engineer

tim   .

                                                      


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.   hunkin

                                                         


cartoonist

AN INITIATION INTO MUSEUM DESIGN (1996)
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After finishing The Secret Life of the Home Gallery for the Science Museum, I wrote this account of the process:

To everyone who helped with the work on the gallery and to Sally Duensing, who encouraged me to write this account of the work.

In March 1993, I had just finished making a TV series and was putting up a small display in the Science Museum to promote it. While there, I was asked by Gillian Thomas, who had recently been appointed an assistant director, if I would like to be involved in developing their education centre. I was not particularly interested, but then discovered they had run out of money and halved its size, leaving some of the old galleries in place. These they now wanted refurbished at low cost. One was the Domestic Appliances gallery - old cookers, fridges, vacuum cleaners, etc - a brilliant collection, very traditionally displayed in glass cases. Unlike the education centre, the prospect of displaying the nation's collection of hairdriers and the like was instantly appealing. Also appealing was the idea of being a guinea pig, both in finding if low cost refurbishment could be applied more widely in the museum (several galleries have not been touched since the 1960s), and also a guinea pig in using outside `experts' to create galleries, choosing objects and writing labels, infringing on the traditional territory of the curator. I do not consider myself an expert, but have made a number of films demystifying domestic machines.

Such was my ignorance of museum design that when Gillian suggested a budget of 50,000 for the refurbishment, I thought it was unbelievably generous, more than enough for anything I could possibly imagine doing. I had made a few individual exhibits for museums before, but had no idea what was involved designing whole galleries, or displaying museum objects.

Along with this ignorance, I had some strong, simplistic, prejudices about museum design. What I liked best were really old fashioned museums with galleries full of glass cases overstuffed with objects and cryptic labels. To my regret, museums had been busy getting rid of galleries like this. I felt galleries now generally seemed to be based on `stories' devised by curators, interpreted by designers, who provide elaborate `themed spaces'. Undoubtedly this approach must have seemed very refreshing when new in the 70s, but I suspected it had become a rather tedious new orthodoxy.

I'm not convinced that many visitors take in the `story' - if you watch people for a short time its obvious they don't go round a gallery in any logical order; they flit from one exhibit to another, occasionally getting completely engrossed in one particular detail. I think people enjoy creating their own interpretation and stories, relating the exhibit to their own experience.

The designers `themed' space can encourage visitors to explore, and help to create a good atmosphere, but I felt it often just created something fashionable looking, little different from a fashionable restaurant or shopping centre. This sort of effect is very expensive (usually costing several million pounds a gallery) and by its sheer scale eclipses all other work. In every museum project I have ever worked on, the mammoth building works leave a mad rush stuffing exhibits and labels into cases just before opening. As this is actually what visitors spend most of their time looking at, it seems a bit absurd.

Refurbishing the Domestic Appliances gallery was an ideal opportunity to have a go at creating a gallery without any story or fancy design, stuffed with objects and interactive exhibits. Not having a grand design or story did make it difficult presenting my initial ideas; all I could do was to draw some of the interactive exhibits I was thinking of making and sketch what a showcase might look like. It didn't look at all impressive. The interactives looked rather traditional and dull, as did the showcase. Gillian, to her credit, accepted them graciously, but it made me realise that part of the reason for the modern gallery style I was reacting against, came from the need to make imposing initial presentations.

Fortunately there was no particular deadline for the refurbishment because, having presented my designs, I left for San Fransisco for three months to take up a fellowship at the Exploratorium. This was good timing. I'd never made any interactive exhibits and The Exploratorium is world famous for developing them. I didn't realise at the time how useful the experience would be in creating my own exhibits. When I showed them photos of the existing Domestic Appliances gallery they shook their heads and said unhelpful things like `gee, its a real challenge' or ` you've really got a tough one there, Tim'. Rather demoralised and uncertain whether I knew what I was doing, I returned in November 93. It seemed sensible to start with a temporary trial showcase and a few prototype interactive exhibits. Throughout the process, work on the interactives proceeded in parallel with work on the showcases and overall gallery designs. For this account, I've decided to split the two activities, though in practice they proceeded simultaneously. It was often refreshing to have a break from some writing or design problem and go to the workshop and bash some bits of metal about.

DISPLAYING THE OBJECTS

I started with the irons. Like everything else in the gallery, these had been displayed on a background of patterned Edwardian wallpaper, presumably to give the gallery an 'Olde Worlde' domestic feel. The wallpaper design was so busy it acted brilliantly as camouflage. At first glance it was possible to think the case was completely empty, particularly because some of the irons were under shelves in virtual darkness. Really though, I was lucky to have something tangible to start with - much easier to see faults in something that exists than to see them on paper, starting a design from scratch.

I decided to replace the wallpaper with white melamine faced chipboard. This made the case much brighter and made it possible to see the irons. It was also very cheap - œ28 for a 9 by 6 ft sheet, and instantly available at any DIY superstore. I also replaced the shelves with white boxes, arranged in tiers. These got rid of the shadows, and also created vertical surfaces to stick the labels as close as possible to the objects themselves. Looking round the rest of the museum I had realised that one of the things that irritated me most was searching for labels.

The actual process of building the trial display was bizarre. I was not allowed to use the museum workshops (they were not insured for outsiders), so I bought my own tools and set up in a storeroom. After almost routing a hole in my chest when my power router sprang to life as I plugged it in (in the name of safety a museum electrician had PAT tested the router and left the switch on) I spent some time recovering from the shock. Two days later, with a variety of different sized boxes in front of me, and a considerable amount of dust on all the precious objects in the store, I realised I could have worked out the sizes in advance (by arranging all the objects on the base of the case, and then measuring the sizes and heights needed to raise each object above the one in front). At least the hundreds of boxes needed for all the other cases could now be made in my workshop and bought to the museum ready made.

