed representations by employing the exhibition’s ‘afterlife’ as an intervention to enable my research to move forward.

Kelvin Chuah is a writer and researcher with a keen interest in Exhibition Studies. As an MPhil/PhD Candidate at UCL, Institute of Education, his research draws upon personal memories to meta-narrate forgotten Malaysian exhibitions initiated by the Commonwealth of Nations. Kelvin also looks for serendipity in archives and libraries in search of forgotten stories.


Roberto Gigliotti and Nina Bassoli (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy) Mapping the landscape of architecture exhibitions



The research Architecture in the Age of Display, conducted by Roberto Gigliotti and Nina Bassoli, University of Bozen-Bolzano, with the collaboration of Léa-Catherine Szackza, is devoted to mapping the landscape of architecture exhibitions between 2001 and 2020. In the framework of the topic “Museum Exhibition Design”, architecture exhibitions represent a peculiar case in terms of spatial and exhibit design. Due to the impossibility of showing architecture in presentia, showing architecture means usually reproducing it. But what happens when the work exhibited in an architecture exhibition produces, instead, a new spatiality? The boundaries between set design and work of art blur, and the exhibition becomes a ‘thing’ in itself. We consider exhibitions as original objects, and we analyse their shape in architectural terms, as if they were further architectures. In this paper we want to present in detail our methodological approach, based on the visualization of different panoramas of relationships between significant architecture exhibitions of the last 20 years, through the construction of info-graphics and/or maps. Starting from a grid of categories or keywords, the map allows us to interweave a system of relationships that is articulated and synthetic at the same time. The main references for our approach are the seminal evolution diagram The Century is Over Evolutionary Tree of Twentieth-Century Architecture by Charles Jencks (2000) and the more recent taxonomy map Well Into the 21st Century by Alejandro Zaera-Polo (2016). The practice of drawing – a device embedded in the architectural discipline as a means to describe/analyse spaces – is (one of) the tool(s) selected for investigating and organising a defined number of complex ‘items’, such as exhibitions, that would be otherwise difficult to compare on a more scientific basis.

Nina Bassoli, architect and curator, is Research Assistant (AR) at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, within the project “Architecture in the age of display” with Roberto Gigliotti and Léa- Catherine Szacka. PhD at the Architecture University of Venice IUAV, she graduated at Politecnico di Milano, where she is currently teaching Architectural and Landscape Design. Among the several architecture exhibitions and events curated: “Reconstructions” at the Triennale di Milano (2018), the Turin Architecture Festival 2017, “Architecture as Art” (2016) and “City after the City – Street Art” (2016), within the XXI International Exhibition of the Triennale di Milano, and the Italian Pavillion “Innesti/Grafting” at the 14th Venice Biennale with Cino Zucchi (2014). Since 2008 she is member of the editorial staff of “Lotus international”, since 2016 member of the scientific Committee for Cultural Activities at the Milan Chamber of Architects and member of the Board of Administration at the Pirelli HangarBicocca Foundation in Milan.

Roberto Gigliotti (Arch. MLA) is associate professor of Interior and Exhibit Design at the Faculty of Design and Art of the Free University of Bozen Bolzano. His research interests focus on the exhibition of architecture and the public space of the contemporary city. He is currently working on the research project “Architecture in the age of display” with Léa-Catherine Szacka and Nina Bassoli. In the past, he participated in research projects such as “Educating Through/With Design: Enhancing Creative Learning in Museum and School Settings” and “Graphic Design, exhibition context, curatorial practices” with Giorgio Camuffo and Maddalena dalla Mura.

In 2013, in the frame of the research project “Exhibiting Architecture”, he organised the international conference “Displayed Spaces. New Means of Architecture Presentation through Exhibitions”. He is vice president of ar/ge kunst Bolzano and founding member of Lungomare. In 2015 he collaborated with Studio Lupo&Burtscher on the exhibition design of the “Casa Semirurale” in Bolzano.


Kate Bowell (University of Edinburgh, UK) A history in labels: the science and technology label collection of National Museums Scotland



Exhibition labels perform multiple roles in museum spaces. Presenting information, contextualizing objects, and acting as institutional voices, labels are often an integral part of exhibition design and the visitor experience. Yet, despite their ubiquity and many purposes, little attention has been given to the potential of labels as historical objects and primary resources within museum scholarship. This absence means that labels, their materiality, and their content have been largely excluded from larger conversations around the history of museums.

