Wandering Through Designed Storytelling Environments (aka Exhibitions)

Issue 1 of my newsletter – subscribe here

I have friends who can’t imagine a worse punishment than visiting Disneyworld or sailing on a cruise. These lifeless environments are smeared with the fingerprints of designers desperate to part you with your money, whereas – I imagine them saying – nature demands no payment.

And I get that. It can be suffocating to be in a place where everything is trying to manipulate you against your will, like most malls, or, well, the internet. Exploring nature is a refreshing change; there’s no comparison between Yosemite, or the mountains of Kamikochi in Japan, and the Westfield Stratford mall.

But there’s something gloriously human about massive “immersive” environments that are designed, however imperfectly, around a story. If you’re going to sneer at Disneyworld, you might as well condemn readers for wasting their time in books, which are just as blemished with commercial and populist motives. Not that I hold up Disneyworld as the pinnacle of human creativity, but its delicate balance between imagination and profit and scale is, honestly, completely unique in human history.

I’m just as taken by immersive environments whose purpose is to inform and educate, like exhibitions in museums and galleries. Their curators have a very different balance to make – more constrained on budget, but less pressure to turn ever-increasing profits; less need to entertain, but more pressure to be accurate and truthful. Often, the end result is a monotone promenade through glass boxes, but lately museums like the V&A have mounted lavishly decorated and aching stylish exhibitions that are as atmospheric as any escape room or Punchdrunk show.

When I lived in London, my favourite thing to do on a slow weekend was to catch the latest exhibitions and galleries. I moved to Edinburgh a couple of years ago, and while it has its own fine museums, it can’t rival London’s blockbuster shows – I’m not sure that any other city in the world can, including New York. So I try to make the most of any extended stays in London, including the trip I made a couple of weeks ago, during which I mounted a multi-day cultural blitz across the city, armed with various memberships that allowed me easy access. And here’s a not-so-brief rundown of what I saw:

OK, this ended up being way, way longer than I expected, and I’ll try to keep things a bit less sprawling in future otherwise there’s no way I’m going to write something every week.

Only Human: Martin Parr at the National Gallery was a fun, kitschy celebration of Martin Parr’s portraits. Halfway through the exhibition, you encounter a fully-functioning cafe, complete with old CRT TVs, formica tables, teacakes, and exhibition-branded beer. Such experiential! So immersion.

The Wellcome Collection, near Euston and King’s Cross, is baffling place. As popular and as trendy as it is, I can’t help but be frustrated it isn’t better given that it has seemingly infinite funding from the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity with £26 billion of assets. See, the Wellcome Collection isn’t satisfied with just being a museum about health and medicine.

No, they want to be about the art of health and medicine. Which is fine as far as it goes, except I just don’t think there’s enough world-class art that qualifies, meaning their exhibitions invariably get filled with a bunch of mediocre art, or the exhibitions start testing the boundaries of what constitutes health and medicine – like the one I went to last week, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic.

It was pretty good! Lots of neat old magic props accompanied by videos from psychologists explaining how misdirection and suggestion works. Some good staging. Actual live magicians giving performances. Not a lot of art, I guess, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The first highlight of the blitz was Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at the Design Museum. The Design Museum recently moved to a new location in Kensington and its building is the physical manifestation of its funding from private donors who want a space to have cool parties and don’t especially care about fripperies like well-designed permanent galleries. Those problems aside, the Kubrick exhibition was excellent, mostly because Kubrick’s work is excellent; if you’re at all interested in his movies, I encourage you to book tickets as soon as you can since tickets are selling out rapidly.

I especially liked a quote from Kubrick that went:

I really was in love with movies… I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t know anything about movies, but I’d seen so many movies that were bad, I thought, “Even though I don’t know anything, I can’t believe I can’t make a movie at least as good as this.” And that’s why I started, why I tried.

I wonder how many other artists feel the same – I know I do. Every time I get frustrated at the quality of my writing, I console myself with the fact that there are far worse published authors out there.

None of the exhibitions I’ve mentioned so far were particularly immersive – but Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A Museum certainly was. The V&A narrowly beats The British Museum as my favourite museum in London, mostly because its exhibitions are the very best I’ve seen in the world, their atmosphere and attention to detail rivalling Punchdrunk. The Dior exhibition, remarkably, is already fully sold out for the remainder of its run to September, but V&A members can stroll in without regard for time.