Along with the layout, I tackled the labels. The originals described the detailed dimensions and materials from which the object was made, along with some wordy descriptions of their technical significance and how they were used, all in tiny writing, beautifully typeset. Hidden amongst it all there was often some interesting information. I got rid of the dimensions and materials (presumably originally there to help the curators identify their objects), and found that much of the rest could be decimated by adding cartoon drawings to show how the irons were used.

Finally I attempted to bring the case up to date by adding two modern irons. The first I cut in half, to show the parts inside. I kept trying to draw diagrams of this sectioned iron but found it was amazingly confusing looking from iron to diagram to labels - the diagram was only replicating the object. The solution was to abandon the diagram completely and have pointers, made of welding rods, straight from the parts of the iron to the labels. The second modern iron I removed the safety thermal link and let it melt, creating a wonderful gooey mess.

With the rather dusty new look irons on display it was obviously some improvement on the old arrangement; if nothing else, the irons were easier to see and were arranged in some sort of logical order. I waited to get some reaction from people in the museum. The cartoons were popular, as was the melted iron. Many people thought it was rather crowded, and the museum design staff were concerned by the lack of colour, they thought the white was too clinical, and were also concerned whether I would be able to get my final labels and boxes up to an acceptable `museum quality'(an issue that continued to haunt me for months). However I was my own fiercest critic. It all still looked very bland. A few of the cartoons were funny, but many were just illustrations, and the idea of repeating this case after case seemed unbearable. Maybe the designers were right, I should have used some dazzling fashionable material to line the cases. Instead, I wrote a list of the things I did like about my case.

Odd Facts

I liked the odd facts, like the origin of the Hotpoint tradename derived from their first successful product, an electric iron with a hot point. Though the irons were arranged in a roughly chronological order, the individual labels made no attempt to tell the complete history of the iron, merely pointing out miscellaneous points of interest. This fitted with the random way most visitors appeared to drift about.

 

Odd Objects

I liked the melted iron, satisfyingly anarchic, and good to look at. Generally I felt there was some virtue in a bit of bad taste, things to make you go yuk. Part of my brief had been to make the gallery more appealing to children, and a bit of bad taste seemed a much better way of doing this than painting everything bright primary colours. There's actually no evidence that children prefer bright colours, except possibly under two year olds.

Nostalgia

One of the things I liked best about the gallery, even in its previous design, was the way objects triggered visitors' memories `Oh, aunty Flo used to have one like that' etc. I was told that until recently the idea of encouraging nostalgia like this was frowned upon by the museum. Objects only became exhibits once serious scholarship had been done on them. In fact the entire domestic appliances collection had been regarded as one curator's eccentric side interest until the 1970s.

 Advertisements

I had one 1950s advert in the irons case, a photo of a steam roller flattening a dress and a delighted lady holding it up afterwards saying `nothing will flatten my Garnelene dress'. No cartoon I could draw seemed as relevant or as funny as this. The adverts also provided a bit of social history, much better than trying to write about it.

Apart from focusing my mind on what I was interested in, the trial case was invaluable in working out the costing for the rest of the gallery. I realised how little I could do with the 50k, and decided to charge my own time at half the designer's rate that had been suggested. This was less altruistic than it might seem, much of my time was spent doing manual, practical things that could have been done by carpenters or technicians. This practical involvement greatly improved the design of the gallery, but it obviously took more of my time than a designer would normally spend. Even doing this, I wasn't going to have enough money to do everything I'd planned.

I managed to persuade Gillian to investigate sponsorship (though initially she had been against the idea as she didn't want sponsors to be confused with the far larger sums she was trying to raise for the education centre). I wrote a proposal with which the museum's sponsorship manager extremely efficiently and quickly attracted 25k from Hoover and Calor Gas. Progress then went downhill. On the verge of getting the entire project sponsored by a security company celebrating its 70th anniversary, the executive whose idea it was broke his leg. The next day the proposal was presented to the company board by an assistant who didn't really understand it, so it was thrown out. We also had an embarrassing meeting with an executive from another company, who was unbelievably sexist and patronising to the museum's sponsorship manager, and imagined the gallery becoming one big advert for his company.

Fortunately the trial case, together with the first trial interactive exhibits, gave the museum the confidence to ask me to quote for the two other basement galleries (firemaking and locks) that needed refurbishing. With the experience of the trials, I was now able to cost everything more realistically, it came to about œ180.000 for the complete scheme (a lot of money but twenty times cheaper than the education centre being built next door). It still amazes me how accurately we kept to the budget, mainly because we spent the money gradually, leaving time for regular reassessment. Peter devised a system of `anticipated final costs' for every aspect of the gallery. We juggled these every month or two, adjusting future budgets to accomodate the latest expenditure, always making sure the total still added up to the œ180,000.

The trial case was also invaluable in working out how long the whole process would take. It was obviously going to be slow because I wanted to focus on one or two cases at a time, getting them near enough completion to see the finished effect. It had its difficulties though. It wasn't easy persuading the shopfitter to come at short notice to line each case in the white chipboard. In the end, I found it simpler to do the smaller cases myself, after I discovered a place that would supply the chipboard, precisely cut to size, en route to London. The other problem that gradually got worse was dust from work in progress getting into `finished' cases, (though the worst of it came from sandblasting the entire gallery next door).

