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How to curate - my five top tips for exhibition making

Exhibitions are a way to tell stories.

Exhibitions capture contemporary thinking in the built environment and can be used as platforms for debate, offering up new ideas and ways of working. At their best, exhibitions can lead to meaningful and positive change. Perhaps most importantly, exhibitions are a great way of bringing people together.

As the commissioner, curator and co-curator of over a 100 exhibitions, I believe that anyone passionate about the world around them and their place in it can curate an exhibition. I've put together my top 5 tips to demystify curation and help all those budding curators out there get started.

1. Tell a story - the elevator pitch

Plot your narrative: think about what you are trying to communicate. Write yourself an 'elevator pitch' that sums up what the exhibition is about, who the intended audience is, what challenges the exhibition addresses and the results and benefits.

For example, for Shaping Space - Architectural Models Revealed curated in collaboration with the V&A, we wanted to show the importance of making models in shaping the world we live in. Our intended audience was both the built environment profession and the public, and in particular we wanted to engage young people. Knowing our audience helped shape our content to ensure that we had the right mix of models on display.

To help us identify the challenges and opportunities of Shaping Space we decided we would organise our content by asking three key questions: Why are models made? How are models made? And who are models made for? Setting parameters allowed for a deeper exploration into the world of model making.

By setting out our desired results and benefits from the beginning, we were able to clearly identify our successes. The exhibition was widely and positively reviewed. We had over 1000 University students visit the show and our education programme, including a bridge model making workshop and Sixth Form career sessions, reached 240 attendees.

2. Define your content

Using your 'elevator pitch' narrative you can start to define content. Ask yourself which objects best fit with the aims of the project. Sticking to your narrative can ensure that each piece in the exhibition plays an important role in the story. Don't be afraid to mix scale; a large object displayed next to smaller works can create moments of delight. Be ruthless! By keeping true to your intentions, it should be easier to work out which works deserve a space in the show.

3. Create a physical framework

A well designed armature for your exhibition will not only enhance the work on show, it will create a 'world' to inhabit, one where the narrative can be told in a clear and captivating way. You may be a student putting together your end of year show, an architect curating an exhibition of your work or a curator working with a designer, but thinking about how your content will be experienced is key. Carefully consider your materials 'language' and colour palette. It might be useful to think about your exhibition design as a brand; with a clear identity. Again, think about your audience and accessibility. Be inclusive.

4. Captions

Writing clear, comprehensible and engaging captions is crucial. Avoid industry insider speak that might alienate your audience. Be clear and concise. Brevity is key. Try to avoid putting a book on the wall. Books are wonderful but are best read sitting comfortably. Write wall texts that are too long and you risk your audience giving up before they've started.

5. Think sustainably

Even though this point sits at number 5 it's probably the most important. Gone are the days when exhibitions had a brief moment of glory only to end up in the skip. Use materials that can be reimagined, reused and recycled. Think about sustainable ways to produce wall texts. There is some wonderful recycled paper that can be used for exhibition panels. As curators and exhibition designers we have a duty to act responsibly.

Most importantly; enjoy the journey!

As curators of the Shaping Space - Architectural Models Revealed exhibition, Simona Valeriani, Harriet Jennings, Mathilde Savary and I worked in close collaboration with award winning architect and exhibition designer Roz Barr. The practice took their use of model making 'as tool to explore form, materiality and to conceptualise an idea'. The design of the show became a scaled up bolsa wood model; a giant 1:1 maquette that created the perfect landscape for the work on show.

Photograph: Francesco Russo


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