Exhibition Design By David Dernie.Laurence King, 2006.192pp. £35
'Our job is to create wonder, ' Ralph Appelbaum ('one of the world's leading exhibition designers') is quoted as saying in this book's introduction.
But what exactly is exhibition design? Who are the exhibition designers, and what are they called upon to do?
It can be a complex business. The way an exhibition or museum display looks, the way in which it involves or inuences the visitor, is a function of a number of things:
the space in which it is housed;
the way in which that space is altered for a particular exhibition; and the way in which exhibits are selected, ordered and presented. These things are interlinked and are not all necessarily the preserve - or business - of one single individual, whether architect, designer, artist, or curator.
And, of course, there are many different kinds of exhibitions. David Dernie's book, a welcome addition to the analysis of a manyfaceted and yet still relatively unexplored discipline, struggles to encompass and digest design from the historic British Galleries at the V & A (Casson Mann) to the Steuben Flagship store in New York (Appelbaum); from the Holocaust Memorial in Washington (Appelbaum again) to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin (Imagination and Robinson Keefe Devane) - which, tellingly, is now Ireland's number one tourist attraction, ahead of the Book of Kells.
The book acknowledges the history of display, but its focus is on the now. From Holocaust Experience to Guinness Experience, Dernie poses an urgent question: what is the state of exhibition design, and how is it to find ways to create a sense of wonder, in an age when museum and retail invade each other's patch, and when the authentic experience of real things in real spaces has to compete evermore with virtual media?
Dernie's thesis is that exhibition design is shifting from straight display to a broader promotion of the client (with merchandise and events all communicating a 'branded message'), and becoming more audience-focused; he talks of 'immersive experiences' and 'brand immersion'. In contrast to the 'conservative' world of visual art display, he sees exhibition design now as being technologically innovative, interdisciplinary and 'about establishing frameworks for change: forms, material and non-material, which celebrate the pattern of contemporary communication'.
The book's structure is first methodological, then technical.
In the first section Dernie divines three broad approaches to exhibition design: the creating of narrative spaces;
of performative spaces; and of immersive, simulated experience. In the second he explores areas of technique:
display apparatus; lighting;
means of communication, colour and graphics.
International case studies fall under each of these broad categories.
The book's expansive range is also its big challenge.
It conflates so many kinds of exhibition experience that it's hard to draw meaningful comparisons of intent, approach, or result. And this leads to the book's main problem: the difficulty of representing, in photographs and words, the actual experience of the designs.
It's a problem inherent in architectural photography, as we all know, but particularly serious here. How do we judge effective design? Which exhibition designs 'work' and which don't? Which involve, immerse and communicate;
which do justice to their subject and to the objects displayed?
This, after all, is the test of good exhibition design, whether traditional or innovative (is there really a difference? ). The difficulty in trying to address these questions, or allow us to, is compounded here by the book's busy design and the miniature scale of most of the 435 illustrations, as well as by the largely uncritical nature of the case-study texts.
Still, it's a fascinating subject. And, in an area where definitions continue to blur, maybe some distinctions need restating, as well as a caution, which arises most readily from the 'traditional' field of art exhibitions. The late and great art critic and exhibition-maker David Sylvester said: 'Designing the setting for an exhibition is not like designing a building.
It's not a matter of creating inherently beautiful spaces, but of working out a framework for specific objects. The likely danger with a designer is that he will use the artist's art as material to make his own work of art.'
Martin Caiger-Smith is a former head of exhibitions at London's Hayward Gallery