Despite the problems, doing one case at a time had huge advantages. It was good for morale having visible progress at regular intervals. It also gave time to reflect on `finished' cases, I quite regularly thought of small additions and improvements. I was still learning about case design; each case was a sort of 3D jigsaw. As I got better at it I found I could cram more and more into each case - one curator referred to my activity as case stuffing, as opposed to case dressing. I regarded this as a compliment, believing that museums always should be overstuffed.

The other advantage of just doing a case at a time was that I only needed a small team of people. I had Anthony, my assistant (a joiner from Suffolk), Colin and his blokes, (the shopfitters who lined the cases and made several giant new ones), Willy (the modelmaker who mainly worked on the interactives), Eryl (the ex-museum curator who chose objects and wrote labels for the home entertainment section), and two people from the museum, Peter the project manager and Dave the assistant curator. The small team meant there was rarely any need for meetings, everything could be communicated informally. The step by step nature of the process reduced the number of problems that ever had to be tackled simultaneously. There was no need to write much down. Problems tortuous to solve on paper in advance, are often simple when faced with them on site.

Converting the trial case design into something permanent was not simple. The conservation department had to consider the long term effects of all materials, paints and glues inside the case that might affect the objects, and ease of access for periodic cleaning. The design department had to consider things like the standard of finish of the boxes, and the quality of the lettering on the labels.

I was presented with a thick volume of conservation practice. The woman who gave it to me was insistent that it should be closely followed, though she had no technical knowledge to interpret it. Strange things were banned, like PVC, which seemed odd as many of the objects I was displaying had bits made of PVC (almost all the electrical appliances had PVC flex). This was a problem; much the best mounting board for photos is Foamex, a foamed PVC. Equally strange things were allowed, like spray glue, full of volatile solvents. These were supposed to evaporate in the two week, wonderfully named `off gassing' period that had to be left between finishing a case and putting any objects inside. (Though I started by obeying this faithfully, it became less and less practical as the final deadline for the gallery opening approached.) Curiously missing from the conservation volume was any mention of white chipboard, perhaps just too cheap and nasty to even be mentioned. The conservation woman suggested I visit the British Museum, which I did. The girl there thought it was all rather a joke applying standards drawn up for delicate palaeolithic remains to 1930s pop-up toasters, but confirmed that the white melamine coating on the chipboard was OK, though exposed chipboard was not, so all the edges had to be sealed (countless rolls of B & Q iron-on white edging strip).

 With conservation approval, I still had to satisfy the design department the cases would look smart enough. My trial white boxes were a mess, rather badly glued together with nothing fitting properly. Making neat boxes out of melamine chipboard was not easy because the mitred edges were so brittle they tended to chip. I only perfected the method while making the very last boxes for the gallery, so most of the edges are still a bit messy, though better than the trial case. My trial labels were equally substandard, the self adhesive paper I had photocopied them onto quickly got smudged and frayed by the cleaners. I eventually found a washable self-adhesive white plastic that could be photocopied. It was difficult to get this to stick on the white chipboard without leaving air bubbles, but could just be floated on when wet. There were still mumblings from the graphics department that my photocopied desk top publishing text was not as `sharp' as the traditional photoset museum labels. I ignored them, deciding that the flexibility being able to produce finished artwork `in house' was more important, as there would be over 800 labels. I'm sure few visitors ever notice the difference, but I'm not sure the graphics department really ever forgave me. My worst problem, though, was sticking the adverts and larger graphics, particularly the ones outside the cases. Everything I had tried had started peeling off after a few months in the hot dry atmosphere. Spray glue didn't seem much good; double sided adhesive film was almost impossible to get flat; even the hot press, gluing the photo to a board with a matt protective film on top wasn't perfect; the paper itself delaminated at the edges with wear, curling up. I eventually had to put frames round everything to cover the edges up.

One remaining problem was keys. It was decided that as I was not a museum employee I could not be issued with keys for the showcases. I think I was supposed to telephone for a warder every time I needed anything opening or closing, which would have been hundreds of times every day. In practice Peter and Dave (who had huge bunches of keys) had to surreptitiously take the vital keys off their rings and lend them to me. I also became skilled at getting around the museum without keys, using steel shims and other tricks. (Rather too late to be useful, after the gallery had opened, the warders do now allow me unofficially to borrow Dave and Peter's entire bunches of keys.)

With the practical details just about under control, I could concentrate on the content of the cases. The odd facts were not too difficult. I had unearthed lots while making my films about the machines. Few quite matched the story of Mr Midgeley - who invented both CFC refrigerants and lead additives for petrol and eventually caught polio and accidentally strangled himself, caught up in a device he had made to get him out of bed.

The odd objects presented more of a problem. I couldn't simply melt down every domestic appliance like the iron. In the end, my favourites were a packet of white powder and a video labelled `chemistry for fun and profit', tucked in the corner of a safe, and a saucepan full of mechanically bubbling porridge on one of the cookers. I left many cases without anything, which felt a failure at the time, but I now think it makes it more surprising when you do come across something odd. I also cut an example of almost everything in half. The results looked like very traditional science museum exhibits, not at all odd, but the cutting was quick and fun to do, and the insides showed clearly how gadgets like coffee making machines worked - ingeniously simple.

I liked the way the objects triggered visitors' memories. My labels for the objects on display lacked this sort of personal detail, stories from the orignal owners. The museum had never collected this sort of information in its files. I have now incorporated a `personal history' stand in the gallery where visitors can complete a form describing their own memories of any of the objects in the gallery for future inclusion in the labels. 