This lack of research is due, in large part, to the absence of historical label collections. Few museums have label collections and even fewer have ones that are comprehensive. The science and technology label collection of National Museums Scotland is a rare exception. Comprised of over 20,000 labels printed between 1864 and 1967, the collection provides a unique opportunity to examine multiple facets of display practices typically hidden from view. From evidence of the invisible labor behind label creation to changing scale and scope of narratives presented by the organization, this collection presents new possibilities for engaging with the history of museum design.

This paper proposes to use the science and technology labels of National Museums Scotland as a case study to examine both the potentials and limitations of historical exhibition label collections as research tools. What can labels tell us about the history of exhibition design, visitor engagement and museum perspectives? Conversely, where might the authority of labels as resources end, and how can those boundaries be navigated? How can we reposition exhibition labels so that they are treated not just as tools for the interpretation of objects, but as objects deserving of their own interpretation? 

Kate Bowell (she/her) is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh in Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies, working in partnership with the National Museum of Scotland to study historical science and technology exhibition labels. Previously, Kate worked as a museum curator in Canada, the United States, and Germany where she helped to develop and open four new museums. Writing about museums, Kate has maintained the website Museums Askew since 2011, and has contributed to three books, most recently Active Collections, which won the National Council on Public History’s Book Award in 2020.


Liya Wizevich (University of Cambridge, UK) Researching historical changes in exhibition design at the Soviet Union’s state-planned National Exhibition



Challenges in understanding the history of museum exhibitions are compounded in cases within the former USSR by ulterior motives of state planners, lack of documentation, political upheaval, and inaccessible Russian archives. In this paper Moscow’s Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy ‘VDNKh’ forms the case study, tracing historical exhibition design. VDNKh was built in the 1930s as a ‘world’s fair’ where regions of the USSR were represented in elaborate exhibitions, displaying their distinct cultures and local economies. The state goal was to show diversity in people and regions making up a cohesive socialist state. Today it still operates as a museum, with original pavilions hosting modern exhibits.

Over its 80 years, VDNKh ideologically aligned with evolving government policies. Dramatic political reversals led to exhibitional changes that are difficult to trace. My research uncovered incremental shifts in exhibition design planning. Field and archival work in Moscow, and tracking down Russian-language primary sources in both traditional academic archives and libraries, and unconventional (Moscow flea markets) settings were necessary to understand the exhibition’s original design and subsequent evolution. Original maps, blueprints, newspapers, pamphlets, tourist brochures, and photographs reveal the exhibition’s convoluted historical design changes. It is vital to note these Soviet sources were produced as state propaganda, thus can best be understood through this historical context.

Soviet museum design was interwoven with government policies that were never fully transparent to either the visitor or museum designers themselves, making its history all the more valuable to conceptualize. The paper will discuss methodologies for studying exhibition design practice in cases where the nature of the museum exhibition design is neither straightforward, nor accessible. My experience researching one of the most popular Soviet exhibitions – almost completely unknown outside the former USSR – highlights methods an architectural or museum historian can use to study similar difficult cases.

Liya Wizevich is a masters student at Jesus College, the University of Cambridge. She is studying Modern European History, focusing on the post-war years of the Soviet Union, combining the histories of architecture and design, national minorities, and culture and tourism. She has lived in Moscow, and has a BA in Russian & East European Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.


Martha Fleming (Independent, UK) Floppies, trannies, a CAD and the blues: unearthing the traces of late 20th-century exhibition practice

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

Effecting research into the processes and practices of exhibition creation, production and design in the latter 20th century is a complex activity. ​The range of exhibition archive materials includes – but is not limited to – 35mm slide transparencies, architectural blueprints, physical models, drawings from all stages of the design process, briefs written by both clients and designers, memos, multiple budgets, press films and photos, and personal accounts. This primary material is distributed unevenly across public and organized repositories, closed commercial archives, the personal papers of designers, often embargoed national bureaus of information, and more. Further, the period is also one of a slow but sure advance of digital technologies into design practice — from Compugraphic typesetting to vector-based graphics — creating a rolling digital divide and lack of retention of, or ​access to, digital files​. This introduces two paradoxical problematics for design historiography. One is the problem of​ the researcher’s often limited understanding of analogue technologies, creating impediments to accurately reading the original functions of archival materials such as photography. Another is the inherent ‘timeline’ of adoption of digital practice, which can itself be a very useful historiographic tool.

This presentation will address the intersections between exhibition making practice and design historical research practice, touching on both practical considerations and methods as well as elements of their conceptual, theoretical and historiographic implications.

Dr Martha Fleming is an academic and a museum professional who has held research, curatorial and leadership roles in UK national museums including the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the British Museum. She has both created exhibitions and published on exhibition histories, particularly in science fields. Fleming was the inaugural Programme Director at the Centre for Collections Based Research at the University of Reading, and has taught research methods for use in collecting institutions from within museum/university partnership contexts in the US, the UK and Germany.




