Since launching in 1986, experience design agency Event Communications has designed a wide range of experiences, spaces and exhibitions, ranging from the award-winning POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw to the hugely successful touring immersive Meet Vincent Van Gogh experience.
Projects completed over the past couple of years include the fairytale-inspired Hans Christian Andersen House in Odense, Denmark; The Box in Plymouth, UK; and The Raid, a Vikings exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark.
For creative director Esther Dugdale, the variety is what makes Event’s work so exciting; she tells me that although the projects may be very different, they all share a certain philosophy.
“We design for a wide variety of clients, but what unites them all is a drive that we have to create great cultural spaces for people to come together and share extraordinary stories that enrich their lives and expand their thinking,” she explains. “We design for the visitor, not for the form or the design itself. It’s about finding joy or empathy in a story or place and translating that into an experience.”
Over the past few years, Dugdale has been working on two very different projects that highlight this approach: Eden Qingdao in China, and the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, UK. One is a massive, brand new attraction with an environmental message; the other a refurbishment of an iconic Category A listed building with a collection of fine and decorative arts spanning 6,000 years.
“I’ve been personally involved in both, and they’ve been both inspiring and challenging in different ways,” says Dugdale. “Eden Qingdao is a complete contrast to the Burrell Collection; one was about transforming an iconic building and its displays for 21st century audiences, while the other is creating something new in order to bring a really important environmental message to Chinese audiences.”
THE BURRELL COLLECTION
When the Burrell Collection reopened at the end of March 2022 following a six year, £68m refurbishment, it marked a key moment for Glasgow.
Designed in the 1970s and opened in 1983 to house the collection of Sir William and Constance Burrell, the Burrell Collection was an iconic piece of architecture that was no longer fit for purpose.
“The building had so many wonderful things about it, but it was failing – the technology just wasn’t there to achieve what the museum needed to achieve,” says Dugdale. “The glass technology wasn’t right, so it became notorious for leaking, they were having to take more and more works off display, the visitor numbers were dwindling – it needed a major piece of reinvigoration.
“The aim was to create the most accessible and beautiful fine and decorative arts museum in the world.”
Event Communications were commissioned first to create a masterplan with the aim of increasing access to the collection – only 25 per cent of the Burrell’s 9,000 objects was previously on display – “as well as rethinking the quality of the overall experience.” Event were then subsequently appointed to deliver the exhibitions.
Working closely with charity Glasgow Life and architectural firm John McAslan and Partners, Event Communications has rearranged the interiors to create 35 per cent more gallery space. All three levels of the building are now open for the first time and a three-storey hub has been created at the centre of the building which allows for the display of a set of previously unseen medieval stained glass, known as the Boppard Windows. Displays have been redesigned to “enhance the relationship of the objects to the iconic modernist building and its natural surroundings.”
One of the major challenges came from the historic nature of the building; in 2013, the building and also the actual display structures within it were awarded Category A-listed status by Historic Environment Scotland.
“We’ve worked with Grade I listed buildings for many years, but Category A listed display structures was something new,” says Dugdale. “The display furniture, like the envelope of the building, wasn’t performing at all – the showcases weren’t sealed, there was no lighting on the objects, the glass on the cases was tinted green so all the objects looked slightly sickly.
“We had to find a way to respond to the original design and aesthetics and integrate all of the modern requirements for museum display, while also getting the proposals through listed building consent.”
In the much loved Walk in the Woods gallery, which stretches along one side of the building, objects were showcased on stone plinths against the backdrop of woodland seen through a huge glass curtain wall.
“They were a million miles away from museum quality showcases, but the stone of the plinth matched the stone of the floor, so we couldn’t change that,” says Dugdale. “We ended up going back to the original quarry and getting it reopened so we could get stone from the same original seam. We engineered these plinths so that whole sections of it can slide out on super strong drawer mechanisms, so you can get inside and plug things in and add media screens.”
“They look beautiful and simple and we stuck with the concept of the stone being the earth and the glass being the sky, but the performance of those plinths is amazing.”
Dugdale’s favourite parts of the refurbished museum, she tells me, are the Walk in the Woods gallery, and the east galleries beyond.