The other important aspect of encouraging this nostalgia was to bring the collection up to date. Almost everything originally on display was pre-war, before the majority of visitors had been born. Acquiring the post war objects was time consuming but often entertaining. Initially I persuaded The Consumer Association to let me include a small piece in their magazine `Which', asking for photos of any post war domestic objects readers would like to donate to the museum. I was warned not simply to ask for the objects in the first instance, in the past the museum had been swamped with all kinds of junk deposited on the doorstep. The `Which' piece was picked up by other journalists and repeated in other magazines and on many radio stations, so I was swamped with replies. I had over ten offers of Goblin teasmades, for some reason invariably photographed sitting in the middle of the owners' bed. Dave, the curator, agreed to visit all the people offering the most promising items. The gems we acquired included a glorious early chrome American microwave cooker called the `Radarange', and the entire collection of the Belling company which had recently gone bankrupt.

By working on this Dave gradually became more involved with the whole gallery. I found he knew more about the collection than anyone else in the museum, and had over the years already been acquiring post war items, which were in store. Exploring the museum's stores (an airfield near Swindon and an old office building in London) were great treats. The huge Edwardian office building had been the Post office savings bank. All institutionally tiled, with high ceilings and mysterious corridors, it is shared with the other national museums. Coming across rooms full of bits of statues or ornate furniture all added to the experience. Dave's stores had endless strange objects on the shelves, and endless mysterious packages to unwrap - the excitement felt like opening Christmas presents.

There remained some gaps that needed filling so Dave and I started visiting car-boot sales. The thought of going to car boot sales as `work' delighted me. These were particularly good for buying early video games like `pong'. Though people were so keen to get rid of them, now the game is running in the gallery its played literally all day long. I liked the idea of visitors finding objects in a national museum identical to ones they'd only just thrown out - I imagined them cursing, assuming they must now be worth lots.

The final aspect of filling the cases was finding more old adverts. I became addicted to the research, spending several happy weeks in the national newspaper library at Colindale looking through old magazines. My taste in adverts gradually changed - when I started I liked the bright innocent 1950s ads with lots of hand drawn artwork, but by the end I'd come to prefer the 70s. Although the great majority look very like today's ads, with rather different typefaces, a few are hysterical. I'm not sure why, but I still giggle when I think of photo of the electric cooker standing in a desert, with a sports car disappearing in the distance in a cloud of dust, beneath the words `For people who like to live life fast'.

In the same vein as the adverts I had decided I wanted to have short (maximum one minute) video clips of old commcials and promotional films. The equipment seemed impressively good value (about œ8,000 for four laser disk players, controllers, monitors, and disk mastering) and I managed to persuade Channel 4 television, who had broadcast my films) to sponsor part of the cost. Liz, my TV producer had already done an enormous amount of archive research for the films, so I thought the process would be simple. In practice she had to renegotiate the rights for every single clip, even if we'd used them before. Both Liz and Peter Cox, the editor, worked at a fraction of their normal rate, but even so, I kept having to allocate money from other parts of the budget. It was worth it. The video clips add enormously to the atmosphere and variety in the gallery. It is not uncommon to find visitors dancing along with the advertising jingles.

Copyright for archive material is a grey area. Before supplying reproductions of the old adverts the British Library insisted that I obtain written consent from the copyright holder - virtually impossible as most of the companies no longer existed. However, I found that outside this national institution, less rigorous standards are applied. The magazines themselves were happy for the museum to photograph adverts from their own archives, as long as they were credited. The Advertising Archive (a brilliant commercial archive which keeps adverts sorted for every imaginable product) simply charges a fee for `permission to reproduce'. Archive images in books, magazines, frequently never have actually had the copyright cleared. Archive film is similar, with commercial archives frequently not in possession of the coPyright, simply charging for permission to reproduce.

 THE OVERALL DESIGN

While the process of redisplaying objects in their original cases became quite straightforward, I had also decided to make a few more ambitious changes to the gallery, which made me realise the depth of my ignorance of museum design. The emphasis of the original gallery had been on heating, with several large complete fireplaces and a huge Victorian kitchen range, complete with fibreglass roasting pig. I decided these should go (no one seemed to look at them much) to make room for a home entertainment section, something on hobbies (DIY, home computers and sewing), and a room about home security. These changes constituted `new work' which entailed tackling a maze of structural and fire regulations.

Because the gallery was a fire escape route all materials had to be class O fire rated - that is inherently non-flammable. This is enormously restricting, and obviously my white chipboard would not do. The final decisions over the regulations and their interpretation are made by the council district surveyor, who I eventually met. He was refreshingly practical and helpful and told me about `small quantity exemptions'. I could have my white chipboard, and other flammable stuff if there wasn't too much of it. Even better he decided my plans did not constitute `major work', and could be covered instead by `building notes'. This meant I did not have to draw everything out and have every detail approved in advance, I could start work almost immediately, getting one bit approved at a time.

The worst job was demolishing the solid brickwork round the fireplaces and the kitchen range, which had to be done with a minimum of dust. It was decided that this job, together with the construction of the home security room I wanted to put in place of the range, would be done by the museum, with its formal procedure for competitive tendering. Producing the tender documents required drawing everything in detail, with dire consequences for any changes made at a later date (I was told contractors generally tender at cost, confident they will get their profits on the subsequent `alterations and additions'). I found this very difficult. It increased my respect for conventional designers and architects who have to work in this indirect way all the time. I found it particularly difficult trying to decide the dimensions of the small home security room.With the range still in place, it was impossible to get any feel of the space. Unable to picture the room by drawing, I started measuring rooms at home, and everywhere else, to try and find one roughly the size I was thinking of - even then, I wasn't sure if it would feel too claustrophobic stuffed with people. I wondered why architects don't have a system of temporary screens to `mock up' spaces. Even if they have enough experience not to need them, their clients would benefit from it.

