This is a Voice: Plaid and Europa on designing the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition

The Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition is all about the human voice. We talk to exhibition designers Plaid and graphic design studio Europa about the challenges of working on a show focused on sound

This is a Voice combines film clips, video art, aural recordings and scientific texts exploring the workings and origins of the human voice. Centuries-old journals and contemporary artworks are placed alongside scientific specimens such as a larynx in a jar and medical illustrations of the voice box.

The show is grouped into five sections: Voice is the Original Instrument considers research which suggests our voices evolved for the purpose of song and social bonding; Melodic Contours considers how rhythm and intonation affect meaning; Strains of the Voice, how our voices can be manipulated with training and exercises and Egophony, how voices are used to classify and analyse people (footage from police interviews is displayed alongside a film looking at the effects of gender transition on the voice). Unlocated Voices examines the effect of disembodied voices and includes a look at a pioneering therapy technique where people who hear voices are encouraged to interact with a digital avatar representing that voice.

This is a Voice at Wellcome Library London, courtesy of Wellcome Images
This is a Voice at Wellcome Library London, courtesy of Wellcome Images. Image by Michael Bowles. Lead image (top): Leon Chew, courtesy of Plaid London

It’s a disparate collection of items – some, such as Francis Barraud’s His Master’s Voice painting and a clip from The Wizard of Oz feel a little out of place – but the show is at times a fascinating exploration of the workings of the voice and how our voices are linked to our identity. An interactive piece by electronic musician Matthew Herbert invites visitors to add their voice to a chorus of singers in a mini recording studio, while a piece by Imogen Stidworthy recreates the sound of a ‘castrato’ using footage of a young male treble, a female soprano and a countertenor singing simultaneously. Another installation by Marcus Coates, Dawn Chorus, shows a group of adults using their voices to recreate birdsong in everyday settings.

The exhibition was designed by London studio Plaid. With much of the show made up of aural rather than visual pieces, Plaid director Brian Studak says the emphasis was on heightening visitors’ awareness of sound and giving them new ways to experience it in the gallery. In one section, voices can be heard coming from a cubbyhole in the corner of the room, while other clips are played out through parabolic microphones (glass domes which direct sounds downwards to visitors standing underneath).

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Marcus Coates’ Dawn Chorus. Image by Michael Bowles, courtesy of Wellcome Images

While some installations are effectively closed off – Stidworthy’s is housed in a round structure, surrounding viewers with song – the show is designed to feel as open as possible. Visitors can hear snippets from various installations as they walk around the space, drawing them forward, but each installation can be heard in isolation when standing up close.

“Barbara [Rodríguez Muñoz, the show’s curator] had a very clear vision with respect to the atmosphere she wanted to create,” says Studak. “We spent quite a bit of time talking about how to create an open and light atmosphere, but at the same time, provide a certain amount of acoustic separation between all these exhibits – two things that on paper, work against each other,” he adds.

Plaid worked with acoustic consultant Anthony Chiltern of Max Fordham to create ‘acoustic strategies’ for each space (despite the open and informal feel, each area is carefully engineered to create ‘an acoustic journey’ through different sections, says Studak). The studio also spent time with Rodríguez Muñoz determining what visitors would see and hear in each part of the gallery and how screens and sound could be used to draw them forward.

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Image: Leon Chew
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Imogen Stidworthy, Castrato , 2012–2016 at This is a Voice. Image: Leon Chew

Materials were chosen for their ability to absorb sound and their tactile qualities, says Studak: walls are padded in recycled insulation sourced from Italy, floor tiles are made from rubber and semi-closed off spaces are surrounded by gauze panels stretched over wooden frames. Instead of concealing the soundproofing and AV equipment, Plaid decided to make it a key focus of the show’s design, exposing the different layers of construction and reflecting the exhibition’s theme of revealing the inner workings of the voice.

“I think it was a matter of trying to find a kind of visual approach to something which is acoustic, and exposing those inner workings to create a visually tactile environment,” explains Studak.

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Matthew Herbert, Chorus, 2016 at This is a Voice, Wellcome Library, London. Image by Michael Bowles, courtesy of Wellcome Images

This approach is also reflected in graphics, designed by Europa, with introductions to each section printed on semi-transparent white silicone. “The silicone we added was like that final layer of skin,” explains Europa co-founder Robert Sollis. “There’s something very physical about it and I think through that layering, it brought the graphics and 3D together.”

Graphics feature some playful compositions of type: a display at the entrance features the words ‘This is a Voice’ arranged in 24 compositions, while introductory text reflects the theme of each space. An introduction to Strains of the Voice, for example, features letters spaced far apart. “There’s a kind of visual poetry that we used,” says Sollis. “Some are more literal, like illustrations – the melodic contours one lays out letters in a melodic way.”

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Mikhail Karikis, Promise Me, 2012, Emma Smith, 5HZ (Language School), 2015–16 and Erik Bünger, I Hereby Command You To Give Voice To These Letters Silently Or Out Loud, 2011. Image: Leon Chew
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Image: Leon Chew

The use of a single typeface in black has an understated feel and Sollis says there was a desire to keep text to a minimum in captions. “The Wellcome traditionally have loads of text in all of their exhibitions, that’s almost their starting point. We’ve done a show with less text than is normal – it was very much about wanting people to spend as much time as possible listening,” he says. “There’s a certain amount of panelling and captioning that you need but we didn’t want people to spend all their time reading.”

Promotional imagery on invitations and banners outside the gallery feature a collage-style image of a hand controlling a mouth in a playful interpretation of the show’s content.

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Katarina Zdjelar – The Perfect Sound, 2009. Image: Leon Chew
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Graphics by Europa. Image: Leon Chew
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Banners designed in-house by Lindsay Pentelow, based on Europa’s identity

“[With the poster], it was about ‘how do you show a voice?’ We thought about ventriloquism, in terms of giving an object to a voice, but we didn’t want to get too rooted in that,” he says. “A mouth is not a voice but it suggests a voice, so it was a way of depicting it visually and playfully at the same time.”

Studak describes designing the show as “considerably more complex” than working on a visual exhibition. “There’s a huge amount of engineering involved in the project,” he says. “In most [museum] projects, the 3D design is like set design, it’s a much more visual approach. [This was about] coming in and working with the sound engineer, saying ‘we want this kind of effect in this area’ and having to figure out which surfaces you’re going to and how you’re going to use them,” he adds.

This is a Voice is open at the Wellcome Collection until July 31. The Wellcome is also hosting panel discussions and vocal performances throughout the duration of the show – for details and opening times, see wellcomecollection.org

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