“The east galleries previously felt like a bit of a dead end, but have now been opened out into double-sized spaces, and feature displays themed around imaginary gardens, with beautiful tapestries and artworks. I just find that space wonderful.”
The first Eden project to be built outside the UK, Eden Qingdao will aim to teach visitors about the importance of water on 227 acres of reclaimed land previously used for salt production and then prawn breeding.
Event Communications has been involved with the project from the early stages; Dugdale and her team took part in early visioning statements with Eden and Grimshaw Architects, and were commissioned to create a masterplan for the overall visitor experience. Construction is currently underway at the site.
“We’ve really thought big with this one,” says Dugdale. “The scale of a whole park as a storytelling vehicle is really wonderful.
“The aim is to change visitors’ thinking about water, so the whole attraction is themed around that, from the landscapes and features within them, to the architectural spaces – the big biome and pavilion.
“Working with the Eden team, we’ve been responsible for creating briefs for specialist commissions and designing about 25 specific installations/immersive experiences that sit within that bigger picture. We’re now at the stage where all the briefing and design work has been done, and Eden is commissioning local design practices and local and international artists and specialists to create them all.”
Over the past five years, Event has become increasingly associated with immersive and technology-driven experiences. So what, for Dugdale and her team, is the secret to creating a really amazing immersive exhibition?
“It’s about keeping the message simple and amplifying the big idea,” she says. “It’s about surprising, delighting and informing – exceeding people’s expectation. That’s around what appeals to us as human beings. What’s the psychology behind what resonates with people?”
I ask Dugdale if she can think of an example that Event has worked on; after a short pause, she cites the firm’s work on one of the galleries in The Box Plymouth, which opened after lockdown in 2020.
“The client wanted to do a single gallery that encapsulated the natural and living environment in that region of the country,” she says. “We worked with the museum to think about something really iconic in that space that would hold it all together, and the curator suggested they wanted a woolly mammoth – they had a mammoth tooth in the collection, [originally discovered nearby at Yealm Bridge Cavern].”
“As always, we asked ourselves, what would surprise the visitor? We decided to commission a full scale replica of a woolly mammoth. As visitors come in they’re met with this huge creature appearing to step off the plinth towards them; it’s surrounded by this wonderful, vivid mass display of all the creatures past and present on land and in the sea around Plymouth.
“The gallery is very dynamic, very atmospheric, beautifully lit. Nobody who goes in there will forget it.”
Looking ahead, Dugdale and the team at Event look set to remain busy. Key projects for 2022 include ongoing work on the Eden Qingdao project, completion of The Across Ages Museum in Oman, a new national museum exploring the identity, culture and memory of the Omani people and their path to modern nationhood; the Carlsberg Experience in Denmark; and the International Rugby Experience in Limerick, Ireland. Set to open late 2022, this experience will feature immersive-media installations and interactive exhibits.
TRENDS IN MUSEUM DESIGN
There are several key trends to watch in museum design, Dugdale tells me. “Working sustainably is a big one,” she says. “Not every museum is going to be about climate change, but an awareness of that impact needs to imbue every project.
“Designing for emotion, connection and wellbeing is another big trend. One of our missions is about bringing people together to experience extraordinary things that enrich them. One of the things I love about Burrell is how calm that place is; being in a space like that is good for the soul as well as the mind. Thinking about those qualities is really important; it certainly creates a lot of dialogue and discussion internally.
“Finally, it’s important to think about identity and sharing experiences. Things have a life beyond the physical – people want to share what they’re seeing, whether that’s by posting on Instagram or in other ways. Recognising that desire and using it to delight people is really important.”
I finish by asking Dugdale which museums and experiences are on her wish-list to visit over the next year or so.
“I’d love to visit all of our recently completed projects,” she says. “Obviously it’s been much harder to travel, so the teams working on projects that have completed over the last couple of years have gone, but we haven’t all had a chance to see them. I’d particularly love to visit the HC Andersen House and The Raid in Denmark.
“I’ve never found myself in St Louis, but I’d love to go to Bob Cassilly’s City Museum. And I’d very much like to see the Legacy Museum Memorial in Alabama for the victims of lynching. I think that would be a very powerful experience and it’s important these things are memorialised.”