The job went to the contractor who was already on site doing the work on the education centre next door. I arrived to find the demolition almost complete, with two men (the only black workers on the site) asleep on the rubble. I had imagined they would have some high-tech method, but this was so primitive, it must have been insane hot, dusty work, all done at night. It seemed like gross exploitation, the scene still haunts me. But with the range gone, it was now finally possible to see the space, and I could now see my drawings for the room were not quite right. While fretting about the expense of changing them, a draughtswoman turned up to do the final scale drawings. She seemed quite happy to alter my original dimensions, I don't think the contractor ever realised anything had changed.

The design department was concerned about the outside of the room. I wanted it to look like the exterior of a house and had proposed mock brick wallpaper, but they said it should either look real, with real brick, or intentionally `zany', with weird colours and crazy shaped windows. My sister, who used to be an architect, rescued the situation by producing a fine drawing of the exterior covered in ornate ironwork, hanging baskets and window boxes.

It was a delicate balance getting the decoration for the whole gallery right. I knew I didn't want `designery' things like fancy materials, odd shapes and wild colours, and anyway I had very little money. I decided to stick with the black and white colours of the original gallery - the white reflected light off the ceiling, the black was practical round the bases of the showcases camouflaging dirt and scratches. I also decided to keep the original lighting - bright overhead fluorescent tubes. I liked the way they looked so old fashioned, adding to the atmosphere of a traditional gallery. Just before the gallery finally opened I changed my mind and switched the fluorescents off, relying on the lights inside the showcases plus a few extra spotlights. Against my principles, I had to admit the more theatrical lighting did look better - it drew your eye into the cases, away from the basement ceiling, cluttered with its ducts and services.

Despite my preference for plain and minimal colour and lighting, I was a bit worried the gallery might just look too boring, so decided it should have some sort of decoration to make the space more entertaining. I initially toyed with the idea of having an overhead conveyor slowly moving suspended domestic appliances round the gallery, but abandoned it, deciding that it would be noisy and distracting and would quickly become boring to look at. However this lead to the idea of having individual appliances suspended from the ceiling that would spring to life occasionally. This fitted the general idea of showing how everyday mundane machines could be surprising and interesting, and fitted the brief to make the gallery more appealing to children. It also fitted with my idea of the gallery at first sight looking traditional and straightforward, but being full of surprises. Even better I already had a number of new looking domestic machines, test failures given to me by the Consumer Association. Willy (the modelmaker) and I spent a happy autumn making 12 strange objects including a microwave with a poodle trapped inside, a set of flying hot water bottles, a toilet with a plumber who popped out of the bowl and the cistern, and a tele with a model of the museum director inside (so he could keep an eye on the gallery).

 alf way through the project, when progress on every front seemed slow and difficult, I lost confidence in my ideas about the decoration, and became convinced the gallery was still going to look stuffy and dull. Maybe the designers were right, I should have done something more dramatic with the gallery's appearance. I started wondering if I could make it into a sort of joke electrical superstore, complete with window displays, special offers with prices and guarantees on all the objects. Initial reaction from people at the museum was enthusiastic, suggesting they too thought my original ideas were dull. However, after some deliberation I decided to persevere with my original scheme, encouraged by the interest of the contractors working on the education centre next door. I would often find them looking at the objects in the cases, even in ones I hadn't started refurbishing - it reminded me what a brilliant collection of stuff it all was. I decided against the `superstore look' because, like the conveyor idea, it was a `one line' joke that would quickly become irritating if you were in the gallery for any length of time. I realised this was basically what I disliked about a lot of modern design, it is too superficial, geared to making a spectacular initial impression.

Once the ceiling objects were finished, they still had to be installed, which turned out to be both difficult and very expensive. The museum bureaucracy, alarmed at the idea of suspended electrical moving objects, was particularly thorough. I gradually realised that the point was not simply to make everything safe, but to create a paper trail to prove that everyone within the museum had acted correctly, in case an accident occurred some time in the future. I suppose this is quite understandable, and standard practice in any institution, even though it leads to decisions that waste money and defy common sense (like the pop up toaster, weighing a few hundred grams, supported by two cables tested to 250kg). More generally I found that the museum employees have ingeniously arranged their jobs to avoid responsibility. Although I was relying extensively on the museum staff's advice about building regulations, safety, conservation, etc, the responsibility for these aspects of the work were all mine. The only people who were responsible for their decisions about the gallery were the consultant structural engineer and the district surveyor - neither museum employees. My responsibility raised the awkward question of insurance, the museum requires designers to have professional indemnity insurance which I do not have. A compromise was reached by which the museum paid my brokers for one years insurance for 1m cover, waiving the normal requirement of 6 years 2m cover.

 The aspect of my design that created the most friction was the entrance. I had originally assumed the gallery would need some sort of entrance proclaiming its name, and had proposed an arch made of scrap domestic machines welded together. The problem was that the arch was outside the gallery in the expensive education centre being built next door. From initial conversations with Ben Kelly, the designer, it was obvious he was not too keen on having my arch in his space (he suggested that an arch of video screens, showing the domestic machines, would be more in keeping with his designs). I did other designs (I quite liked the one which was a corner of a house with a hole knocked through it, looking as if it had been ram-raided, with the gallery name sprayed like graffiti on the brickwork) but I evidently underestimated the strength of feeling about the whole issue. This finally came out at one of our few meetings. Not only did Kelly and the museum's head of design dislike my specific ideas, they actually wanted something as minimal as possible so as not to spoil the aesthetic effect of their education centre. Outside my other entrance, which was by the lifts and so in many respects a more obvious way into the gallery, they were insistent there should be nothing at all, to ensure visitors went round the corner into the education centre. (I have since heard the head of design emphasising the importance of gallery entrances so visitors know where they are, but I suppose everyone contradicts themselves at times). Fortunately the other museum designer at the meeting made a brilliant suggestion - she said it wouldn't really matter whats outside, its what people would see when they look through that would attract them in. So I rapidly abandoned any thought of an entrance arch and used the money to make the interior more enticing.

