Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 9: Exhibition makers: shifting definitions of design and designer

Panel Overview: 

Stephen Greenberg (Metaphor/University of Reading, UK) Sir John Soane: the first exhibition designer

Sandy Jones (National Art Library, V&A/University of Brighton, UK) The curator-librarian at the museum: exhibiting graphic modernism at the V&A’s library, 1936-39

Kate Guy (University of Brighton/British Museum, UK) “Miss Hall and her busy, energetic design group”: the emergence of professional in-house design at the British Museum

Sarah Longair (University of Lincoln, UK) Designing the colonial museum display: pragmatism and collaboration

Roberta Marcaccio (Architectural Association, UK) A load-bearing history: Ernesto Nathan Rogers and the urban agency of the interior in post-war Milan

Individual Papers:

Stephen Greenberg (Metaphor/University of Reading, UK) Sir John Soane: the first exhibition designer 

We think of Sir John Soane as an architect; a re-inventor of the classical language; an antiquarian; a collector; a freemason; and even a disappointed father. But he was also a superb interior designer and colourist, his masterwork – his house that has remained unchanged since his death – a stunning example of museum design at its best.

The topic of this paper is a re-examination of Soane as a museum designer; a re-imagining of his house as the first deliberately, beautifully, masterfully designed museum space; and an acknowledgement of his immense influence on exhibition design today. Soane’s inventive use of colour, light and object placement is yet to be matched by any before or since. He didn’t need to use any of the masterplanning tools used today: no cones of vision, sight lines, visitor routes, capacity studies, case layouts, or wow objects. Instead, he lived the design, immersing himself in it. In the process, he invented mass displays, interactives, open storage, highlight object displays, and above all the seamless integration of content and container, the sheer theatre of display that characterises museum design at its best.

In an age in which museum design is hampered by clients short on funds, short on time and struggling with a cumbersome bureaucracy that results all too often in design by committee, Soane’s vision and his process offer key lessons we can all learn from. His designs have defined the exhibition design ‘industry’ as it has developed in the last 25 years: examining and unpacking his work and his legacy is essential to understanding where we have been and what we can become going forward.

Ultimately, this paper will argue that Soane is the first – and best – museum designer, an understudied but essential part of museum design history whose work still shapes museum design today.

Stephen Greenberg (Dip. Arch Cantab, Harvard; MA (Hons) Cantab, Reg Arch) founded Metaphor in 2000 as a company working exclusively in the Cultural Sector specialising in the design and masterplanning of museums, exhibitions, historic houses, cultural quarters and other heritage destinations worldwide. Stephen is an architect by training, and his exceptional career has included a period as Editor of the Architects Journal, as a partner in the international architecture firm DEGW, and as a partner in Greenberg and Hawkes Architects. He has built many buildings, designed exhibitions and galleries, received numerous awards and published widely. 

Stephen is a key facilitator in Metaphor’s relationships, working both with Metaphor’s museum clients, but also with external advisors and stakeholders, trustees, directors, politicians and NGOs. He lectures and speaks at universities and design schools and is currently Visiting Professor in the new School of Architecture at Reading University. 


Sandy Jones (National Art Library, V&A/University of Brighton, UK) The curator-librarian at the museum: exhibiting graphic modernism at the V&A’s library, 1936-39

Between 1936-1939, Philip James, Keeper of the V&A’s Library, founded a collection of commercial art. To assemble his collection, he wrote to the artists and designers of the international avant-garde, progressive printers, experimental art schools and commercial patrons. The Jobbing Printing Collection, as it is now known, amounts to around 4,000 objects, the majority collected from May 1936 until the outbreak of World War Two (WW2).  

James aimed to inspire and educate designers and producers by providing them access to innovative new practices and techniques, reflecting the founding mission of the museum. He also believed that commercial art had an important role to play in positioning British business as modern and progressive. Introducing his new collection with an article in Typography journal and an exhibition, Modern Commercial Typography (1936/7), he began to establish himself as an authority in the field and inserted the museum into the discourse of graphic modernism, at a time when it was not museum policy to collect contemporary objects. James was not the only individual who collected this type of material, Dr John Johnson, a trained papyrologist and printer to the university of Oxford had assembled his famed ‘sanctuary of printing’ for the same purposes and their particular modes of operation share many similarities. 