Assorted thoughts:

  • At least 95% of the audience was women. Fellas, you’re missing out on a great exhibition!
  • This exhibition is in the V&A’s new underground space, which is effectively an enormous warehouse without pillars or walls. This makes it exceptionally versatile, but unless the exhibitions are very carefully designed – which to date they have not been – you feel like you’re walking through… a warehouse. The designers handily avoided this by putting in ceilings, many of which were covered in mirrors, creating a fantastic sense of boundless space.
  • The problem with exhibitions about living people and extant companies (like Dior) is that you invariably have to avoid upsetting them in order to secure important object loans. Hence the increasingly absurd hagiography of the company’s later work, culminating in the embarrassing omission of just why former Head Designer John Galliano, noted anti-semite, left Dior.
  • The final ballroom space had a very fine example of projection mapping that was, astonishingly, not completely over the top. The entire room’s lighting and projected ‘windows’ and ‘ceiling rose’ cycled through the day and night, which allowed you to see all the dresses in different conditions.

Since I was already there, I whipped around the Mary Quant exhibition, which was decent enough. A number of the dresses were crowdsourced from the public, complete with short stories about how the donors bought and wore them. I had to laugh when the exhibition ended with Mary Quant abruptly moving to Japan for reasons left unstated.

On the opposite side of London is the London Mithraeum, a small museum-like space dedicated to the Roman Temple of Mithras. It’s located on the new Bloomberg campus, and it is appropriately modern and shiny and designed by people who don’t quite understand how museums are meant to work. Who needs labels when you can get your visitors to hold unwieldy tablets? Why use words printed on a display when you can use a big touchscreen that only two people can read at a time?

The Mithraeum itself is impressive, and the Disney-style show that introduces it even moreso, complete with smoke and music and dialogue and curtains of light and pillars of darkness. It’s free to visit, and while booking online is essential, it’s not that busy any more.

Next, Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion and diane arbus: in the beginning at the Hayward Gallery in the Southbank Centre. I’m entirely unqualified to say whether a contemporary artist like Kader Attia is ‘good’ or not, but for my part I felt the exhibition was simultaneously too literal or too abstract in that the artist (or curator’s) explanation of the ‘point’ of a particular artwork made me think either, “Well yeah, obviously” or “OK, I get your point, but this artwork has nothing to do with that.” Whereas the display of Diane Arbus’ early photography was straightforwardly enchanting.

Imagine mounting an exhibition called “Movies” that attempts to capture everything about movies. Sounds a little… ambitious, right? The sort of thing that inevitably ends up as a superficial treatment of an enormous subject?

The curators at the British Library laugh at your doubts. Movies? How about all of writing? Hence Writing: Making Your Mark. It is as you would think – an interesting collection of ancient and old and modern objects and books that illustrate different bits and pieces of, uh, writing.

Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments – assuming you don’t die of frustration standing in the line snaking around the completely linear exhibition, formed of extremely polite, exceedingly dutiful, and very slow visitors. I call it the “museum train” and it haunts my nightmares.

The exhibition’s marketing promises that “…Finally, [you’ll] reflect on writing’s future and the role you’ll play in an increasingly digital world.” I don’t expect the British Library to get this right any more than I expect Facebook to understand how to conserve ancient books, but I did expect more than a video interview with random people opining about how it’ll be terrible when future generations can’t read any more(?!) or something something emojis.

Also at the British Library was a small free exhibition, Imaginary Cities. Here is the label from one of the artworks:

I found myself mentally composing a parody label:

This artwork’s physical ‘canvas’ is constructed from paper and cardboard encased in custom silver-gilded frames made by a woman in Guildford using hammer. A man using a Blackwing pencil and a Moleskine notebook composed the scene from a book containing an entire year (2018) of photographs that was printed by the publisher’s high volume printing press.

Look, I thought it was a bunch of bullshit dressed up in completely superfluous technical terms. Fight me.