More seriously, they thought my gallery was really a sub-section of the education centre and so did not need separate signs or identification. Dave, the curator, launched into a furious argument with them. I felt stunned. While I was trying to make the gallery more appealing to kids, I still intended it to attract people of any age, it was adults who would enjoy recognising the things they once owned and looking at the old adverts. The whole concept and process could not really have been more different than the education centre. The issue made me realise how powerless I was in political matters like this as an outsider. I did win eventually, improbably saved by the head of marketing, who argued it was a missed marketing opportunity not to promote my gallery as something separate.

 

THE INTERACTIVE EXHIBITS

What helped to keep me sane throughout the process was regularly escaping to my workshop where I was building the interactive exhibits. I started building the first prototypes immediately after installing the trial showcase. It was something of a shock to realise all the practical restrictions making them compared to doing demonstrations on television - where anything only had to work once or twice, and where poking fingers could be used to explain it all. Museum exhibits had to work repeatedly, be totally safe, and rely on written interpretations.

 I started by making an exhibit explaining how electric motors worked. This was followed by a hand-powered fridge, a hand- powered automatic washing machine (with the front of the drum replaced by perspex to show what happens inside), and finally a hand-cranked generator connected to a light, a heating element and a fuse holder. The generator could make a fuse glow hot and then blow. They all seemed dreadfully conventional and old fashioned, particularly because they were all behind glass, with only the relevant handles etc poking through. (I had decided to put them behind glass partly to be in keeping with the rest of the gallery, and partly because I felt that many `open' exhibits I'd seen had become so dominated by their protective perspex casings that the exhibit itself got rather lost.) I tried to cheer my exhibits up by adding decorative signs - motorised spinning sign for the motors, a washing line for the washing machine and a frozen sign, with letters formed from copper pipe connected to a fridge unit so ice formed on them, for the fridge. I remained unconvinced whether this really solved the problem, but decided to try the exhibits out at the museum for a few days.

Once they were set up, it was a wonderful feeling removing the screens and seeing visitors immediately swarm all round them. Trials are obviously a good idea if only for the morale of the person building them. The old fashioned appearance of the exhibits didn't seem to worry the public and most people spent several minutes playing with each one. Several people said how much they liked the idea of exhibits about ordinary, domestic things they use every day. It made me realise that though once very common, exhibits like this had largely disappeared from the museum. I was particularly impressed by the fridge - this had to be turned for a long time before it started to get really cold, I thought people would give up, but no, they turned it for ages, often forming relay teams. Energetic handle turning in all the exhibits seemed to be particularly popular.

Once the initial euphoria had subsided, I realised there were still substantial problems. Some aspects of the exhibits still baffled people. They often did not get the motors to work because they did not read the instruction to give the shaft a spin while pressing the button. They didn't seem to understand the generator switch, which sent the electricity to either the light, the heater or the fuse. This reminded me of the work I had done at the Exploratorium. Visitors instinctive first reaction to an exhibit was to do something, pick up a part, turn a handle, etc. If it did something rewarding they became interested and started to read the labels. Having to read instructions before you could get an exhibit to work was particularly off-putting for children and non-english speakers (San Fransisco has a large Spanish speaking population so this was a major problem). It wasn't usually possible to get rid of written instructions entirely, but they should be minimised, both by incorporating cartoons or diagrams showing what to do, and also by making the design of the exhibit as intuitive as possible. For example, the confusion about the generator switch was eventually solved by having leads with plugs on coming from the light, the heater and the fuseholder, and a socket on the generator. It is intuitive to plug the objects in, and most visitors now start using the exhibit before reading anything.

Questionnaires about the exhibits, organised by one of the museum researchers, revealed a number of other misinterpretations of the exhibits. (Although I suspect the results of questionnaires can be taken too literally. I saw several people, particularly kids, deeply engrossed with an exhibit, but then completely inarticulate when asked questions about it.)

 The worst problem, though, was the sheer intensity with which everything was used. I knew museums were tough environments, but I was still shocked. Every time a school party descended they completely obscured the exhibits, leaving me with a view of feverish activity accompanied by overexcited noises. Every time a party departed I assumed a pile of broken bits would be revealled. There also seemed to be a number of particularly energetic foreign students, particularly French, who were capable of superhuman feats - bending shafts - shaking parts loose - dislodging handles, etc. I realised it was impossible to make everything last for ever, the important thing was to make the exhibits easily accessible, and the parts easily replaceable. I also redesigned the bases of the larger interactives, so they could easily be removed from their cases and wheeled off to the workshop. Finally I decided the exhibits would have to come back for a longer, unattended trial to expose any further weaknesses.