The hand annotated works list for James’ exhibition was discovered early this year and provides a useful point of departure for this paper, as it shines a light on the role and influence of this interwar curator-librarian. The professional and personal networks he established as a result would prepare him for a successful career staging wartime exhibitions for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) and later as Art Director for the Arts Council.  

Sandy Jones began her career in the design industry running branding and innovation design projects. With a particular interest in graphic modernism and printed ephemera between 1920-1945, she is a recent graduate of the History of Design and Material Culture MA programme at the University of Brighton. She co-curated the exhibition, The People’s Pavilion: Our First 70 Years (2016) and was curatorial researcher on The New Line: Works from the Jobbing Printing Collection (2016) at the De La Warr Pavilion, which led to the focus of her thesis on the Jan Tschichold Purchase at the National Art Library (NAL) in 2018. She continues to be a volunteer researcher at the NAL and was recently curatorial researcher on the scoping phase of a planned exhibition for the Design, Architecture and Digital Department (DAD) at V&A Dundee. 

Kate Guy (University of Brighton/British Museum) “Miss Hall and her busy, energetic design group”: the emergence of professional in-house design at the British Museum

In 1964, the Director of the British Museum, Sir Frank Francis, appointed the Museum’s first professional designer, Margaret Hall. The job description was vague, and the successful candidate later recalled that her only brief was to “see what I could do”. The decision to appoint a designer was not particularly innovative, by the 1960’s museums all across the UK had begun hiring professional designers. The exhibition designer Michael Belcher suggested that this was as a result of the “nation’s increased awareness of design.” Sir Francis and the trustees of the British Museum had recognised that a designer could play a vital and essential role within the Museum, but could not yet articulate what that role would or could become. Margaret Hall went on to establish the Museum’s first in-house design department, the Design Office, which became responsible for the design of all the Museum’s permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions. By examining the emergence of professional in-house design at the British Museum, this presentation begins to explore how and why museums across the UK came to realise and utilise the skills of the designer in the 1960s. It will consider the reasons for Hall’s appointment and examine the processes of exhibition-making she inherited, and how she set about to adapt, change and modify these practices.

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.


Sarah Longair (University of Lincoln, UK) Designing the colonial museum display: pragmatism and collaboration

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

This paper will discuss what we mean by ‘design’ in small colonial museums in the first half of the twentieth century. In this period, we see, in particular in international exhibitions, examples of displays responding to modernist design aesthetics. In the colonial museums, there is less evidence, of the exhibition design being informed by particular styles or trends. However, by reading archives closely we can begin to understand how displays took the form they did. This paper will use the examples of museums in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam to consider how exhibitions and displays were ‘designed’ in these examples. It will reveal how curators worked collaboratively with technicians and local craftspeople to create displays, which were naturally determined by the types of objects to be interpreted and the architecture of the buildings. The case study in Zanzibar offers contrasting examples of displays in a newly built museum building and a temporary display in a former gaol, where cells were transformed into small exhibition spaces. In both examples, we see different ways in which the curator and volunteers collaborated with the local community to create the materials for display and shape the design. The displays in Dar es Salaam were created in consultation with the curator from Zanzibar, demonstrating how experience and practice was shared between the two East African institutions. This paper will suggest that such colonial exhibition practices must be understood as collaborative, and responsive to practical considerations, such as limited funds, and colonial ideologies.

Dr Sarah Longair is a Senior Lecturer in the History of Empire at the University of Lincoln. Her research examines the British Empire in the Indian Ocean world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with a focus upon material and visual culture.


Roberta Marcaccio (Architectural Association, UK) A load-bearing history: Ernesto Nathan Rogers and the urban agency of the interior in post-war Milan

In the years following WWII, the Italian architect, editor, critic, proselytiser and educator Ernesto N Rogers (1909-1969) started the first serious critique of the modernist dismissal of history, accusing it of having favoured an elitist formal vocabulary that remained obscure to most, and irrespective of any issue pertaining to context. Rogers was determined to re-introduce history within the discourse and aesthetics of the Modern Movement. Not as a nostalgic or erudite quotation, detached from any social involvement, but rather as a load-bearing material for the architectural project; something that architects, as well as the rest of war-torn society, could make practical use of. 

