The Being Human exhibition at the Wellcome Collection that opened this past September asks important questions about what it means to be human today through the lens of the “trust, identity and health” in a changing world. With shifting landscapes of medical knowledge, environmental crises and accessibility standards, the 50 artworks that now sit in Wellcome Trust’s new permanent gallery deserve an exhibition design that will treat those important topics with respect. This was the project that Eva Kellenberger and Sebastian White of Kellenberger-White was tasked with about a year before the opening.
“The main question was how to make a gallery an inclusive space and for the display to reflect a humanistic view of health, rather than a medicalised or technological one,” the London-based graphic design studio tells It’s Nice That. Outside those that had a direct hand in curating and creating the space – exhibition curator Clare Barlow, creative producer Fiona Romero and architecture collective Assemble – the studio also worked with artist Jochen Holz to create a hand-blown version of their tubular typeface from amber glass. “The exhibition is also meant to last, it’s a permanent gallery and materials have to take this into consideration,” the studio adds.
Unlike most graphic design projects, where the final product is mainly digested by our eyes, the materiality and use of space of an exhibition design project becomes an additional priority, especially for an exhibition about our bodies in relation to the world. Sebastian and Eva found tactile inspiration at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo. “Everything was made by hand, the captions hand-painted in orange paint on black lacquer, warm and natural materials like wood and coarse, hand-dyed fabrics throughout the galleries,” the pair says. They also looked at the Growth and Form exhibition organised by Richard Hamilton at ICA in London back in 1951, on how he superimposed irregular, organic forms with the geometry of the grid. A final conceptual piece came from Humanscale, where the studio looked at their “set of booklets and data sector templates for designing objects, interactions and environment for humans” in finding ways to create more inclusive spaces.
In the end, the approach and product was a combination of these different material and formal inspirations. Most of the large signs in the exhibitions are hand-painted with translucent white paint while the text and interpretation designs are iteratively workshopped with the University of Leicester Research Centre for Museums and Galleries. The gallery that was designed with the Assemble architects turned out to be “warm, tactile, handmade, engaging and exclusive,” much like the goals of the exhibition. “Spaces, in general, should feel safe. This can be interpreted in different ways," the studio says, "a safe space supports learning and engagement.”
Speaking about the secondary typeface used for this exhibition, KW Plotter, the studio tells us that it was originally developed when they were working on the visual identity for MIMA. “The font is a humanist geometric typeface that has been developed into several weights. “How do you mix humanism and the hand with the exact shapes produced by geometry?” Sebastian and Eva inquire.
The idea to create a hand-blown version of the typeface came at the beginning of the project. “We’ve created many hand-made fonts before – we wanted to create a special title treatment that evoked organic forms and human touch. Jochen had never created letters or signage before, but we had seen his neon sculptures that had the potential of being formed into letter shapes.” Jochen used helium gas, rather than neon gas, to create the sign’s soft pink glow, and the irregularities of the glass are not hidden but laid bare to make visible the artist’s handiwork.
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.