Narrative Space Day Three - Post Eight

'Where do you want the label: the role of graphics in museums and exhibitions' Jona Piehl

We've heard a lot about spaces and narratives, but what about the graphics? As a graphic designer, Piehl argues that these are one of the most important elements in any exhibition. Where do they fit in transmitting the content? How can they transmit the full richness of the content? Why should they be restricted only to labels and panels? They need to be integrated with the three dimensional whole.

Graphics are the physical carrier of the work, the storyline. They should cater to the narrative, audience and space, and should be accessible and orientative. So what, then, can they be, and how would this change the relationship between curator and graphic designer? Looking at four projects which she has worked on, Jona Piehl explores this question.

The first was the Age of Couture at the V&A, where graphics were used to set time and place, photography and text panels on the walls, and a chronological rendering of the thematic layout of the exhibition on the gallery guide. This timeline was also expanded further on the walls of the coda of the exhibition. This project allowed a lot of collaboration in terms of the development of the exhibition, making the graphics very specific for the exhibition.

Ice Station Antartica at the Natural History Museum was developed as a mock training camp for an Antarctic exhibition. The graphics were used almost as a brand to keep the identity of this training camp, which could be moved then into different venues. Pictogrammes were used throughout, to create not an exhibition, but a real camp with an identity.

The British Music Experience at the O2 had no curators, no objects, and no storylines. There was an architectural site, and a vague idea. This made the design of the graphics rather interesting...Given, too, that the content spanned a period of 50 years of British Popular Music, and that it was unfixed when they first came into the project, they had to use suggestion rather than explicitly stating the contact. They created different areas which evoked different times, using photographs and custom typefaces. So whilst the graphics are very vocal, they do not explicitly reflect the content.

Medical Futures, at the Miraikan Museum in Tokyo, had extremely complicated content. So they decided to take a visual embodiment of DNA to inform the order of the content and the theme in terms of the graphic treatment. It became a grid for the exhibition. The form of the graphics holds the themes together, but they don't interfere with the content, which are highly complex. The graphics here are more decorative and organisational rather than embodying deeper layers of meaning. But this was the appropriate role for it in this situation.

Graphics, then, have multiple roles. Organisation, as backdrop, as branding device, as carrier of information and as level of meaning in their own right. An interesting question arises about the audience's reading of them, and how and whether they differentiate between the curator and the designer. Graphics and content should work together to the benefit of the relation of the meaning designers should engage with content, and museums should engage with designers, and accept that sometimes they need to listen to each other. Graphics can both tell and display stories, and really should be given more consideration in the construction of museological narrative. They are part of the space, which I have heard a lot about this week, so Jona's presentation is a refreshing point of view!


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