OK, I’m almost as exhausted as you feel now. Three final stops at The British Museum:

Firstly, Edvard Munch: love and angst. It was pretty good! I’m not a Munch fan but this was well-designed, and I found myself lingering longer than I expected at the videos that tried to convey the atmosphere of pre-war Oslo, Berlin, and Paris. These weren’t the usual matter-of-fact unspooling of histories joined by Ken Burns effects and expert talking heads, but rather period photos of the cities combined with an actor reading from Munch’s diaries.

Second, Playing with Money: currency and games in the small Room 69a attached to the slowly-disintegrating Roman galleries. A charming little exhibition of money in board games and card games over history; of course, it has The Landlord’s Game, the progenitor of Monopoly.

Finally, not an exhibition but the new Islamic Gallery, an overwhelming space overflowing with objects and text – in a bad way. I mean, sure, it’s hard to encapsulate an entire religion and swathe of world culture in two (admittedly big) rooms, but I’m not convinced this was the way to do it.

Finally finally, I noticed this on The British Museum’s website:

Uh, WTF? If The British Museum can’t afford to put its collection online for visitors without the help of Google, who else will? This is a perfect example of where cultural institutions around the world need to work together to create a true non-profit set of online tools that can sit outside of Google’s orbit.

Thanks for reading – next week’s newsletter won’t have anything about museums, I promise!


An original by any other name

The Chinese have two different concepts of a copy. Fangzhipin (仿製品) are imitations where the difference from the original is obvious. These are small models or copies that can be purchased in a museum shop, for example. The second concept for a copy is fuzhipin (複製品). They are exact reproductions of the original, which, for the Chinese, are of equal value to the original. It has absolutely no negative connotations. The discrepancy with regard to the understanding of what a copy is has often led to misunderstandings and arguments between China and Western museums. The Chinese often send copies abroad instead of originals, in the firm belief that they are not essentially different from the originals. The rejection that then comes from the Western museums is perceived by the Chinese as an insult.

Byung-Chul Han in Why, in China and Japan, a copy is just as good as an original

Museums of Everywhere

Emmanuel Macron, President of France, recently announced he wants to return African cultural treasures to where they had been looted from, so they could be shown “in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou,” not just Paris. The exact details of how this will come about – if at all – are still unclear. Perhaps France will make a series of long-term loans, or there will be swaps, or a simple transfer of ownership.

It’s a fraught question that teeters at the precipice of a slippery slope down into “but what if we had to return everything?” territory, which adjoins the land of “and who really has the right to these objects centuries on, anyway?” Of course, it’s all very well for western museums to raise these concerns when they did all the looting first…

For a different angle on this debate, try Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay Whose Culture Is It? It’s not available online (not unless you’re really good at finding pirated PDFs) but it’s well worth seeking out for his argument that we shouldn’t merely be talking about the return of objects “home” but “a decent collection of art from around the world” so that more countries might have ‘world museums’ like the British Museum:

…when I lament the modern thefts from Nigerian museums or Malian archaeological sites or the imperial ones from Asante, it’s because the property rights that were trampled upon in these cases flow from laws that I think are reasonable. I am not for sending every object “home.” Many of the Asante art objects now in Europe, America, and Japan were sold or given by people who had the right to dispose of them under the laws that then prevailed, laws that were perfectly reasonable. It may be a fine gesture to return things to the descendants of their makers—or to offer it to them for sale—but it certainly isn’t a duty. You might also show your respect for the culture it came from by holding on to it because you value it yourself. Furthermore, because cultural property has a value for all of us, we should make sure that those to whom it is returned are in a position to act as responsible trustees. Repatriation of some objects to poor countries with necessarily small museum budgets might just lead to their decay. Were I advising a poor community pressing for the return of many ritual objects, I might urge them to consider whether leaving some of them to be respectfully displayed in other countries might not be part of their contribution to cross-cultural understanding as well as a way to ensure their survival for later generations.

To be sure, there are various cases where repatriation makes sense. We won’t, however, need the concept of cultural patrimony to understand them. Consider, for example, objects whose meaning would be deeply enriched by being returned to the setting from which they were taken—site-specific art of one kind or another. Here there is an aesthetic argument for return. Or consider objects of contemporary ritual significance that were acquired legally from people around the world in the course of European colonial expansion. If an object is central to the cultural or religious life of a community, there is a human reason for it to find its place back with them.