Rogers wrote no treatises and refused to compose a historical narrative of the Modern Movement. The means he chose to disseminate his ideas ranged instead from practice to teaching, from broadcasting to the editorship of magazines, through to the design and curation of exhibitions. With no systematic theory to be derived from his oeuvre, the exact implications of his idea of a load-bearing history remained a somewhat unresolved issue; one which deeply inspired, as much as troubled, the generation after him, affecting the development of postmodern discourse and aesthetics on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Focusing on the medium of exhibitions, this paper will analyse the display designed by BBPR for the Sforza Castle in Milan, as a tool to visualise, make tangible and disseminate the core of Rogers’ theoretical speculations on history. Moreover it will cast light on the conditions which led Rogers, somewhat counterintuitively, to use museology and interior design to disseminate ideas about city-making. 

Roberta Marcaccio works as a research consultant and teaches History and Theory at the Architectural Association (AA) in London. After graduating from Milan’s Politecnico, she received her Masters in History and Theory from the AA in 2010. Since then, she has covered various editorial roles and teaching positions, while her writings have featured on AA Files, Blueprint and in the books Real Estates (Bedford Press, 2014) and Erasmus Effects (Quodlibet, 2013).

Previously the Head of Research and Communication at London-based studio DSDHA from 2015 to 2019, in 2016 Roberta was awarded a 2-year Research Fellowship in the Built Environment by the Royal Commission for The Exhibition of 1851. Most recently she guest-edited an issue of Architectural Design, titled ‘The Business of Research’ (Wiley, 2019) and she is currently editing a book on emerging modes of architectural practice (Routledge, 2020) as well as a collection of English translations spanning the life of Ernesto N Rogers (MIT Press 2022).




Thread: The importance of Miss Hall

Stephen Greenberg Topic starter   


Really important line of enquiry you have initiated. It’s also a great story, and has many connections and threads. Worth doing a family tree of designers who have benefited from her.

I never met her but working in the BM with Paul Goodhead and the incomparable Caroline Ingham was always a real joy and education. Their rigour was clearly inherited. I worked with both on Michelangelo, Closer to the Master. Where we had a 200 metre time line around the perimeter wall with large photo images, pull out quotes and an unfolding biog of the artist’s life. Paul was the graphic designer in an in-house, out-house co-lab. Quite a task to make this wall (I hope he has a digital version of it filed away for the record). WE spent hours together experimenting at his screen, lovely moment when I said, bigger, bigger , bigger, try 90 point, try 120. Lovely moment then, Margaret would never do that‘ he said.

Carolyn Marsden Smith took over as Head of Design, she came from IWM where Penny Ritchie Calder was H of Exhibitions, also an important figure who did wonderful in-house exhibits on TE Lawrence, Spanish Civil War, and WWI Remembered. She had a great way of using out-house designers for permanents and then recycling their ideas in her own team’s shows. This exchange is another area worthy of investigation.

Bob Baxter who designed the IWM Holocaust exhibition with me (1996-2000) worked at BM for Margaret Hall too, so she’s very much in the DNA of the Casson Mann, Metaphor, post Robin Wade, Mischa Black  James Gardiner generation and Jasper Jacob who straddled both. Baxter also worked for Gardiner and Cel Phelan and the last Steve Simon of founded Event out of Mischa Black. 

I’m sure there is more – and also the cross-over with trade designers and also Pentagram and Imagination (where Peter Higgins founder of Land worked).

Need to interview all of us sooner rather than later. A new generation is transforming exhibition design, Ez Devlin, Pippa Nissen, they are taking us from tradespeople who come in the back door to star designers – it takes a few generations.

Jona Piehl   

Thank you, Kate, I much enjoyed this!

I agree with Stephen’s points about Hall’s influence on exhibition design, and, just to add to this: not to forget Margaret Hall’s 1987 “On Display: A design grammar for museum exhibitions”, with its wonderful sketches and the conceptualisation of ‘design idioms’ as a way of describing how different elements of exhibition design shape the visitor’s experiences in the gallery space!