Thread: Labels…

Jona Piehl Topic starter   

Kate, thank you, I very much enjoyed your talk and the precise discussion of something often taken for granted… (as exhibition graphic designer, I think the labels are the most challenging/most interesting piece of graphics and the one that we should talk much more about!)
I wonder whether you also consider the visual language of the labels as part of your research at all? I was struck by the typographic design of the examples of the Bell Rock Lighthouse model, and how un-label-like the older one looks, much more like a newspaper ad than a museum label…

If you don’t already know about it, you might be interested in the exhibition that ran at the Gemäldegalerie Berlin last year, “Schilder einer Ausstellung” (a bit of a pun on “Bilder einer Ausstellung”, “Pictures at an Exhibition”) — it charted the use of labels at the Gemäldegalerie, from the use of catalogues to interpret the artworks, to individual labels placed on the works, etc.


 Kate Bowell   

Thank you for your question, Jona. I do consider the visual language(s) of the labels and how they change over time. Looking through the collection, it’s fun to watch the designers/printers experiment with different styles and content arrangements, and interesting to note deviations from themes. Sometimes a label will really stand out because of how different its style is from those around it. That, of course, then leads to questions about why those differences are there, and those are often frustratingly difficult to answer.

I had read about the Gemäldegalerie labels but had not seen them. I’m struck by some of the similarities to ones in the NMS collection. It’s interesting when museums exhibit their own past that way – an extension of the tension between narrating time and experiencing time that you talked about in your presentation. In those instances, I am always curious about motivation. Looking over the link you shared (thank you!), I get the impression that the museum wanted to be metareflective in both acknowledging its own history and using that content to ask itself and its visitors larger questions. I wonder how audiences responded.

Jona Piehl Topic starter   

Yes, what I loved about the exhibition was how an object as humble as the object label served to tell such rich stories not just about the works of art but about changes in the thinking on methods of interpretation and museum education, the purposes that labels serve, about institutional aims and ambitions (wonderful exchange of letters with the crown prince wading into the matter of labelling), about the political entanglement of the institution, and, not least, about the changing fashions of (typographic) design… Admittedly, we had the pleasure of the curator introducing the exhibition herself (and might have geeked out a bit)! 

Timothy McNeil   

Hi Kate – very much enjoyed your presentation and the potential that the history of museum object labels have to document exhibition making. Having collaborated on, designed and fabricated many object labels in my career I consider the ubiquitous object label found in museums and exhibitions to be one of the most contested and time consuming exhibit elements. It represents a microcosm where knowledge, learning and clear communication compete with each other and often clash. Experts obsess about telling the whole story, educators want the content to reach the broadest possible audience, and designers insist on visual style and clarity. 

Kate Guy   

Kate, I really enjoyed your presentation. It has provided me with so much food for thought in relation to my research! The interpretation team kept pointing me towards a wealth of primary material they have on labelling, but I was never entirely sure what I would or could do with it. Armed with your framework, I now feel well equipped to tackle the limitation and reap the benefits! 

I am currently very interested in the emergence of ‘in-house styles’ in museums. I wondered whether during your research of the NMS collection you had recognised or noted an emergence of a particular style being used within their labels? 

Kate Bowell   

Thank you, Tim. I love your description of labels as microcosms of complementing and clashing ideas and approaches; it’s so, so true.

Kate Bowell   

Thank you, Kate! It goes without saying that I would LOVE to see the primary materials the BM has on labeling (I’ll be in touch). You’re really fortunate to have that. I wish we had more of it at NMS, as I suspect it would help explain some of the changes and oddities I see in the label collection. You always wonder what motivations/catalysts, etc. lead to which decisions…

There are definitely evolutions of style happening within the NMS labels, both design- and content-wise. Design-wise, the museum labels (at least for Science & Technology) went through a variety of styles (borders to no borders, serif to sans serif, etc). Visually, it would be really interesting to compare the aesthetics of NMS labels with ones you’re looking at, especially within the same time period. Let me know if I can send you images. Content-wise, labels moved from being largely identification and instruction (how to use something or how to make something – see the 19 steps to create a common needle…) to information-based labels and eventually interpretive ones.

Kate Guy   

That is so interesting! I think it would be really fascinating to compare and contrast the two nationals approach.@kbowell I will definitely keep in touch! (Hopefully, it won’t be too long till I can get back into the archive).