But the clearest cases for repatriation are those where objects were stolen from people whose names we often know; people whose heirs, like the King of Asante, would like them back. As someone who grew up in Kumasi, I confess I was pleased when some of this stolen art was returned, thus enriching the new palace museum for locals and for tourists. Still, I don’t think we should demand everything back, even everything that was stolen; not least because we haven’t the remotest chance of getting it. Don’t waste your time insisting on getting what you can’t get. There must be an Akan proverb with that message.

There is, however, a more important reason: I actually want museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered in the years when my grandfather was a young man. And I’d rather that we negotiated not just the return of objects to the palace museum in Ghana, but also a decent collection of art from around the world.

For my part, I wonder whether a transnational trust might be a good way forward. Perhaps museums and governments might be encouraged to transfer ownership of looted artefacts to this trust in return for the right to hold on to them for a few more years, or the right to loans of other objects in return. Anything to get the ball rolling.

Nothing but respect for the best gallery in the Science Museum, The Secret Life of The Home. Hidden in the basement, it’s stood the test of time.

Panels like this remind me why the Enlightenment Gallery is one of my favourite bits of the British Museum. Easily overlooked but an essential visit.

Disneyworld Day 2: Blizzard Beach, Epcot, Boardwalk

  • The free intra-resort bus service has pretty good thus far. In some cases it’s been faster than an Uber, since the buses can usually get closer to the actual entrance of the park. But on average, I think the buses are about 10-15 min slower than Uber, which is not bad given the savings. My main wish is that more stops would have ETA boards; some places do, most don’t.
  • Blizzard Beach was a lot of fun! Sure, the competition isn’t strong, but this has to be the best watermark I’ve been to. There’s a great range of slides, everything is clean and well-signposted, and all the staff were friendly. We’d read that on park opening you should run to the tallest slide, Summit Plummet, to avoid queues, but the entire park was very quiet. The longest we waited was about 15 minutes, and most slides had barely anyone at all in front.
  • FYI, while I like near-vertical drops, Summit Plummet wasn’t worth a second ride, whereas Toboggan Racers and the Purple rides were.
  • Epcot shouldn’t work as a theme park, and yet it does. It’s educational, but not as educational as a museum. It’s fun, but not as fun as the other parks. It’s got miniature versions of other countries… and yeah, those are pretty unique. I don’t say this to knock Epcot – I’m just amazed that Disney keeps it running. I guess the scale helps soak up a lot of visitors, and a lot of the capital expenditures have already been made.

Continue reading “Disneyworld Day 2: Blizzard Beach, Epcot, Boardwalk”

VR Will Break Museums

The first sign came with the Oculus Rift DK2 last year, when I discovered that consumer virtual reality could finally replicate a sense of physical presence in a digital world.

The second came last month, when I visited the British Museum’s Sicily exhibition.

The exhibition was perfectly fine, a well-curated narrative of the Greek and Norman periods of Sicilian history — the greatest hits, if you will. But here’s the thing: I couldn’t see shit.

It was a Sunday afternoon, only four days after it opened, so of course it was busy. I queued to read labels. I queued to study maps. I queued to peer over shoulders to gawp at shiny jewellery. And even after all that queuing, I only got to see each object for a few seconds — lingering any longer just made me feel guilty.

Perhaps, I wondered, there was a problem with the layout of the exhibition? Maybe they’d placed too many objects in corners, too many long cases against walls? But that wasn’t it. The designers did the best they could, given the constraints. And on reflection, I realised that I’d spent just as much time in other popular exhibitions queuing to see stuff.

Let’s be clear, overcrowding is a problem borne of success: 6.8 million visitors per year of success, to be exact. But it’s a problem nonetheless.

So to answer the inevitable question, “Why would you want to look at ancient objects in virtual reality when you could see them in real life for free?” I say, “Because even in the best museums in the world, I can’t see shit.” Compared to that very imperfect reality, virtual reality is an improvement.

The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

Since 2010, I’ve visited museums over 250 times. My first book was inspired by museums. I’ve consulted for the British Museum about games, and I’ve taught workshops there. I’ve even had work displayed at the Design Museum, MOMA, and the V&A.

So I say this from a place of love: VR will break museums.