This post was modified 1 year ago by Jona Piehl
Kate Guy   

Stephen and Jona, thank you both for your kind words, it means a great deal!

Stephen, thank you for sharing that wonderful memory and all this invaluable information. I am currently in the process of compiling a list of individuals I would like to interview, if you are willing to participate in my research, I would love to interview you.


Stephen Greenberg Topic starter   

Hi Jona and Kate

Jona’s Phd v important here with overview information on the field of graphic communication in exhibition design…delighted to talk to you Kate. It’s important to capture this body of work and group of people working from about 1990-2020. 

Peter Higgins has made a film in lockdown of the making the Playzone at the Dome (on YouTube/vimeo) and I feel as with this conference we need to capture Similar experiences from this time.

One of the most interesting parts of Peter’s film is the sheer number of brilliant drawings/renders that never saw the public light of day publicly. If this was architecture we would have the weekly AJ publishing image after image and they end up in the RIBA drawings collection. Many of us have similar images of projects.

( I also have a large range of museum masterplans which are also an important record of this period). 

The other important point about these images is that they often show spaces in use, peopled, whereas architects describe an empty volume. There are also the animations that some of us have made.And some of us, e.g. Dinah Casson, lovely free hand water-coloured drawings.

This also relates to your growing archive in Brighton, Crosby and Gardiner are crucial, but there is also Robin Wade but much of his work was lost in the Eel Pie Island fire in late ‘90’s. And there is Gary Withers and Imagination.

Jona Piehl   

yes!! Peter’s film is so fascinating also as it captures the processes of developing, negotiating, adapting, refining and decision-making that goes into such a project that might be second-guessed from iterations of drawings but so often remains invisible… 

Harriet Atkinson   

Hi Kate, such an interesting and well-delivered paper – congratulations! I particularly enjoy the way you have used your oral sources. As we have recently had a long conversation about this I don’t have a lot to add but it strikes me again how ingrained the hierarchies were at this period within museums; hierarchies between people with expertise of different sorts – Director, the Keepers and makers, technicians, emerging designers, etc. This is such a valuable study in so many ways but partly, I think, in capturing the way in which design became professionalised through relationships with key British cultural establishments (national museums, national broadcasters, theatres, etc) in this period. How different, do you think, were Hall’s experiences as a designer trying to forge a career at the BM from that of designers joining and creating design departments in other kinds of cultural organisation in the period (EG Richard Levin becoming head of design at the BBC in the mid-1950s)? I can’t wait to see how this research develops. All very best, Harriet

Timothy McNeil   

Hi Kate – great presentation. To echo Jona – I think Margaret Hall’s book On Display remains one of the best for understanding museum exhibition design – the thumbnail sketches are wonderful and the book blends technical and big picture perfectly. I’m very interested in the history of exhibition design professional practice so your talk resonates with me. I also agree with Jona and Stephen about the need to capture the work of the post-war pioneers – James Gardner, Giles Velade, Misha Black etc. as well as Hall and her contemporaries and the next gen. Agree completely with the influence of Festival of Britain and Britain can Make it etc. as the inspiration for young designers realizing that you could work as an exhibition designer. My architect father worked for Misha Black and DRU in the early 50s because he saw the Festival of Britain and then he inspired me to become an exhibition designer – the thread you are building is a sound one.

One rather technical question I have is about the size of Margaret Hall’s Office of Design at its height – I have read 24 people? I assume this includes carpenters, illustrators etc as well as 2D and 3D designers? Would love to know because very few large museums get to employ design teams of this size – and Hall’s at the BM must have been the first to do so.

Would love to continue the conversation at some point… thanks

Annebella Pollen   

Dear Kate,

I really enjoyed your presentation, thanks. Just a quick note to say that I heard Christina Riggs give an excellent talk (actually delivered by Elizabeth Edwards as Christina was ill) at V&A in December at The Institutional Life of Photographs conference on the design of the Tut exhibition. She’s done quite a bit of research on it from her interests in Egyptology and photography. Just flagging this in case useful and you are taking your analysis of this show further. 
Thanks again,


Kate Guy   

thank you, Harriet!

