Watery wonders: designing the Natural History Museum’s new show about whales

The Natural History Museum’s new exhibition on whales features accessible graphics by Wiedemann Lampe and beautiful illustrations by Sarah Maycock – and is the first event marking its new focus on the future of conservation

The Natural History Museum unveiled its new star attraction last week – a 25-metre long blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of the grand Hintze Hall.

The hall has been refurbished by design studio Casson Mann. (More on the project here.) The museum has also opened a new exhibition all about whales – the first in a series of ocean-themed events to mark its new focus on the future of the planet.

Whales: Beneath the Surface shows how whales have evolved over 50 million years and adapted to extreme environments. It features 100 specimens from the museum’s collection including skulls and a blue whale flipper. It also looks at the similarities between whales and humans.

Hope – a three-tonne blue whale skeleton – is suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall

Design consultancy Wiedemann Lampe worked on graphics for the show with illustrator Sarah Maycock and the Natural History Museum’s in-house design team.

Benji Wiedemann, creative director at Wiedemann Lampe, says the graphics aim to bring people closer to whales in the way that a children’s storybook might – through beautiful illustrations that visitors can view up close.

Large-scale watercolours by Hastings-based artist Sarah Maycock are displayed alongside skeletons and infographics explaining how whales move around underwater and regulate their temperature.

Maycock was asked to create “emotive” illustrations to encourage empathy with whales and painted a dolphin, a blue whale, a sperm whale and a killer whale. Her artwork is featured in the exhibition and on advertising and marketing.

Illustrations by Sarah Maycock

“Sarah’s work is beautiful,” says Wiedemann. “What was really important to me was the fluidity in the brush strokes, the sense of looseness and constant movement and the way the colours run fluidly … and also the fact that it uses water,” he adds.

Maycock and Wiedemann Lampe worked with collections manager Richard Sabin to refine illustrations and ensure they were scientifically accurate. Maycock also created a series of ‘watery backdrops’ for the exhibition space (shown below).

Sarah Maycock’s illustrations and watery backdrops. Image: Leon Chew
Illustrations by Sarah Maycock

Infographics feature a grey, dark blue and bright pink palette. Wiedemann says they are designed to work in tandem with illustrations – “the maths and the magic, the emotive and the rational work in unison,” he explains.

Infographics show how whales swim, breathe and detect prey

The exhibition is colour-coded. Accent colours are used to signify different ‘zones’ and each colour is linked to a different species. The colour pink is a nod to the Indochine dolphin while yellow references the blue whale (also known as the sulphur bottom whale because of the algae that sticks to its skin, giving it a yellowish tinge).

“The exhibition is quite free flowing. You’re not guided from room to room but more fluidly from one [zone] to another, and some objects would be on plinths detached from that zone, so the colour pulls it all together,” explains Wiedemann.

Whale skeletons on display at Whales: Beneath the Surface. Image: Leon Chew
Captions are placed lower than usual to make the exhibition more accessible. Image: Leon Chew

Wiedemann Lampe spent over a year working on the design, with Wiedemann spending one day each week in the museum. This allowed him to work more closely with various teams and better understand each department’s needs. It also allowed him to resolve any issues much more quickly, he says.

“It was a very close collaboration with the in-house design team and it was a brilliant experience,” says Wiedemann. “Listening to every voice, every department is so important … not going in and saying ‘I want to do this’ and pushing forward with it but being empathetic and inclusive.”

Maycock’s illustrations are on display alongside whale skeletons from the Natural History Museum’s collection. Image: Leon Chew

The collaboration also resulted in a more accessible exhibition. Wiedemann worked closely with the museum’s accessibility team while designing the show. He also visited an exhibition in a wheelchair while working on the project – an experience that gave him a better understanding of the challenges wheelchair users face if text is not positioned correctly or made large enough to read from a distance.

Objects in whales are positioned around 100mm lower than usual and captions are positioned near children’s eye height so they can be easily read by young children and visitors in wheelchairs.

Designers working on exhibition graphics are often asked to increase text sizes and contrast to improve legibility but Wiedemann says repositioning items offered an alternative solution – allowing Wiedemann Lampe to create a more accessible show without compromising the design.

It’s a fascinating exhibition and one that the Natural History Museum hopes will highlight our role in protecting the future of the planet. One of the items in the show is a plastic bottle – an object that has had a devastating impact on marine life around the world.

Alongside working on the exhibition, Wiedemann Lampe was appointed to update the museum’s visual identity and has developed a new graphic system for marketing and communications.

The museum’s ‘N’ icon now appears in the same position on all advertising, creating an instantly recognisable typographic ‘stamp’. Communications also feature three ‘chat boxes’: one containing the name of an exhibition, another housing an interesting fact or question to spark curiosity and a third listing exhibition dates. Content is divided into three layers: a brand layer (the N icon), a content layer (engaging imagery promoting the diversity of the museum’s collection) and an interpretation layer (questions and facts contained in chat boxes). This system is also used on digital screens in the museum.

The system makes it easier for in-house teams to produce messaging and was introduced to mark the museum’s new focus on looking not just at the past but the future of conservation. Promoting conservation efforts now sits at the heart of the museum’s activities and will inform all future communications as well as programming, says Wiedemann.

“There’s been a pivotal moment in the museum to say, ‘we don’t only want to focus on back but into the future … to focus on our relationship with nature and what we can do to improve it,” he explains.

This focus is reflected in the decision to replace faux dinosaur skeleton Dippy with that of a blue whale – an animal that was driven to the brink of extinction before hunting was banned and long-term conservation measures put in place. It is still endangered but the global population is increasing and is estimated at around 20,000 – highlighting how conservation can help save species that are under threat.

Whales is on at the Natural History Museum until February 28 2018. For opening times and visitor details see nhm.ac.uk. Exhibition images by Leon Chew. Film by John Ingle.

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