Georgia Monk (Senior Project Manager), Emma Smith (Exhibitions Registrar) and Kath Knowles (ACR Loans and Exhibits Conservator). 

This talk was focused on the exhibition design process for the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition: In Plain Sight.  

The talk began with a walkthrough the objectives behind the ‘In Plain Sight’ exhibition. The Wellcome Collection wanted to design an exhibition to focus on the theme of sight; how we see, and how we are seen in turn. From its conception, the aim was to make this exhibition as accessible as possible and push the boundaries of inclusive exhibition design. The Wellcome started with a consultation process with various public groups; these included deaf, partially sighted, blind, neurodivergent, and other groups.  In this process the Wellcome discussed what currently are the biggest barriers for visiting a museum collection and what changes could be implemented to enhance peoples overall experience of the collection and museum visit. 

One of the key takeaways for me was the early appointment of the exhibition designer. The Wellcome made sure this process was not rushed and the right person was appointed. It was important to them that the designer appointed would be someone who welcomes the challenge of designing differently, rather than seeing limitations. The Wellcome impressed their objective for increasing inclusivity was all about creating consistency within the design. Not all designs are going to be uniformly the same, but the key aspect is that within the design, the level of inclusivity should be consistent throughout it. 

Partway through the event, we were invited to walk around the ‘In Plain Sight’ exhibition and see the application of the exhibition design principles. Some key aspects that stood out to me were: 

  • Allowing generous spaces for wheelchair users throughout the exhibition space. 
  • Tactile raised floor guides to assist with wayfinding throughout the exhibition. 
  • Including multiple rest stops throughout the exhibition. 
  • Preference of using tabletop hoods rather than recessed display cases
  • Low plinths with high contrast tactile edges to help people with visual impairment. 
  • All audio visual displays had subtitles provided. If there was an audio only display, BSL was offered alongside the work.
  • Large amounts of works that could be touched. These touchable objects were distinguishable from others with a white hand print.  
Image 1: Example of tabletop displays with high contrast tactile edges.
Image taken by Sophie Keepence
Image 2: Tactile floor guides used throughout the exhibition. 
Image taken by Sophie Keepence
Image 3: Hand symbol indicating when a work can be touched. 
Image taken by Sophie Keepence

The next part of the talk was by Kath Knowles who talked us through the exhibition process from a conservation point of view. Her key takeaway from the experience was the benefit of involving Conservation from the beginning of the project. This helped her team build relationships with key members to ensure collections were kept safe for whilst access was increased. One of the key relationships she highlighted as being the most beneficial was with the lighting designer.

Kath explained that the fragile works on paper were consistently rotated to make sure they were not over exposed to light. They were also displayed in high contrasting-coloured frames to make them easier to see for people with visual impairment. Objects that were displayed in a spotlight cradle were engineered to be lit via a sensor. When no one was nearby, the object would be kept lit at 30 lux – when somebody walked near and the sensor was activated, lighting levels would rise to 50 lux.

The final part of the talk focused on the Light Up events that have been happening regularly throughout the exhibition. Looking over visitor feedback from past years, low lighting levels has been a common theme throughout. By introducing the ‘Lights Up’ event, the Wellcome is hoping to address this issue. 

For each session the lighting levels on the main track (visitor walkways) would be increased   by a small percentage. Over the course of the exhibition, objects would be exposed to increased lux levels for 136 hours. These Lights Up events and increased lux levels were built into the loan agreements for objects brought in for the exhibition. The Wellcome Collection has gone further with this aspect, by incorporating this increased lighting access into its own outgoing loan agreements. Changes to the light levels could be controlled easily via Bluetooth connection. These ‘Lights Up’ events have been consistently sold out throughout the exhibition run. 

Going forward the Wellcome Collection noted that this exhibition was not the pinnacle of accessible museum exhibition design, but a continuous journey of improvement. The museum will continue looking at ways to improve its access and increasing access to the collection, not just in its exhibitions, but in the wider museum experience as well.