Corrie Roe   

Hi @kbowell, thank you for your thoughtful presentation. I very much agree with your evaluation of archived labels as a rich historical text. I used labels (present and archived) in my thesis research about the history of the anthropological exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History to demonstrate how the Other has been represented across the museum’s 150-year history. 

I am curious if you have seen any efforts to digitize historic labels by any institutional archives or libraries? I would find this a great resource, but am not sure if others have seen the value yet.

Thank you again for your research and presentation!

Kate Bowell   

Hi @corrieroe. Your research sounds fascinating! As I’ve been talking about my work, a lot of people tell me they’d love to digitize their label collections, or that it’s on the hypothetical to-do list, but I haven’t seen much actual work done in the area yet. I think you’re correct that, in some cases, the value hasn’t been recognized by those in positions to make it happen. In others, as is so sadly the case, the resources of money, time, and staffing may not be there. I know National Museums Scotland has toyed with the idea, but nothing concrete yet…

Yannick Le Pape   

Dear Kate, congratulation for your so wise presentation, I guess the way you study museums is definitely a relevant one. Labels in museum are such a tense issue (not to say a controversial question), so that it’s quite enlightening to focus on the informative side (for researchers much more than for museum staff) of their design and contents. Do you expect to enlarge the scope of your research to other museums?

Thread: Flea Markets …

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear Liya,

Thank you for presenting your research, which I enjoyed very much. I was really struck by your visual analysis of the pamphlets and visitor guides – so often in museum history these sources get employed as texts rather than visual or material sources, so that was great to see.

My question relates to the ‘flea market methodology’ (are you going to coin that phrase?! Perhaps my colleague Annebella Pollen – who looks at mass photography and everyday life – has a better term??) I would be interested to hear you reflect a little more on the limits and benefits of finds in these arenas. I was fascinated to hear about the ubiquity of material related to the VDNKh in Moscow – the size and longevity of the exhibition clearly make it different to searching for evidence of a small historic gallery in a provincial museum (for example), but as a historian, did you have to take certain things into account when you used the flea market finds in your research?

Best wishes, Claire Wintle

Kate Bowell   

I’m quite certain I found an old framed exhibition label from National Museums Scotland at a flea market two years ago. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s identical to ones I’ve seen since. Apparently, at one point, huge amounts of materials were just thrown out from the museum into dumpsters and people scavenged from there. I wonder, with the VDNKh and other institutions, visitor souvenirs aside, how much of their material ends up for sale after they think they’ve disposed of it…

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

That’s really interesting Kate – to think of the museum archive as an official, carefully constructed impression, and the flea market as an accidental, unauthorised assemblage… Did this distinction create different impressions of the VDNKh Liya?

Liya Wizevich   

Dear Claire,

Thank you so much for your question and kind words about my work!
The visuals of the pamphlets, guides and maps were some of my favorite parts about the research because of how striking they were not only visually, but because of the depth of their interior texts. The great thing about VDNKh is its longevity, and its constant changes. These kinds of sources can give a historian access to the ideas that were manifested to the visitor on a very precise timeline, and there are really subtle shifts at times, while at other points in the history there were major upheavals.

I love that term, maybe that can be a new thing!  I certainly plan to keep using ‘flea market methodology’ because of how tightly controlled sources in the Soviet Union and now Russia are. It is really difficult to access archives, so that becomes a more secondary source, and these relatively unofficial ways of gathering sources becomes more primary.

Certainly looking at sources that were largely given as souvenirs or other keepsakes from visitors gives the perspective mainly of the visitor. This doesn’t give access to behind the scene plans or official notes and directives from the leaders or head of VDNKh. They are also more simplistic. A lot of the things are images that already have been seen, in the form of post cards, posters, commemorative plates etc. However, sometimes they can be fun- even if they aren’t groundbreaking. For example, there was a really interesting ashtray. It was shaped like an octagon and each side had an image of a different national pavilion. So since it was such an important local tourist spot, there are a lot of knickknacks that are tossed away that don’t shed any more light on a new area, but can help to cement our understanding of its design in that era through the images.

In sources from the Soviet Union, it is important to read them through the lens of the government they were published under. As such they really can’t be taken at face value, and it is vitally important to know the corresponding state policies that directed the message. A message is sent in any Soviet object. VDNKh was, as I’ve said, not only a place for enjoyment and relaxation. The state wanted the tourism to serve an educational purpose for the citizens. As such, even these small knickknacks have to be analyzed with this in mind.

Best wishes,




This is so interesting! I hadn’t thought about the museum or exhibition itself tossing out materials that would end up being sold. I haven’t come across any material at flea markets in Moscow that had at one point been on display in the exhibition itself. Its mainly been materials that were sold or handed out to tourists, either through educational programs or a gift shop sort of method. However, I would absolutely love to find this kind of label! The pamphlets themselves that I use take the reader on a tour through the pavilions, but to be able to read some of the initial labels that have now largely been lost or destroyed would add so much! 