Rebuilt and reinforced, they returned to the museum a few months later. This second two month trial picked up numerous technical teething problems that would have been difficult to sort out if the exhibits had gone straight into the gallery (they all needed to return to my workshop after the trial for further modifications). The fuse blowing exhibit still caused confusion. In the first trial I had a push button fuse dispenser with a delay mechanism to restrict its output to one fuse a minute, just long enough for kids trying to empty the entire supply to get bored and give up. However the automatic dispenser was banned because the museum decided the fuses were small enough to constitute a choking hazard for small children. For the second trial the gallery warders were given pockets full of fuses to hand out to anyone that asked. Although I thought this had worked reasonably well, the results of the researchers questionnaires were damming - visitors either hadn't read the label telling them to find a warder, or couldn't find one to ask. Together with the confusion about the switch (I still had not changed it to plugs and socket at this stage) I decided to rethink the whole idea. What people did enjoy was simply turning the handle to make the bulb light up. The exhibit is now about electric power, not heating. (I scrapped the fuse blowing, and added other things that could be powered by turning a handle - a fan, a cassette player, and a fluorescent tube). It taught me two things, first trying to make an exhibit to fit a particular theme (I'd wanted one on heating to accompany the huge collection of electric fires in the collection) doesn't always work. I now suspect that for many interesting subjects there are no good interactive exhibits. The second thing it taught me was not to dismiss simple ideas like turning a handle to generate electricity. The final exhibit seems very popular. I'd originally rejected it because I'd seen it before in lots of places and wrongly assumed visitors would be equally unimpressed.

(In fact the fuse dispenser was an interesting psychology exhibit in itself. Kids would get one fuse out, and then become obsessed trying to get another one. However, every time they pressed the button before the minute's delay was up, they reset the timer, thus extending the delay. Very few kids could restrain themselves from pushing the button for a whole minute). 

During this trial I added a couple of small exhibits I'd been playing with. One, originally about gas heater flame failure valves (which cut off the gas if carbon monoxide levels rise), had turned into a simple gadget that dropped a hammer on a piezo-electric crystal and made a spark. What made it fun was extending the wires outside the case so you could give yourself a small electric shock, proving the spark was electrical. This caused endless entertainment - kids daring each other to touch the studs or pestering an unfortunate parent to try it. It reminded me of something I'd realised at the Exploratorium, that it's always worth trying to design exhibits so more than one person can be involved. It also made realise that the large electric shock warning notices the safety adviser had asked me to put on the exhibit greatly improved it. They made the anticipation of the tiny shock into a big psychological ordeal. The psychology of a good interactive exhibit is remarkably similar to the coin operated amusement machines I make. They have to draw people in, and produce some satisfying result, and if possible make people laugh or scream. In one way interactive exhibits are more difficult - with a coin slot machine, once someone has inserted their money they become a captive audience, who will read every instruction carefully, determined to get their money's worth.

I had one further trial, a few months before the gallery opened, for a new bunch of exhibits. There were two on burglar alarms, I hadn't realised quite how maddening the noise would be (even at reduced volume), particularly for people working nearby all day. Fortunately there was still time to glaze the windows of the home security room so when installed in the gallery the noise of the exhibits would not spread too far. Another noisy exhibit was a vacuum cleaner with a funnel on the end of the hose. An amazing amount of force was needed to pull a disk off the funnel, but visitors didn't seem very impressed by this, so I abandoned the exhibit, it wasn't worth the horrid noise. I also abandoned an exhibit about tape recorders. This was based on a demonstration using a band saw as a tape recorder that had been impressive on one of my films. Converted to an interactive exhibit though, visitors had to follow quite complicated instructions and the only reward they got was seeing a voltmeter twitch. When I had first started thinking about the interactives I had assumed I would be able to adapt a large number of my TV demonstrations. In the end no adaptations were possible, the different medium required completely different solutions.

Another exhibit in this trial was a television with a lever to lift the scan coils away from the neck of the tube, shrinking the picture to a single central spot. A permanent magnet could then be swung up to the neck, deflecting the spot into three separate spots of the three primary colours. This started as an extremely boring idea, simply turning knobs to put electricity through the scan coils to deflect the spot, but it got better and better while messing about with it. So many of the best ideas came while actually making the exhibits, it often puzzles me why so much design is done on paper, both at the Science museum, and other places I've visited.

 The final exhibit put on trial was the toilet, built by Willy. This was cut in half to show how the flushing and the cistern worked. It incorporated a plastic turd which was flushed round the bend, caught by a mechanical arm, and lifted back into the bowl once the cistern had refilled. This was definitely popular (I had assumed it would be). It was our solution to the entrance problem, positioned to draw visitors into the gallery from the posh education centre next door. However, making the exhibit work reliably was a considerable feat. The turd was too hard and brittle and became waterlogged, refusing to go round the bend. Then the turd would jam in parts of the reloading mechanism. Finally, people kept pulling the handle before the cistern had refilled, preventing anything happening. Generally I have found that machines involving water take twice as long to perfect as other machines, and this was no exception. The turd went through four prototypes and the whole toilet had to be completely rebuilt twice. The trial was particularly useful in showing how vital easy access to the exhibit would be (I redesigned its case) and in showing the temptation to pull the handle too soon (Willy incorporated a magnetic linkage to prevent the handle working until the cistern was full).

 

 

THE OPENING

About a year after I'd started work on the gallery, I was told everything had to be finished by autumn 95, (another year away) to coincide with the opening of the education centre. Despite my desire to work gradually round the gallery, and not get caught up in a great opening hysteria, I perhaps inevitably did end up with a frantic last few months. The team had grown, we had an awesomely bright American graduate student who worked on a computer revising and reprinting the hundreds of labels in the locks gallery. I had two design students, also computer literate, printing out all the final edited labels and sticking them in the showcases. My main problems were getting Colin to finish building his showcases in time and a lack of practical help installing things. Willy had been lured away by a far more lucrative job and Anthony had gone sailing abroad. I realised that although it is easy to find students with computer skills, finding ones who can knock a nail in straight has become almost impossible. Schools just don't teach that sort of thing any longer. Fortunately I was rescued by Andy, an old friend, who had a few weeks free. He was a superman, arriving fresh while the rest of us were already exhausted (every gallery project needs an Andy).

