Creating Exhibition Experiences with Matt Schwab, London

Matt Schwab is an exhibition designer and founder of All Things Studio based in London. He has developed designs for museums in London and Manchester as well as worked for cultural heritage sites in the spectacular English landscapes. Prior to establishing his practice in London, Matt has worked in Australia where he is actually from, then he moved to Europe and worked on a number of projects for Ralph Appelbaum Associates and Atelier Brückner.

Daria Gradusova is an exhibition design researcher who is exploring immersion in exhibitions. Daria asked Matt to share his insights about his exhibition design practice, collaboration with curators and skills for emerging exhibition designers.

Daria interviewed Matt on June 15, 2017

Daria Gradusova: Matt, you have training in Industrial Designer, right? Then you shifted to Theatre Design and now you work in the field of Exhibition Design. What do you think are the essential differences between theatre design and exhibition design or whether these fields are intertwined?

Matt Schwab: I guess in my experience at the time it was not the kind of theatre that happens now – immersive or promenade theatre. Promenade theatre is an old term from the 70s for when you really move around with the actors but it’s sort of being reimagined by PunchDrunk[1]. So the stuff I did was more about the audience on one side and the stage on the other, so I guess one thing about museums and exhibitions is the audience is in the space, so practically it needs to be more robust. And, you know, the way theatre is put together is very superficial and it’s only what can be seen is the important bit and the rest of it isn’t. So there is more of this overall holistic way of how to design things. And I guess that as far as the audience’s concerned that, and this idea from Atelier Brückner[2], is that the audience becomes the actor, so they give it [space] life in a way along with other people that are there.

Daria Gradusova: There’s been a shift in thinking about audiences as actors in the space. Frank den Oudsten[3] and Brückner[4] have talked about how space, time, and narrative come together in the space and become the meaning-makers throughout the unfolding scenography of exhibition spaces. Do you think visitors really notice this shift to scenography, to becoming the creators of the meaning in exhibitions?

Matt Schwab: I don’t know if they notice it at all, I think it’s a subtle thing. Sometimes more than others, it depends. I’m just thinking about examples. I think the examples where it’s most prominent, almost obvious – they are more about Expos or visitor centers or these kinds of things where you know it’s not so much about a collection of the museum itself. So I think if you bring that approach to a museum to a certain degree, it has to be sublimated to what the main point is – which is to get a collection out. So I think it comes across in subtle ways. I think what the visitor does get is when the space is consistent and sort of complete in whole. They are immersed because they’re totally in the space and it doesn’t lead off into other places or changes idea and so on. So I guess it’s in that sense maybe a subtle thing but maybe they notice it more when it’s not there when they keep getting thrown out.

Daria Gradusova: The whole feeling, I guess, the whole kind of atmosphere or one exhibition message probably affect people more than the small diverse elements that are not quite connected.

Matt Schwab: I think so, I think that’s a good way of putting it. That’s something to me that’s important. I don’t know whether it is to the museums themselves. And it’s one of those things that’s really, really hard to achieve. And it keeps getting chipped away by, you know, little things like having to have fire extinguishers or exit signs or air conditioners that are badly placed in space or just the needs of the content and the curators and so on. I think that’s maybe the battle – to try and push it as far as you can – in one direction to make this sort of complete whole thing, fend off all the extra bits they are trying to add or impose maybe.

Daria Gradusova: There is an emerging body of theoretical research on how visitors connect to objects and what kind of relationships occur[5]. An exhibition is not complete until it has a spectator, i.e. a receiver, someone who makes meaning. So I’m wondering whether you try to think through how visitors make meaning or create relationships with the objects based on how you’ve designed them to be displayed?

Matt Schwab: I think your question implies lots of things that we don’t do like really more co-curated approaches and ways to actually contribute and be involved. But that’s something that probably I need to do more often. I think the things that I’m talking about are quite subtle. They are about, you know, the height of things making some relationship to maybe their original height so that you can look up if it needs to be looked up to or you look out to – or if it exists in the landscape to have it at eye level in relation to other things that would have existed in that landscape. Also, I think of user importance to keep things from different stages. When you enter a space, maybe your approach is a certain key object and maybe you’re approaching it bleakly and you can get a glimpse and then you have to come around – those kinds of things. I think that is a really interesting and nice approach to think about those different stages.