Liya Wizevich   


This is a really good thing to think about. Certainly VDNKh was extremely carefully planned, as were all museums in the Soviet period. I think that the materials that can be found at a flea market will also be curated in ideology- since they were produced under the same controlled system. However, the way we now understand or contextualize the objects outside of their museum environment will be unstructured and uncharted in form, and this can lead to very different conclusions! 

Annebella Pollen   

Dear Liya, 

Claire tagged me in these discussions as an attendee who researches flea markets and also uses primary source material from flea markets in other projects (my partner is also a secondhand dealer). I don’t necessarily have a readymade methodology to offer you but there are some great studies of secondhand cultures (see especially the work of Louise Gregson and Nicky Crewe in their book of this name, plus the edited collection Everyday eBay) that look at the networks and discourses that sit beneath secondhand material and ‘secondhandedness’ (Kevin Hetherington). The key challenge of such material (‘orphaned’ or ‘found’ as it is described in some circuits, such as history of photography) is, of course, that its origins and object biography (Kopytoff) are hard to locate and reconstitute especially as many traders don’t record and sometimes deliberately conceal their sources as trade knowledge. But many scholars use fleamarkets as improvised and alternative archival sources – there was a recent #twitterstorians thread on the subject that you might be interested in. 
Hope this helps,


Liya Wizevich   

Thank you very much! I am eager to look up this literature as well as this thread on twitter!




Thread: VDNKh as World’s Fair

Tim Satterthwaite Topic starter   

Thank you for a fascinating presentation, Liya. Your intro describes VDNKh as a kind of ‘World’s Fair’ – and the site’s resemblance to Chicago 1893, in particular, is striking. Could you tell us a little more about Stalin’s conception of the National Exhibition, its aims and its intended audience. Given the paranoid character of the Soviet state in the mid-1930s, it seems unlikely that many international visitors would have actually seen it? Or is that not the case? How was VDNKh presented to the non-Soviet world? Primarily in photographs?

Liya Wizevich   

Dear Tim,

Thanks for your question! There was less international visitation of the exhibition under Stalin, but in the Khrushchev years it was actively promoted abroad.

When it was visited during the Stalin-era, it was very controlled, and the aim was to have good press about the “harmonious” Soviet state broadcast abroad. VDNKh was mostly aimed at domestic tourists and aimed to show the socialist “world” within one country. Stalin’s goal was to show that the entire country was working towards the same goals, of communism, and that despite ethnic or geographical differences they all supported the central state. Getting this message out was important to him in the pre-war years where there was high suspicion and paranoia of different populations. VDNKh was opened in 1939, which was after the Soviet Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, and did expand a lot of the new VDNKh displays off of the international reaction to their display. 

Under the “Khrushchev Thaw”, international visitation skyrocketed, and there was opportunities for cultural exchanges that hadn’t existed under Stalin in all facets of culture and tourism. Even then Vice-President Nixon visited VDNKh on a trip to Moscow. Of course, in these years the park was re-organized towards a industry angle, and there was less displays of nationalities. Nevertheless, visitors were able to tour the pavilions and learn about the economic diversity of the Soviet Union. 


Thread: the crit as methodology…

Jona Piehl Topic starter   

Kelvin, thanks so much for this presentation — I am really interested in this method of, if you will, re-spatialising an exhibition as it speaks to questions of the ephemerality of the exhibition as a text, especially temporary exhibitions, which, arguably, really only exist as retellings once they have been taken down…

Having been through the process of setting up and reviewing this crit, I wonder whether you might be able to say a bit more about the opportunities (and perhaps challenges) that you think this might hold as a method for analysing other exhibitions? J

Kelvin Chuah   

Jona, thank you for your question. I started conceptualising the crit as a written text. To create a narrative from fragments of information that proves the existence of this exhibition. These different resources were woven together in the British Art Studies article I wrote, fashioning a walkthrough of the exhibition shaped like a memory theatre. You rightly highlighted that it became a retelling of sorts. Yet, my writing was only a mental imagining, which prompted the crit as a way to further the reading by fleshing concurrent events seen and unseen in the exhibition.

I think restaging the exhibition in the form of a crit allows for current mediations that locate the exhibition as an agency for more specific musings/interrogations. Creating new interpretations or in my case, an understanding of a politically motivated showcase through exhibition study.