After our incredibly useful conversation, I have focused on honing my project down and writing this paper has undoubtedly helped. This is an area I have become particularly interested in, and I am just beginning to research. I hope an exploration and comparison of the similarities and differences of designers experience in other cultural organisations will yield some useful insights. We shall see! Best wishes, Kate

Kate Guy   

Thank you so much for your kind words. It is so reassuring to hear from others, especially someone who’s work I much admire, that your study is valuable and that there is a sound basis for your line of enquiry. 

At its height, the Design Office had around 30-35 members of staff. It grew considerably after the Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972. However, before its expansion, I believe Giles Velarde department at the Natural History Museum had been the largest in Britain, but I have not been able to establish its size. The Design Office was predominantly made up of 2D and 3D designers however defiantly included carpenters and possibly an editor (but again need to get into the Central Archive to verify this).

I would love to continue this conversation. Many thanks again! 



Kate Guy   

Thank you Bella!

This is helpful as I intend to use it as a case study in my thesis, but surprisingly the Museum knows very little about the exhibition.

Thanks again, 


Barbara Fahs Charles   

Hi Kate, terrific presentation. A couple of things that you might be interested in. Michael Preston was head of the design office at the Science Museum in Kensington around this same time. I first met him in 1970 and I think he had already been at the Science Museum for a few years. You mention the Natural History Museum likely having a larger design department than the BM. The Science Museum must have been also building up at that time. The other point that may be helpful is that the Tutankhamun exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington a year or two after the BM put the National Gallery exhibition department on the map. Barbara

Timothy McNeil   

Hi Kate – thanks for information. Excited to see what other information you unearth – Tim

Kate Guy   

Thank you so much Barbara, for sharing incredibly useful information! I will follow both up.

Many thanks



Thread: A load-bearing history and a misplaced obsession with Scarpa in the UK?

Stephen Greenberg Topic starter   


a fantastic discourse on Rogers who I knew very little about – only from the odd grainy photo as a side bar in a bigger Italian story, Piano, Scarpa, Magistretti, Aulenti in the UK.

All the obsession with Scarpa as museum designer amongst UK architects, and yet your slides show Roger’s incredible facility at exhibition making – compare  these slides with similar content in the Med and Renn gallery at the V&A – stiff by comparison , and perhaps because the display here is ‘like walking through a city in micro’, flanneures, promenaders rather than a curatorial sequential or clustered approach. Rogers was an urbanist, Scarpa was not. It makes a difference. ( My own masterplan ‘FuturePlan’ for the V&A, in 1998 described ‘the V&A is like a city with with quarters, a British quarter, fashion quarter, a European quarter (LoL) etc).  This mantra was recited by the chairwoman at countless openings – I cant say that this urban vision went beyond the intellectual organising structure in the exciting way you describe. I think that in the end UK museums are more like Selfridges, galleries are like stores within a ‘temple’ store, invested by each designer as their own rather than part of a continuum like the Milanese interior designers perhaps. So the large scale objects across the V&A don’t work in the same way as the equestrian figure in the Rogers’ photo because that big picture thinking has to straddle several projects over many years, directors, heads of design and  funded out of different pockets.

Eva Jiricna’s V&A sequence from front door to garden, now largely removed, wove a high-end and stylish thread through the non-display spaces. ( A view of the new garden from the entrance was essential to the FuturePlan, like an English country house, she emphasised it. A new generation ripped out her stylish shop and blocked the view- having lost/forgotten/ignored the principles of the masterplan.

You are describing such an exciting way of making larger scale interior museum landscapes. Everyone bangs on about Castelvecchio but the lessons here are astounding, I can’t think of an example that adopted this approach in the way you describe.

Thank you


Stephen Greenberg Topic starter   


I realise why I was so struck with your paper. In my masterplan for the vast Grand Egyptian Museum (2008-12), the galleries were conceived as an ‘archeological field’. It was all laid out like a visit to an ancient site but under cover. This meant that temple fragments, statues were all placed as if they were at Luxor or Leptis Magna. This gave a visual and narrative frame to how visitors would move through the story and across time through four dynastic periods. It was also framed against the view in the distance of rage Giza plateau and the pyramids themselves which are then at the same ‘scale’ as the artefacts within the galleries. In essence the Same concept as Rogers ….


