Designing Brains

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Long before each exhibition opens at Wellcome Collection, we begin the process of designing the gallery to display the objects, taking multiple sources of inspiration, including the objects themselves. Museum and exhibition designer Calum Storrie explains how our Brains exhibition came to look the way it does.

Very quickly after reading the brief for the Brains exhibition and meeting the curators I revisited an old idea lifted shamelessly from the work of the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck. This was the sculpture pavilion designed for the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in 1966, composed of a series of parallel walls in concrete block. By pushing and pulling the shapes of the wall van Eyck suggested individual rooms and spaces for the sculptures. As one of the key concepts of the Brains exhibition as expressed by the co-curator Marius Kwint was ‘slicing’, I applied the idea, quite literally, to the plan. It was an idea that, as I explored the detail of the exhibition, solved a number of problems. It provided a structure to contain a diverse group of exhibits and it suggested an organized route around the exhibition while also allowing the possibility of disrupting that route. By making doorways and windows in the walls it allowed me to refer to links between the exhibitions themes and links between parts of the brain. As we got closer to a definitive list of objects the size of the exhibition grew and, at the same time, the layout became more complex.

Half way through the process I stopped thinking about brains. At this point the exhibits became shapes that needed to be accommodated on walls and in showcases. It was only when the first objects (films, medical apparatus, books and, eventually, real brains) were delivered that I began to consider the exhibition’s content anew. All exhibitions are, for me, like a laboratory experiment and there is a moment when the initial idea for the design bumps up against the many practical considerations and, if everything is in place, a kind of fusion occurs. Negotiating and facilitating this fusion is my job… acting as an intermediary between ideas, objects, space and people.

The making of an exhibition involves collaboration between curators, exhibition organisers and designers and the conversations we had in the development process were crucial in defining the form of the exhibition. Throughout the process of design I worked closely with the graphic designers Lucienne Roberts+. One of their initial ideas was for the treatment of the title and the texts within the exhibition. These took as their starting point storage, labelling and archiving. This offered another rich layer of complexity to the mix and helped me focus on what the 3 dimensional elements could achieve. One particular way in which this part of the design influenced my work was in making the exhibition structure monochrome… concentrating the use of strong colour on the title at the entrance.

The layout that emerged from the process of design allows for long views down the gallery and it emphasizes the idea of splitting and cutting. Long stretches of wall have been deliberately left ‘empty’ to give the exhibition a comfortable pace and to clarify how the material is read for those that choose to follow the sequence. The finished design incorporates both a clear diagram and an element of choice and maybe even chance.

This is the third exhibition I have worked on at Wellcome Collection and I never fail to be impressed by the energy of the team and their commitment to the design of their exhibitions.

Brains: The mind as matter is open until 17 June. Find out more about Calum Storrie’s work at