1. Integrating Interactive exhibits with other exhibits
Thematic plinths carried stories and assets. If an object told the story well then there was no need for anything more sophisticated. Our main problem was with difficult subjects – how to make them interesting? We worked with the curator and studied the subject until we understood the story and its reason for inclusion. At this point it was our job to use our skills to tell each story where a physical object alone was not enough. We married together quotes, text, film, audio – these became objects in their own right
A dead, white statesman is, frankly, a turn off for most people. As a result, with each story we were looking for different hooks; ways in that were unusual but pertinent to the subject. Ways in that would further reinforce the story. Some of these may seem frivolous but we prefer the expression ‘witty’ – they act as hooks to help the visitor into heavier material. In fact, heaviness was often a given; lightness was the real challenge.
We were lucky to be working with that rarity; a client that understood great stories were buried in archival material but also understood that they were often indigestible. The Imperial War Museum was a client with ambition, a client with no collection and a client that was keen to use technology to tell stories. It’s unlikely that a visitor to the Churchill Museum would have expected to come to one of the most interactive museums in London. Our client was prepared to raise a large amount of money to create a dramatic museum.
2. The Lifeline Table
The first challenge was to display a selection of archival material from an archive of over one million documents – an impenetrable task. The solution was a digital archive which allows access and contextualisation and which avoids all the problems of showing real documents. A hardcore chronology allowed the chapters to be largely thematic. The table also functioned as an organisational device, a barrier to ensure the visitor does the exhibition in the right order; a semi prescribed route – freedom without being lost. It allows visitor to pace themselves. The open plan means you can see everything laid out before you and allows the visitor to meander in a clockwise direction. This acts as a counterpoint to the prescribed route of the CWR, where the visitor has no idea how long or short the experience may be.
The soundscape for the lifeline table, designed by Liminal, is intended to work with the other interactives. All navigational sounds and foley sounds are choreographed, with a style guide issued to all software designers. We avoided repetitive sounds and music, and speeches were contained by directional speakers. The soundscape allowed many exhibits to co-exist happily.
4. Blurred boundaries
Interactives are just one tool in a story-telling kit comprised of objects, words, graphics, film, sound, stills, and software. This media for story-telling is interchangeable. The important question is, what is the most compelling way to tell the story? For instance, the Lady Hamilton film in the ‘working day’ showcase, whilst being another object in the case, is actually projected as Churchill would have watched it. Its directional speaker affords the visitor an intimacy with the film.
5. Graphics Analogue look and feel
Together with Nick Bell Design [LINK], a visual language was developed that is recognisably mid-20th century in character, consciously evoking the period in which Churchill was alive. Via an issued style guide, all screens were coordinated to have a mid-20th century, paper-heavy feel; a virtual analogue recalling a pre-digital age dominated by paperwork, filing cabinets, folders, maps, telephones and busy working desks – the stuff of Churchill’s life. Content on the screen was treated as real; papers, photos held the attributes of the real thing.
Together with the period character of the virtual it allowed the screens to sit happily with real objects. There is an emotional dimension to these objects that works with the technology to allow the visitor to interact with this older world
Whether real or virtual, all interactives were to have an analogue physicality – there were to be no mouse clicks. The interfaces are often unusual, but visitor friendly; simple, intuitive, and inviting engagement. There was to be an appropriate interface for the material viewed, direct and obvious; rifling through papers, painting, looking through binoculars, voting.
7. Attitude to Archival film
A huge amount of the exhibition depends on, as one would expect, 4:3 ratio black and white silent film footage. Whilst this can be evocative of a period it is also a turn-off from a time past and loses its relevance. We edited the footage to give it a new brief, new life, new meaning.
• Bunker – re-shaping, the modernity of extreme wide screen
• Clothes and Painting – colourisation
• Sydney Street – breaking news
• Gathering Storm – threatening collage evocation
• Hats, V signs and cigars – branding, focus, tracking, cropping
We hoped to see Churchill through fresh eyes to give others ways in to do the same.
8. Attitude to Voices/text
To avoid a hagiography, many voices had to be present within the exhibition. A strategy was developed to make those voices clear and recognisably attributable.
Museum’s voice – Transport font – a mid-century communication font
Churchill’s voice – Clarendon font, a more human font
Other voices (populace, critics, friends) – Typewriter font
The mass observation wall and ballot box and Gallipoli are examples of a narrative animation of text to give further meaning to what is being said.