Roberta Marcaccio   

thank you so much for your insightful observations. I had never thought of a comparing the Castello Sforzesco and the V&A galleries, but I will definitely look at the latter under the lens you have suggested … as soon as going for a stroll at the museum becomes a viable option again.

I think what you say about Rogers being an urbanist, or at least someone who is interested in anything from the scale of “the spoon to the city” – as he used to say – is very true and certainly a substantial difference with Scarpa, who is much more focused on the detail. Take Scarpa’s drawings, he starts from the centre of the page with the plan/elevation and, a bit obsessively, keeps drawing around it, until he gets to the margins, where he defines the smallest details at a progressively bigger scale. Rogers wasn’t particularly good at technical drawing and didn’t really engage with it, but perhaps, had he been forced to adopt a similar technique, his point of arrival would have been the city rather than the detail. And indeed the details of the props at the Sforza Castle are not nearly as exquisite as those designed by Scarpa.

I’d very much like to see your Masterplan for the Grand Egyptian Museum, would you be able to point me towards some material about it?




Thread: The curator-librarian at the museum: exhibiting graphic modernism at the V&A’s library, 1936-39

Annebella Pollen Topic starter   

Great presentation, Sandy! You might consider publishing a 1000-word summary in The Ephemerist journal. I’ve written for them – email me for details if interested. 

I loved the hosiery colour chart – a very inclusive 21st century range of skin tones…

Question: James was a great collector and champion of modern graphics but seems to have applied none of this to his exhibition display practice. Your final slide of his exhibition shows a very conventional arrangement of some poorly spaced and framed materials with none of the immersive display strategies of the Constructivists (for example). Why so dull, do you think?

Well done again, 


Sandy Jones   

Thank you for you kind words, Bella. I will email you for details of The Ephemerist, as you suggest. They are familiar with the JP collection, Deborah Sutherland and Ruth Hibbard (V&A champions of the JP collection) wrote about its contents two years’ ago in this journal, so they may be interested in finding out more about its creator. 

Thanks for your excellent question and I agree, his style was conventional in sharp contrast to some of the content. He attended many exhibitions and subscribed to progressive journals, so he wouldn’t have been short of inspiration. My view is that he approached his exhibition more as a librarian than designer; it is assembled almost like the chapters of a book. Without doubt he wanted his collection to be taken seriously and perhaps the staging and historical contextualisation was an attempt to do this? He had a small gallery space and resources in the library were limited. However, one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he had called upon the services of his network to help him out! Where would someone like Herbert Bayer have taken the display? 

Annebella Pollen Topic starter   

That all makes sense – the sobriety, the librarianship etc. Agree he missed a trick! Thanks again and well done again. 


Thread: Curators and collectors making exhibitions

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear Stephen, Sandy, Sarah, Kate and Roberta,

I very much enjoyed your presentations – thank you for sharing your research! My question relates to the specific ways in which those who are intimately engaged with collections as collectors and curators (like Soane, James and Nicol Smith) practice exhibition making in ways that are different to those practiced by professional design teams, or the other non-curators/collectors who were involved in making the displays you all explore. In my research on mid-century practice, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, there often seem to be battles between designers and curators, sometimes over this issue of object intimacy and understanding (although I have to say, this sense of division usually comes from the curator’s side!). Do you think there is a difference? Perhaps this is a false dichotomy? Roberta, Ernesto Rogers seems to hold a very interesting position at the intersection of these positions. Thoughts gratefully received. Claire Wintle

Stephen Greenberg   

Hi Claire

Nearest to Soane for me is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City made by David Wilson, the designer is also the curator and storyteller. The Cinema Museum in Torino works equally well because the curator knew the museum had to be cinematic and she has shared in making a ‘palace of dreams‘ with Francis Confine, the designer. In all these the result is a magical physical transformation and experience. It’s not conceived as a display of objects in cases with labels and text panels. 