Speaking of my research, which framed a Malaysian national exhibition, there are plans to restage the crit on a suitable platform – to historicise and commemorate a largely forgotten piece of national exhibition history. My investigation also satellites several Malaysian-London exhibitions I could explore in methods similar to the crit.

Also, I reckon there is no fixed approach for analysing exhibitions. Assuming the crit as a process, it can be ‘configured’ catering to the needs of the research.



Jona Piehl Topic starter   

@kelvin thank you, yes, I think this re-staging is especially interesting as it, to an extent, avoids the construction of a linear narrative, maintaining an openness in the relationships between different (archival) fragments, and perhaps even to recreate a sense of scale and immersion of the original exhibit — I like the idea that the reader/the audience of the crit can experience the research as a spatial text…

Kate Bowell   

@kelvin thank you for that description. In my work with labels, I also struggle to find ways to recreate past exhibitions using the clues I have. Understandably, mine are mostly textual, although there are some images and descriptions. I hadn’t thought of this crit/memory theater approach before; in your expertise, how well do you think that might work and/or how would you imagine going about beginning?

Kelvin Chuah   

@Kate Your focus on labels is exciting. I always perceive them textually, and now I am reconsidering images as labels thanks to you.

I think the crit as a process would work fine with your research.

If I were to apply the crit onto (museum) labels, here is how I would begin.

Based on Clair Le Couteur’s research (and my interest), I would trace the history of Gill Sans as a museum typeface(?) to the designer Eric Gill and his teacher, Edward Johnston, designer of London Underground Railway’s signage. The intention is to make connections between the ‘humble’ museum label to the broader Gill Sans applications on corporate branding for some UK companies. Some people argue that the typeface is also culturally significant, which folds back to its usage in art spaces – drawing on issues of readability, the familiarity of font type, current developments in digital typeface, etc. Using this as a port of call, I would be keen to develop a metanarrative with Le Couteur’s research at the RCA; where he also spotlighted artistic interventions with labels.

Perhaps, a deliberation on the ownership of the label?


Kate Guy   

Kelvin, you have answered the question I had, responding to Jona’s question. So I just wanted to thank you for sharing your brilliant approach. As scholars of the ephemeral exhibition, you offer an incredibly useful approach.  

Kelvin Chuah   

@kguy Hi Kate, thank you for your kind words. I am happy to continue with this conversation after the conference if you are keen – using metanarrative constructions to interpret exhibitions. Good wishes, Kelvin.

Hajra Williams   

@kelvin thank you for your presentation – as a process and it was great see how you followed it through. What stage is your project at now? You mentioned a book for example.

In my own research and particularly having an art/design background, I have been visualising the exhibitions in similar ways- however one of the exhibitions I am researching does not seem to have as much archival material as the other more recent one (I am not certain what material there is due to a lack of access to the archive- my hunch is that there is very little). This is leading me to consider what possibilities there are when faced with a lack of research material and how one may fill in gaps. Your material was of course very rich and really lent itself to this way of imagining the exhibition.

I also noticed that you have incorporate interviews from visitors who were there at the time- can I ask how you found these people- were you familiar with them already?

Best wishes


Enya Moore   

Hello Kelvin,

Thank you for your incredibly generous presentation and bringing us into the heart of your ongoing research practice. I found your process fascinating and an incredibly valuable approach for critical analysis of a past exhibition. Your presentation was such a great approach for this conference format – well done to you and your colleagues who worked on producing it in this way! Your critical consideration of the temporal aspects of the research connected really well to the presentation of Jona Piehl in the first panel on Decolonizing Exhibitions ( I see you have already been chatting above!). Her approach to exhibition graphics might be helpful for you (I noted in your excellent article on the British Art Studies website that you thought you were not doing justice to the design properties of the posters). Great work – looking forward to seeing more in the future!

Enya Moore, PhD candidate, UTS Sydney


Kelvin Chuah   

@jona Hi Jona, thank you for your interest in re-staging. It does open windows to how we can develop new narratives and interpretations of the original exhibition – entirely or in smaller sections. 

Can I move on to your presentation? I was enjoying your excellent presentation again, and you have pointed to some strategies I could incorporate into my research. It feels like a deja vu moment when Enya @enyamoorewrote to me this morning about your work, noting how your approaches would forward my research. Would it be possible for me to email you privately? I am afraid this forum would close tomorrow. 

Good wishes, kelvin.

My email,


Kelvin Chuah   

Hello Enya, thank you for your kind words. Hope you are doing well in Sydney. I spent some time researching at the University of Sydney back in 2013, and I really enjoyed the city.

