Creating the blockbuster exhibition experience

Bringing a blockbuster show to life for the likes of the Science Museum and V&A promises bigger budgets and more room for experimentation – but inevitably comes with added pressures. We speak to Nissen Richards’ founder Pippa Nissen about what it takes

Hear the word ‘blockbuster’, and the first thing that springs to mind will likely be the latest Star Wars or Marvel box office hit. It’s only more recently that galleries and museums have been jumping on the blockbuster-hype bandwagon. Apart from the bragging rights attached to putting on the most talked-about exhibition of the year, the harsh reality of dwindling government funding also likely plays a big part, as cultural institutions become increasingly dependent on visitors’ willingness to stump up more cash.

The V&A has been particularly wise to the value – both financial and otherwise – of the blockbuster show. Its 2013 David Bowie retrospective remains its most popular exhibition of all time, having travelled all over the world and attracted more than 1.5 million visitors, while the most-visited exhibition at the London museum remains its retrospective of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, which boasted a mammoth 480,000 visitors during its 21-week run in 2015.

Installation Shot of David Bowie Is at the V&A courtesy of David Bowie Archive © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While the content can vary hugely, what defines a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition is actually quite specific, says exhibition designer Pippa Nissen. Namely, it is something that takes a deep-dive into a particular area of popular culture – whether that is musical figures such as David Bowie or Pink Floyd at the V&A, or cult artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose life and work was the subject of a recent show at the Barbican. “Usually it’s for a family audience alongside adults, so I’d say it’s about creating experiences which can be paced in such a way that different audiences can access the information. That might mean we have to think more carefully about creating big dramatic gestures, which are shared experiences for everyone,” she adds.

Nissen originally trained as an architect, after which she did a masters in Theatre Design at Slade School of Fine Art and set up her own studio, Nissen Adams, in 2003. She first dabbled in exhibitions in 2009, when the studio worked on a V&A exhibition called Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design. “It was just before the recession, so there were all these really over the top pieces of furniture and products, and we created stages for them, so it was a bit like the objects became like actors on a stage. I loved it so much I just thought ‘right, that’s what I want to do’,” she says.