Many curators are held down by the intellectual milieu in which they train, over thought-out, and being essentially didactic when for the visitor the result is sensory as well as kinaesthetic, emotional etc. They can find it hard to make the transition from this comfort zone to storytelling and entering magical worlds. The best curators can. Working with BM curators, Ian Jenkins and Celeste Farge on the BM’s Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece was the perfect balance between creativity and scholarship. They let us transform their insights into a great story and recognised that an exhibition takes on its own landscape ands dynamic, in this case with ever-changing views of 3D pieces and a complex relationship between two sculptors, Rodin and Phaedias, 2500 years apart. That ‘frioendship’ was the hook for a great story. 

Historian are much more natural story tellers to work with if you feel an exhibition has a narrative and isn’t just a display of objects chronologically, typologically by techniques and materials.

Does that help?

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Hi Stephen, that’s really useful – thanks. I think that curators also have sensory, kinaesthetic and emotional experiences with their objects, but I completely take your point that designers are sometimes more focused on the visitor. There are some really interesting cases in the 1970s in the UK (at Bristol especially) where the designer (Mike Linehan) actually worked more as an outreach officer, setting up live community events with a really strong performance element, sometimes barely related to any physical exhibition at all. I wonder where you see Soane on the spectrum of intellectual/ ‘over-thought-out’ to storyteller par excellence? Thanks, Claire

Sarah Longair   

Thanks Claire (sorry I’ve just managed to lose this reply twice over the last couple of days, so sorry if it’s a bit garbled as typing in haste!) In the Zanzibar case, the archives just don’t tell us very much about object intimacy unfortunately but there are some things we can infer. There doesn’t seem to be a tension in the assistants creating the cases and the curators over this issue, the options were quite limited in many cases. It seems that they relied much more on educators and guides, and the guidebooks themselves to animate and create a sense of intimacy around the objects. It’d be fascinating to know what the Swahili population thought about the mock-up of one of their homes – whether this felt familiar, or was just a colonial imaginary version of their lives. 

I did hear occasionally at the BM about the perceived tensions between designers and curators, but it depended who you spoke to..! Kate’s work is so interesting in revealing more about this.

Roberta Marcaccio   

Hi Claire,

Thank you very much for your question. You do open up a very interesting issue re: specialisation / division of knowledge, (and the frictions it might sometimes cause) which, as far as I know, was simply not an option in Milan in the first half of the century.

People like Rogers were deeply invested in promoting the figure of the all-round intellectual, capable of bringing together both high-brow and popular culture and nurturing a dialogue between disciplines – between artists, journalists, doctors, philosophers, engineers, scientists and politicians. This convergence of interests was already a distinctive trait of Milanese culture during the fascist years, in the circles gathered around Quadrante, Domus and Casabella. And, in the years following the Second World War, as Umberto Eco noted, architects, urban planners, designers and editors came together as ‘the critics and interpreters of an industrial bourgeoisie with a radical-socialist inclination, trying on the one hand to master the problems of science, technology and industrial production, and on the other to modernise Italian visual culture’.

In this context, Rogers was able to move seamlessly between curating, writing, teaching and his architectural practice, constantly fusing politics, philosophy and culture in ways which are difficult to disentangle. In this sense I do not think he saw any need to set boundaries between the practice of design and that of curation.

Thank you again.

Sandy Jones   

Hi Claire

Thank you for your very interesting question.

As someone deeply connected to his collection and clear about its purpose, to inspire change in the way commercial art was perceived and raise standards of design, James used exhibition making as a means to express his own taste and views, rather than those of the museum. He managed to bi-pass traditional methods practiced by the museum’s curatorial departments, largely, I think because his collection was not viewed as scholarly (too commercial/ephemeral/modern). Also, because he had the support of director Maclagan, who approved the Jan Tschichold purchase and a reference to the collection in the museums’ Review of Principal Acquisitions (1936 and 1937). Bringing commerce inside the museum to this extent was also unusual at this time.

James’ education will have also played a part. His degree in Librarianship at UCL included Greek, French, cataloguing, indexing, classification and writing. It would have been important for him to contextualise and categorise his objects to explain his narrative, rather than present them solely for aesthetic appreciation.

Thanks again.

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