Coming back to the conference, I am glad you enjoyed the presentation and also the article from British Art Studies (BAS). Essentially, I planned to interrogate the original exhibition in three parts: with the BAS article (where I was meandering in the memory theatre) as the first part; the crit (in this conference) as the second; and the book and re-staging of the exhibition/post-crit at a gallery space as the third. I had this intention to formulate the reading/narrative of ‘Instant Malaysia’ with a drawn-out process, which would allow for multiple inoculations and more detailed analysis. 

Thank you for suggesting Jona’s research, which addresses the graphic elements of my endeavour.

Good wishes, Kelvin 

Kelvin Chuah   

Hello Hajra, thank you for an excellent conference. It’s great. 

I was working with some technicians to produce the book when lockdown started in London. Unfortunately, I still can’t access UCL facilities at this moment, so the book project is facing some delays. Where the research is concerned, I am currently working with an informant who is an architect and architectural historian. She is musing over the visuals as part of our extended dialogue.

I quote from your text, “In my own research and particularly having an art/design background, I have been visualising the exhibitions in similar ways”. I understand your position, as I started in fine art as a painter. The shortage of resources does complicate matters. It is also due to such roadblocks that I conceived the crit, presented here. I used the crit as a tool to generate new resources for the research. Primarily, using a contemporary lens to invoke new ideations by looking at the original exhibition retrospectively. I also looked at similar events happening laterally. To develop a different reading for Instant Malaysia, I compared it with another exhibition, ‘How to play the environment game’, which took place in the same year. Both were architect-led exhibitions; they were peers and London-based shows. I hope this helps.

I knew some of these visitors for some years. However, I wasn’t aware they visited the original exhibition back in 1973. When I made an open call to interview people, a friend stepped forward, and she introduced others who saw the showcase. It snowballed from there. Due to the exhibition taking place a long time ago, some visitors can’t remember their experience apart from more generic details. I had to probe with the right questions. The photographs of the exhibition also helped in the ‘recalling’ process.

Best wishes,



Hajra Williams   

Hi Kelvin -Thank you so much for your reply- re conference, we are really thankful for the generosity of the panellists for their time, knowledge and input into making such a wonderful event.

I did design at undergraduate and fine art at MA level and would love to bring that to my research. I hope that the final output can incorporate that in some way. I think that’s why I was drawn to your methodology. Thanks for the answer re visitor input- I have been grappling with an idea of doing a call out for an exhibition that took place in 1971 and am wondering how feasible that would be so it’s good to know of your experience. 

Best of luck with the book – I look forward to it being published.


Kelvin Chuah   

@h_will2 Hi Hajra, you are welcome and all the best for your research.


Jona Piehl Topic starter   

yes!! I will send you an email! 


Thread: Floppies, trannies, a CAD and the blues: unearthing the traces of late 20th-century exhibition practice

Annebella Pollen Topic starter   

Dear Martha,

A quick note to say how much I enjoyed your excellent presentation, particularly on the uses of ‘trannies’, as you called them, in exhibition histories. I’ve been doing some research into the destruction of art school slide libraries (coming out at the end of this year in an edited collection called Photography Off the Scale) and am so pleased to hear that careful research is being done on the media of display as well as what it shows / contains. No questions, just congratulations!



Martha Fleming   

Hi Bella, thanks for the comment. 

I am delighted to hear that you are researching art school slide libraries: this is a really important area where histories of media intersect histories of pedagogy — both for art history and for art practice.  I believe that Caroline Evans (Professor of Fashion History CSM) has also recently published on slide libraries, so let’s both look out for that! 

A few years ago, I visited the slide library at the Art History Department of the University of Hamburg, which has its own Media Curator (impressive!), Dr Anke Napp.  The Hamburg Media Library is multi-layered and includes 150 years of projection technology.  Furthermore, the slide library that was created by Erwin Panofsky during his tenure at the University of Hamburg (1920- 1933) is still extant, and retains its original structure and furniture/drawers.  I attach a PDF of an article I have just published about Collections Based Research (Periskop,23:2020) which contains a photograph of the UHamburg Media Library.  Enjoy! 