9. Attitude to Statistics
Churchill’s life was extraordinarily rich and long and throws up a mass of fascinating facts, figures and statistics. Pictogramms were devised with Nick Bell on the periphery of the exhibition with a rather Hello Magazine approach to seemingly trivia but no less interesting and valid ways into Churchill – homes, pets, famous friends, travel and near-death experiences
10. Designing exhibits to promote social interaction and learning
Morris Hargreaves McIntyre were commissioned to do a qualitative evaluation of Churchill Museum. They place in order of importance the following experiences that a visitor seeks from a museum:
‘Visitors come to the Churchill Museum hoping to learn. They are not disappointed. But something more extraordinary happens. Eighty percent report profoundly emotional or spiritual experiences.’
MHM September 2005
MHM argue that to attain these higher goals the first step of social interaction must be achieved and without it the others will not follow.
11. Lifeline table user interaction
Tables by their nature are a medium for social interaction. From multi-user interactive tables we had designed for the Science Museum, we learnt a lot about stranger interaction. However, for the Science Museum this was achieved through playing games – not appropriate for the Churchill Museum. We felt that for known history, wit was more useful than play. The sheer scale of the table means it works on other levels, giving at once an impression of the longevity of Churchill’s life and influence. At a basic level you can learn by watching 26 people independently interact with the table but it is the rewards moving up and down the table that get people amused, engaged and simultaneously asking questions.
How to create an installation of quiet contemplation halfway around a gallery of 70 AV installations? We wanted to capture the sound of a city being quiet, one of those incredibly rare moments when a city falls silent. Aware of sounds you normally never hear; footsteps, birds, horses hooves scraping the ground, the murmuring of a huge crowd talking in hushed tones. We wanted the visitor to be conscious of standing in a mass of people, sharing this experience. With the best intentions, we faked the soundtrack.
The pace, sound, proximity, seclusion and triptych were all reverential – appropriate for the moment the man became the icon.
This was a simple installation based on our experience of watching films with the curators, whose anecdotal over-commentary greatly enhanced the experience. The juxtaposition of private and public offered rare candid footage of Churchill.
14. Working with clients to help them develop their brief
A better way of putting it would be perhaps ‘helping the client to physically structure their brief’. A couple of early decisions on the structure of the exhibition helped with the ordering of the brief: finding homes for things.
Exhibitions are often shallow by necessity, whereas books or a website can go much deeper. To avoid the museum becoming a hagiography of the man, visitors needed to know the facts. Investigations were devised on themes – often contentious – that allowed the visitor a breadth and depth of investigation that they controlled – a series of layers.
There were some constants during Churchill’s life that were significant and not easily placed in any one of the themed plinths or chapters. For instance, painting and wit were ever-present. The timeports were a solution which allowed a visitor to investigate all Churchill’s paintings, going forwards and backwards in time with the start point a default painting appropriate to the plinth upon which it sat.
A clear attitude to information, organisation of the varied materials made homes for all the different voices and allowed Casson Mann to concentrate on the hooks or ways into the stories whilst hopefully allowing the visitor to feel that they have met the man.
17. Sub contracting
Our client set up the project so that all software designers were employed through Casson Mann. Our role was to conceive the design and orchestrate its execution in the collaboration with ten separate software design companies. To help overlay this varied input with a holistic approach, we developed with Nick Bell Design a graphic-style guide and with Liminal an audio-style guide.
Guidelines were issued to all software designers. Bespoke designs responded to content but were all bedded into the exhibition with a common attitude to assets, type, sound and navigation. As a result, all felt purposeful. An AV Project Manager was hired to manage the software designers and the client.
Our client wanted state-of-the-art interactive museum. With ambition comes risk. The Lifeline Table was identified as a high-risk item to prototype early. A1/6 section of table was prototyped, tested and evaluated in the museum to tests against technology, navigation, legibility, access and DDA requirements. Invaluable lessons were learnt. The table is as big as a bendy bus and has run solidly for 3 years. In contrast, the bust exhibit of war-time leaders was not prototyped and went into the gallery as a beta prototype and has needed quite a lot of post-opening tweaking. It was critically important that the CWR budgeted in its business plan that it employed two full-time maintenance staff and did not underestimate the ongoing cost of keeping an exhibition of 70 AV installations running.
Making the Churchill Museum
John Pickford, March 2008