Before I take that fence down, I’m going to explain what it is that museums do that’s so difficult and important.

Museum galleries and exhibitions add context to objects. They tell you what an object was used for, where it was found, who made it, how they made it, and much more besides. They accomplish this through labels, timelines, photos, drawings, models, and ‘interactives’ — but also through more subtle means, like the arrangement of objects in a continuum or a group.

Making the Modern World at the Science Museum

If you do this with the right objects, you can tell the story of a civilisation in a single room. Remove the context and you’re in a warehouse. Remove the objects, and you might as well just read a book or watch TV. The objects are a physical link with our past. They enforce discipline in our explanations, and they sow magic in our imaginations.

Unfortunately, many museum galleries do a poor job of providing context. Yes, budget constraints, time pressures, duelling priorities, etc., but when I encounter something like this:

Swords at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (but really, it could be anywhere)

what I see is a very pretty arrangement of contextless weapons. This isn’t bad in and of itself, but it doesn’t belong in a museum. Sure, there are labels — but they’re usually placed out of the way and arranged in a cryptic order that doesn’t correspond with the physical arrangement of the objects. The museum might as well just fire the curator, take a trip down to the stores, pick some cool-looking weapons, and then print out their names and dates.

There are many other kinds of objects and stories that museums have a hard time explaining, like musical instruments. It’s all too common for museums to render them silent, reducing them to mere pretty objects. Some will offer phones to listen to a sample, and the excellent Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels offers visitors wireless headphones that automatically play music when you stand in front of an instrument — but these are notable exceptions.

The failure to add context to objects is not a trifle to be hand waved away — it should be the entire point of a museum’s galleries and exhibitions!

You don’t need VR to solve this problem. For a weapons exhibit, I’d be happy with an illustration or animation or ‘interactive’ that compared them by accuracy, range, reload time, stopping power, cost, popularity, etc. I’m sure that donning a VR headset of dubious hygiene and spending three minutes pretending to fire rifles would be plenty of fun, but it’s not the only solution.

What VR does, however, is make it easier to add context in general. VR necessarily comprises a superset of all existing ways of adding context (lots of people enjoy watching videos and movies in VR, you know) plus it adds entirely new contexts, like simulations and recreations. Of course, this only works if the entire museum is experienced in VR; you can’t be putting on and taking off a headset every five minutes as you wander through galleries.

So if you really believe that putting weapons in a glass case is the very best display arrangement, you can still do that, except in VR you can add labels that appear next to the weapons instead of metres away (you wouldn’t believe how much of headache this is for curators). And if you’d rather teleport people into a 1:1 recreation of Chichen Itza, you can do that as well.

Anything you can do in a museum — which doesn’t include touching or smelling—VR can do better. Continue reading “VR Will Break Museums”

200 Years of Change

A game I like to play at history museums is imagining the present-day equivalents of past behaviour and objects. So at The Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton, London, it’s fun to look at their Period Rooms and link up past and present behaviours.


Take the 1935 Living Room; the armchairs are pointed at the fireplace (which obviously would be a TV today), and there’s a record player and radio in the corner (also TV/hifi). Or the 1695 Parlour, in which the woman of the house would spend her day noting down the household receipts on the writing cabinet (i.e. iMac) before joining her husband for dinner and listening to him read out the day’s newspaper (watching Netflix).


Then there’s the 1790 Parlour, with a set of playing cards laid out on the table. Just imagine what present day families might do when entertaining friends – why, they’d… play cards! Or maybe boardgames. Yes, it turns out that we still all want reasons to talk and gossip in an formalised way, and the things we did back 200 years ago are still pretty much exactly the same now.


The Period Rooms go all the way up to 1998.

As you might expect from me, another fun thought experiment is imagining what the Period Room and gallery notes for 2014 would be; probably a room dominated by a big Samsung TV with a Playstation, some bluetooth speakers, Ikea bookshelves, a corner sofa, surround sound speakers, and a coffee table. “Here, the co-habiting couple would gather in the evening to watch ‘television serials’ and ‘YouTube cat videos’, while perusing social media on Twitter and Facebook on their tablet computers.”

The Period Room for 2034, of course, would just be an empty room with a near-invisible projector, an easy chair, and a virtual reality headset.