Just a note about the title: the word ‘trannies’ was used regularly and consistently in design and printing professions to indicate colour photographic transparencies from their introduction as a medium for print in the mid 1950w until the advent of ubiquitous digital imagery in the late 1990s.  It is historically accurate as a term, and it is definitely a term that needs historical contextualisation! 

all best, Martha


Annebella Pollen Topic starter  

Thanks Martha for your reply and those additional resources, which I look forward to exploring. I am part of a panel about slides in art in October at UAAC (Vancouver / online) next month. I know Caroline Evans but didn’t know she was also writing on the same! By the way, I totally got the trannies reference in your title. I am old enough to remember… 

Thanks again,



Thread: Process in the Archive

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear Martha,

Thank you very much for your excellent paper. As I was listening, I couldn’t help being transported back to my experiences of working through the Eames archive at the Library of Congress (working on their Nehru exhibition). I was rather taken aback by the piles of scraps and notes, including silver slips from cigarette packets, that Ray (?) had scribbled and then preserved in the archive. Having been used to the very formal nature of museum archives, usually based on detailed formal correspondence, it was a revelation and terrifying (!) to see this mass of unfiltered ‘process’. I’m embarrassed to say, that due to time constraints, I left most of it unexamined and stuck to the more familiar, comforting letters that they also wrote and received. I’m now comparing your evocation of the stamina of the designer to my own lack thereof! I was wondering if you’d seen this material, and either way, what approach you would take to analysing it.

Screenshot 2020 09 06 at 10.18.04

I hope you might have chance to listen to Barbara Fahs Charles’ paper (Panel 4) – it is really fascinating, not least because Barbara worked with the Eames in her early career and then adopted/adapted some of their model/photographic techniques in her practice.

Thanks again for the paper – I learnt a lot.

Claire Wintle

Martha Fleming   

Hi Claire, 

Thanks so much for sharing these images of the Eames’ notes about the Nehru exhibition.  It is so wonderful to see, in the middle of the photo collage you have made of your research pics, the phrase THE ENDS CANNOT BE SEPARATED FROM THE MEANS in Charles Eames’ handwriting.  I think this is really why it is so important to understand what processes designers deploy, and what technologies they use, and how those technologies are historically situated.  I have addressed some of this in my article for History of Science (1:23, 2019) ‘Embodied ephemeralities: Methodologies and historiographies for investigating the display and spatialization of science and technology in the twentieth century’ 

So, what would I do with this kind of material?  I am assuming that these scraps were found in a ‘docket’ or folder relating specifically to the Nehru exhibition, is that correct?  It would require quite a bit of work to approach this material.  I would first want to know if there has been any intervention by an archivist (either professional at LOC or perhaps a personal secretary of the Eames post-exhibition (or even family members posthumously).  That is to say, does the ‘scrap-heap’ still retain Eames’ original form vis a vis how Charles and Ray would have left it after the project was completed, or has it been reworked or sanitised?  This would help to understand precisely how much can be ‘understood’ from the current structure. 

When material is scanned, it is possible to ‘re-array’ these digital surrogates by type, date, etc. — without disturbing the original structure of the actual material.  It would be worth either (A) scanning each piece or (B) transcribing each piece.  The former has the advantage of affording each piece a file number automatically (metadata).  Then with the scans one could use Transkribus ( ) to machine-learn Eames’ handwriting and this would help with transcription.  Capturing dates would be good —  maybe many of those back-of-the-envelope notes have postage stamp date-marks on their fronts.  In this way, the physical order (how the materials sit in the archival structure) could be analysed against the chronological orderof the materials.  There will also be structure in the spatialisation of the notes on the pages, which is more difficult to analyse computationally.  It would be worth looking in other ‘dockets’ to see if the ‘heap’ structure is similar across the board — then you might have some grounds to extrapolate a more general process from this material.

Clearly, once this material has been made more analysable (both computationally and in terms of history of design research methods) through digital surrogates such as scans and transcriptions, it would be possible to propose hypotheses about the dynamic developments in the relationship between research, intellectual process, design process, client relations, finances and even travel (I see a list of expenses including a hotel bill in there!).  

In passing — and I must confess that I have not read your work on the Eames and the Nehru exhibition (oops) — were you aware of the connections between Nehru and Patrick Blackett, the physicist?  Very interesting…

all best, and thank you all for a fantastic conference!



Thread: Architecture Exhibitions

Kate Rhodes: Topic starter   

Roberto and Nina thanks for this excellent paper and sharing your research. I look forward to seeing it develop. Your discussion of ‘exhibition architects’ as a profession in its own right is very interesting.

Kate Rhodes, RMIT Design Hub Gallery 

Claire Wintle   

Dear Roberto and Nina, thank you for sharing your fascinating project with us. I enjoyed learning about all the different projects you’ve explored. My question relates to your beautiful maps – I am really interested in how maps relate to galleries (and explored this issue a bit in a recent piece I wrote for British Art Studies), but I wonder if you could reflect a little bit on what is lost in a map, and how you account/compensate for that in your research project. Also, did the process of producing the maps themselves help you conceptualise and think through the exhibitions you are exploring in any specific ways? Thanks in advance!

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