Daria Gradusova: Speaking of visitors, there’s been research on what actually ignites visitors’ imaginations, what kinds of things. And researchers have studied the topic through the type of conversations people are having when they are next to the objects. Obviously, they couldn’t get into people’s minds, but there had to be a conversation between two people in order for them to make sense of the data. A Canadian researcher Colette Dufresne-Tassé[6] has done research on which kinds of mental activities visitors perform as they walk through the exhibition spaces and identified several ways of processing information. Then Marianne Achiam[7], a researcher from Denmark, takes the analytical framework suggested by Dufresne-Tassé and applies imagination of visitors as a factor to it. So when people do the following actions: exclaim, observe, identify, judge and verify – they use reasoning about what they see. Imaginative includes the following actions: associate, predict, suggest. So they are not relying on certain facts but they’re trying to imagine scenarios and make suggestions, i.e. proposing something that is out of the provided context. And then there is a whole bunch of combinations coming out of both types which could both be cognitive and imaginative: justify-explain, resolve, compare, grasp, clarify, modify[8]. So they could trace only three types of reasoning which are igniting people’s imaginations – suggest, associate, and predict. Do you try to think how to make visitors imagine something beyond the context that is given for an object? Because immersion relates to how much space as a designer you give people to imagine.

Matt Schwab: You know these frameworks like this one that people used to think about learning styles, active learners and all those things which I’ve seen some research on and, they don’t think that that’s actually applicable anymore. I don’t know at the moment whether there’s anything that anyone can grasp onto that’s a really proven, definitive way of evoking people’s imagination or whatever it is. So, I mean, I certainly don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s a superficial approach. With this Whitby Abbey [project][9] putting all of that stone work up in a mass spectacular display. If nothing else that’s memorable and it gives that strong visceral impression. I don’t think you could say what impression it gives you, you could not say that people have learned more about medieval stone masonry. But I guess it’s something and then if they’re interested they can go into further details.

Daria Gradusova: Make an impression in a way?

Matt Schwab: Make it as beautiful or spectacular or confronting or whatever it is. Not everything but certain moments, I guess.

Daria Gradusova: What would you say makes a good exhibition designer in our time of popularisation of museums? What do you think the skills are, is there something that is particular of today?

Matt Schwab: I wish I knew what it was. It would make things clear but I think there is maybe a tension between the ideas you are getting an example of at Victoria and Albert Museum and what they keep putting on – these big blockbuster exhibitions of rock bands, heavily based on nostalgia or experience. You know the experience of being in the space, really dark spaces, lots of media, sound, light – that kind of stuff. Then I think it’s not going to go completely that way because there’s this pull back of going back to the connections and making them cleanly and beautifully. That’s the only way I can think things are going in this country at the moment, and I don’t know if it’s got any relevance outside of the UK, but just a pulling back because of financial constraints and the idea of Brexit and leaving the wider world and, you know, only working with English people. It’s a less ambitious period maybe.

Daria Gradusova: What are you looking for in conversations with curators that you think is quite helpful for you as a designer? Or are there any particular things that you usually try to find out that would help you think further about spatial design?

Matt Schwab: Yeah, it’s a good question. There isn’t a specific list or a deliberate approach. Each project has something that you get a way into that aura. That is something that comes out of the content that you can use to inform the design. I think always the curators who have been working on a particular subject for a long time are really immersed into it, they know a lot about it. Sometimes it’s their whole life that they’ve been doing that so I am always quite keen to let them firstly just talk about the collection, the content, whatever, but also if they do have any ideas about how the space should be, just listen to that and try to be quite collaborative and be open to that.

Daria Gradusova: So you actually are trying to find out what their visions are.