The other people who had become involved were a public relations company, appointed by the museum to promote the gallery and arrange the opening. I was relieved I would not have to do these aspects of the gallery myself, though I admit I generally find PR people irritating. The appointed company had convinced the museum marketing department that the gallery itself would not get much news coverage because it was all historical, and that what was needed was a report, written by the PR company, about the current state of domestic appliances. It made me wonder how many other `reports' that turn up on the news are PR driven. In our case, it descended into farce, with the company relying mainly on Dave and me for the facts. Though originally interesting, these were seemlessly transformed into PR speak, guaranteed to get lost on any editor's desk.

 The PR company then set to work on the opening celebrations. They began by saying if they didn't have a celebrity to open the gallery the photos of the event would never get printed. They sadly admitted they could not afford Joannna Lumley (œ15,000 an hour) but were keen to try Joan Whitfield. The idea of an expensive `rentabody' cutting the ribbon seemed totally absurd to me and anyway, we already had the perfect candidate. Peter had found an article about Kenneth Wood, who had started the company which still makes Kenwood chef food mixers, naming the company after himself, a great bizarre fact. The compromise reached was that Ken would cut the ribbon but that I (counting as a minor `personality' having appeared on tele in the past) would have to make the speech. Totally unsolicited, my `speech', written by the PR company, arrived by post a few days before the opening, together with an invitation to go and rehearse it with them. The words were quite unbelievably dreadful, the thought that they had been paid for writing this drivel was very irritating, though it did have the effect of spurring me to do something better.

My speech delivered, Ken's ribbon cut, the public finally flowed into the gallery, and I was trapped by a seemingly endless succession of journalists and radio interviewers. This had never happened to me before, I found answering the same questions over and over again increasingly difficult. The ordeal was relieved by one particular journalist who had actually looked at everything in the gallery and genuinely appreciated it all. The worst part though, was the satellite TV crew. I suppose the presence of a film crew gave the event a more glamorous appearance, but they were rude and extremely slow, and by the time they'd finished, many of the people I'd wanted to talk to or to thank for their help had left. For all the aggravation and mental distress caused, it was not worth it, particular because the viewing figures for this particular channel are so low they don't even register on the graphs. Fortunately, with Andy's help, we had managed to organise a proper party for the evening, so the gallery did feel satisfyingly opened by the end of the day.

The final set of press cuttings the PR company delivered was pretty pathetic, (though I guess they think it was our fault for not having Joan Whitfield). With frayed nerves, and overtired trying to finish everything in time for the opening, I guess the PR company seemed much worse than they actually were.

I had originally been due to start work on a new TV series immediately after the gallery opened, but it fortunately fell through. I was exhausted, and there were numerous unfinished details and teething problems to sort out (called `snagging' in museum jargon). The interactive exhibits we'd trialled proved reliable, but almost everything else needed some modifications (if we hadn't done the trials the opening months would have been chaotic, with almost everything out of action). It was wonderfully satisfying working in the gallery while watching visitors enjoying it all. People would often stay for hours and they did appreciate all the detail I'd put in. The museum warders were charmingly flattering about the gallery and even the workshop foreman, who had said almost nothing to me all the time I had been working, admitted he `quite liked it'.

I formally handed all the exhibits over to the museum maintenance department three months after opening. Encouraging for the long term survival of the interactive exhibits, I have found that now they are distributed through the gallery they are not used in quite such a manic way as when they were all bunched together during the trials. However, I still feel slightly concerned, partly because I fear the technical files I wrote for each exhibit will inevitably have omitted some vital piece of information needed in years to come. I also have some concerns about the current organisiation of the museum maintenance, which leaves no one person responsible for any particular gallery, no one to do detailled daily checks. One particular exhibit in my gallery (brought out of store and refurbished by the museum workshops) which stopped working a few weeks after opening, remained out of action for nearly three months. I have been told their are plans to improve things, but in the short term Dave looks round everything regularly and I still visit occasionally.

 

EPILOGUE

Looking back, my initial missionary zeal to show that traditional glass case displays could still be popular worked remarkably well. A bit of humour and bad taste were obviously good ingredients. It might not work so well elsewhere in the museum, with objects that have less relevance to visitors' personal experiences (though I wouldn't mind having a go at the shipping and farming galleries). However, refurbishment could in principle improve many of the old galleries, without destroying their period charm.

The advantages of being an outsider were that I had more time and more freedom. I was not distracted by office politics or other demands, all my attention was on the gallery. I was not fettered by the occasional suggestion that `I don't think the director will like that', made when someone didn't approve of something I'd done. I have since learnt that museum staff can be quite intimidated by this.

The Secret Life of the Home also showed that low cost refurbishment was good value. The money was all spent on the displays and exhibits the visitors come to look at. Creating an entirely new gallery, gutting the orignal space, wastes large amounts of money recreating the infrastructure, like services, flooring and casework.

The prejudices about museum design I started off with have been tempered, I've grown to like the extraordinary variety in the styles of all the galleries. I love the contrast between my gallery and the education centre (now called `Interactions'). I even like the way it looks. It is lively and interesting (though I still think the two million or so it cost to create the open central area is rather extravigant for a space that is mainly just for kids to eat their sandwiches in).

Finally, I'm amazed how well the museum institution managed to cope with an outsider like me. When I started work I assumed that the museum would frequently say `sorry, you can't do that' but no one ever did. This was partly due to the project's low budget and low status, which meant important people in the museum didn't need to involve themselves, but also because the people I worked with all seemed genuinely open to new ideas. Their interest and enthusiasm made the commission one of the most interesting and enjoyable I've ever taken on.

 

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