Pictures  of a  ‘Future Museum’

Pictures of a ‘Future Museum’

Text: Emma Tucker

“Beasts of London,” at the Museum of London, introduces the world of entertainment to a traditional museum set-up. Emma Tucker unveils what it takes to bring an exhibition to life.

We might know London for its pigeons, rats and foxes, but its zoological heritage goes way beyond that. At various times in history, the capital has been home to lions, elephants, horses and – if you go back far enough – even mammoths. 

It’s this alternative narrative that’s being explored at the Museum of London’s hybrid event “Beasts of London,” which blends elements of a traditional exhibition with interactive digital design, drama and music. The museum worked closely with Guildhall School of Music & Drama on the show, selecting the school’s creative proposal from several others, as part of a tendering process. The Guildhall’s winning pitch demonstrated how the museum could move beyond its “normal” programming, and create a multimedia, multisensory, interactive experience that would draw on a diverse set of skills. The school’s idea was to take over the museum’s rooms with a series of spaces that would show how animals have shaped London’s landscape and culture, as well as its economic structure. 

We might know London for its pigeons, rats and foxes, but its zoological heritage goes way beyond that. At various times in history, the capital has been home to lions, elephants, horses and – if you go back far enough – even mammoths. 

Giant pigeon sculpture, made using parts taken from a London taxi, standing at over 11 feet (3.5 metres) tall.
Giant pigeon sculpture, made using parts taken from a London taxi, standing at over 11 feet (3.5 metres) tall.

It’s this alternative narrative that’s being explored at the Museum of London’s hybrid event “Beasts of London,” which blends elements of a traditional exhibition with interactive digital design, drama and music. The museum worked closely with Guildhall School of Music & Drama on the show, selecting the school’s creative proposal from several others, as part of a tendering process. The Guildhall’s winning pitch demonstrated how the museum could move beyond its “normal” programming, and create a multimedia, multisensory, interactive experience that would draw on a diverse set of skills. The school’s idea was to take over the museum’s rooms with a series of spaces that would show how animals have shaped London’s landscape and culture, as well as its economic structure. 

“We wanted to deliver something unique for the museum,” says Dan Shorten,   creative lead for “Beasts of London.” Shorten himself is a “best practice” example of how to link education with creativity, spending his time teaching master-classes in video mapping and video control software at the school, as well as having a successful career as a director, designer and specialist in audiovisuals.

“Our aim was to transform the exhibition space into a world that would transport the audience to another place, playing on all the senses and drawing upon a wide range of disciplines from the school.”

“Beasts of London” still has roots in the museum world however, taking inspiration from objects in the Museum of London’s collections: Visitors will be taken on a journey through 12 “episodes” that recount the stories of the city’s animals, voiced by narrators including actor Brian Blessed and supermodel Kate Moss. These tales link with key, often dramatic moments in London’s history such as the arrival of the Romans and the Great Plague, and are accompanied by installations created by artists studying at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, as well as music written specifically for this occasion by composers and recorded by musicians from the school. 

The Lion features in the “Circus” episode of the exhibition held beneath a busy Big Top.
The Lion features in the “Circus” episode of the exhibition held beneath a busy Big Top.

“We are aiming to create a journey that is surprising, and emotionally affecting, encouraging visitors to consider our city from a very different perspective,” says Francis Marshall, senior curator of Paintings, Prints and Drawings at the Museum of London. 

The exhibition is something of an experiment for the museum, but also for its creative partner the Guildhall. The collaboration has been led by its recently established Guildhall Live Events department – headed by Shorten – which was set up to attract revenue to the school and help fund its degree programmes. Developed over 12 months, “Beasts of London” brings together the museum’s expertise in history with the Guildhall’s storytelling skills. 

“What we were really interested in, in terms of an aesthetic and style, was a hybrid approach between scenographic textural physical build – not dissimilar to how we create theatre sets for our stage shows – and the augmentation of that within a digital environment,” says Shorten. 

“Projection mapping is one technique we’re using to achieve that, but we’re also using other embedded screens and projection. We’re trying to close the gap between the physical tactile world and the ethereal digital world.”

Much of the creative work was made in-house at the Guildhall School; how-ever, other partners were Hannah Velten – author of a book about London’s animal history – and designer Pete Starling who assisted with the initial concepts for the exhibition’s spaces. Shorten says that the aim was to bend boundaries by appealing to a traditional museum audience, but also to attract people who might feel a museum trip is not relevant for them. 

“To me, the bravery was to say we’re going to play around with things you wouldn’t ordinarily find in a museum,” he explains. “The intellectual, factual and historical angle is important to what we’re doing, but it’s not the be all and end all. There’s a fictional and emotional engagement we’re trying to provoke. I believe this hybrid between art and history is unusual, but becoming more the case.”

“I think the way we experience life now is in such a multifaceted format,” adds Shorten. “Mobile phones are ubiquitous, but it’s also the general way that we re-
ceive information visually, verbally and texturally in a constant stream. It’s only natural that we incorporate all of those things into ‘Beasts of London’s’ con-struc-ted environment.”

Therefore, while this show might represent an experiment in what’s possible, it paints a picture of what the future museum event could look like – and it doesn’t involve objects in Perspex boxes and static spaces. The use of digital media such as projection mapping – which turns static objects into moving displays using video footage – brings the exhibition to life, showing how museums could introduce elements more usually found in the entertainment world. The result aims somewhere between a live event and a classic exhibition – but it is one, and this is certain, that will attract the attention of London’s other museums. 

“I think there is still room for conventional exhibition formats, but audiences increasingly expect a range of experiences from museums,” explains Marshall. “They want to take part, contribute, immerse themselves in an environment and have their emotions as well as their intellects engaged. Consequently we need to think about new ways of delivering our content, and this may evolve out of lessons drawn from forms such as theatre, contemporary art, cinema and the Internet, to name but a few.”

About the author

Emma Tucker

Emma Tucker is a London-based editor and journalist who’s been writing about the creative industry for the past eight years. She’s worked with some of London’s most well-respected magazines, including Dezeen and Creative Review, and is a regular freelance contributor to several other titles. Emma also works with creative companies of all kinds, helping them find their voice, put ideas down in words, and tell the stories they want to tell. She’s usually found in her home office in East London, where she works with four-legged editorial assistant Bear. He’s no Tiny the Wonder terrier, but he’s particularly good at napping and looking cute.


Facts and Figures

  • 8 feet underground, a mammoth’s jaw from the Pleistocene period was found in Brentford, London
  • 77 students and alumni (video design, acting, electronic music, design 
  • realization) and 
  • 20 professors from Guildhall worked on Beasts of London
  • 200 rats were killed by “Tiny the Wonder” terrier in under an hour in 1848
  • 1834 the year in which a Peregrine falcon lived in and around the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral
“We’re trying to close the gap between the physical tactile world and the ethereal digital world.”

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