Matt Schwab: Yeah, absolutely. I think just because it’s just courtesy really. At least to just listen to them, to not always literally do what they say. And some curators say: “Well, you are the designer, you do it. I think that even the ones that do say that have no idea, they can’t help but when they are creating an exhibition, to imagine it in their mind in some way. So I think it is useful to try and draw that out near the start just to, I guess, avoid problems later when it somehow disappoints them, that it somehow has not been up to what they imagined. You know, I think everyone has ideas about space and color and so on, but they are no less qualified really to have an opinion on that. I think just strategically it’s better to have these conversations at the start and to make them feel included and listen to them not to find out later that they don’t like pink or that this one key work needs to be given more space. I think it’s just how you collaborate with people trying to bring them on board. That’s the theory, that’s my theory, it doesn’t always succeed. With Manchester Imperial War Museum we started off really well, the curator and I going through things, being very collaborative. That worked really well for sort of 70-80 percent of the project. And it was just in the final phases where other people have just intervened and undone all of that.

Daria Gradusova: Yeah, this is interesting – the collaborative dynamics. I’d like to ask you a general question about the term “immersive”. What’s immersive to you and what do you think it is in exhibition design in relation to this particular type of entertainment? Is there a way you would describe it?

Matt Schwab: I was once working on a project with someone here in the UK at RAA[10] where we were talking about a sort of an existence of a small niche, almost like a side chapel at a church. And we were talking about what to do with it. We were talking about a sort of huge light box with an image within the walls and how that is immersive, whereas to me one view can’t be immersive. I think at the time I was using an analogy of being immersed in water. You cannot be immersed in water if only one leg is in or if you are half inside, so it is about being fully in. And in that case, I think, all of those three walls, if not fourth one as well needed to be part of this natural scene. So, I don’t know. I think it is about being committed and I guess excluding everything that is irrelevant and trying to commit to one particular place, idea or whatever it is. One of the examples that Brückner always used to use was this Titanic exhibition[11] which, I think, is the first thing they did. And there is one room which, I think has white walls, but they use blue lights. I think that is kind of what you imply, but they did not draw the ocean or, say, draw, depth or whatever to give that extra context, but it’s very simply presented, having high impact with those means. And I was also thinking about, you know, if you are lying in the field and looking at the sky, I think that is an immersive experience.

[1] PunchDrunk is a London-based company which is famous for its immersive production “Sleep No More” based on Shakespear’s “Macbeth” []. This immersive play took place at a McKittrick hotel in New York occupying all six levels of the space. The visitors were given the masks to wear on their journey through the play. They were invited to be the spectators and the participants.

[2] Atelier Brückner is an exhibition design company founded by Uwe Brückner in Stuttgart in 1997. Uwe Brückner is one of the first to popularize scenography as an approach to creating exhibitions and generally “scenography” is a commonly used term for exhibition design in Germany whereas in the US it is not as popular and in Russia it is referred to an installation-like elements of exhibition which communicates the content []

[3] Den Oudsten, F. (2011). Space. Time. Narrative. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

[4] Christian Barthelmes and Frank den Oudsten (eds), Scenography/ Szenografie: Making Spaces Talk/ Narrative Raume/ Projekte 2002 – 2010 (Ludwigsburg: avedition GmbH, 2011).

[5] Diamantopolou, S., Insulander, E. V. A., & Lindstrand, F. (2012). Making meaning in museum exhibitions: design, agency and (re-) representation. Designs for learning, 5(1-2), 11-28;

Griswold, W., Mangione, G., & McDonnell, T. E. (2013). Objects, words, and bodies in space: Bringing materiality into cultural analysis. Qualitative sociology, 36(4), 343-364.

[6] Dufresne-Tassé, C., & Lefebvre, A. (1994). The museum in adult education: A psychological study of visitor reactions. International review of education, 40(6), p.475

[7] Achiam, M. (2016). The role of the imagination in museum visits. Nordisk Museologi, (1), p.92

ibid, p.94

[8] ibid, p.94

[9] A tender for an exhibition design at Whitby Abbey that All things Studio have participated in []

[10] Ralph Appelbaum Associates is an exhibition design company founded by Ralph Appelbaum in New York in 1978, now it has offices in Beijing, London, Moscow, Berlin, Dubai []

[11] “Expedition Titanic” is an exhibition that Atelier Brückner has designed in 1997 in Hamburg for the Voyager Titanic Exhibition GmbH client []