Museum Revealed Podcast [Ep 15]: Insights into exhibition design with Alison Ross

There’s a group of unsung heroes in the museum world who work harder than anyone to bring the knowledge and vision of the curators and scientists to life in a way that excites and inspires you. We’re talking about the designers!

Queensland Museum’s Senior Exhibition Designer Alison Ross gives us exclusive insight into her role at the museum, a day in the life of a designer and the challenges that come along with this interesting job. Discover how her background as a  scenographer influences museum exhibition design and find out what her favourite project to date is… you might have seen it on display recently.

Listen now on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Let’s meet our guest: Alison Ross, Senior Exhibition Designer

Alison is an award-winning, exhibition and production designer working across the spectrum of the arts. With a background in scenography, she has designed for every type of live performance art, including theatre, dance, ballet, circus and musicals. She has designed for film and television as well as site-specific works in the form of exhibitions, installations, festivals and parades. Before joining Queensland Museum in 2018, Alison was the Exhibition Design Manager at Museum of Brisbane for 3.5 years.

During her time at Queensland Museum she has designed exhibitions such as the redeveloped Discovery Centre, NASA – A Human Adventure, Threads, and I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland to name a few.

Interested in learning more?

View Queensland Museum exhibitions

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In case you prefer to read… 

LC: There’s a group of unsung heroes in the museum world who work harder than anyone to bring the knowledge and vision of the curators and scientists to life in a way that excites and inspires you. Queensland Museum Network would be lost without them and if the network lets one of them host their podcast, they’re going to have to expect an intro like this one. I’m Laura Cantrell, museum graphic designer and host of Museum Revealed season 2, and in this episode, the unsung heroes – the designers – are taking over! I’m going to introduce you to my colleague Alison Ross Senior Exhibition Designer. I see first-hand how important it is to her to bring you the best museum experience possible, through design.

LC: Alison, Is there such a thing as a regular day for you?

AR: The short answer, Laura, would be no. I’m always working on a range of projects, so it really depends where I’m up to with any one of those projects as to what my day might look like. If I’m in the early stages of a project, I’m trying to gather as much information as I can about it. So I might be talking to curators and producers about what the exhibitions are about, why we’re doing it, what audience we want to attract, those sort of things. If I’m further down into the design process, I’ll be at my computer a lot with my headphones in, wrestling with all of the pragmatics of laying out the space, wrestling with the look and feel of how it might work, trying to shoehorn all of the objects that the curators want to include into the exhibition. It’s a very collaborative role. So I work really closely with other designers. So I work with graphic designers, multimedia designers, lighting designers. If I am at a later stage of the process, I’m actually on the floor quite a lot in the gallery and I’m overseeing the build, making sure that everything’s going to plan there, which often there’s a lot of things that have to be decided on the fly. So it’s important that the designer is engage then and also overseeing the objects going in. So, yeah, I mean, I’m working on a range of projects all the time and often at different stages of those projects. So a typical day includes all of the above.

LC: Well, can you give us an idea of the range of projects that you do work on and what are some of the challenges and some of the highlights?

AR: So there’s probably three typical things, styles of exhibition that I engage with. When I first arrived at the museum, one of the first projects I worked on was a new permanent exhibition. And permanent exhibitions have to be able to withstand a lot of rugged interaction from visitors for around about seven to 10 years. So it’s a really particular approach to a permanent exhibition. That was the new Discovery Centre, which is a really popular exhibition in the museum, mostly because it’s it showcases the breadth of Queensland Museum’s collection, which is all of our natural history, as well as our social history. And it’s staffed by science educators and very enthusiastic staff. So people love coming to that exhibition time and time again to engage with our collection. And what was great for me about that is because it showcased the breadth of the collection. I worked with all of these different scientists and curators across all these different areas that it might have taken me years to meet those people and really engage with the collection. And I got to do it in this very sort of immersive deep dive immediately. Other sorts of projects that I work on, are temporary touring exhibitions. So there are things that someone else has curated and developed and we buy them in either interstate or overseas and we host them for maybe six months, something like that. And the first exhibition I did here that was touring, which was also Queensland Museum’s largest ever, was NASA: A Human Adventure. And it was really exciting to work on. The content was obviously incredible and it had a whole load of pragmatic challenges for me. I had to oversee how it could fit in multiple gallery spaces as well as even get in the building. I mean, I have to get large, heavy, precious objects into the building that didn’t fit in our goods lift or through any doorway. So we went through processes of craning objects, seeing and taking glazing off. And yeah, it was a really exciting, interesting exhibition that was coming from Norway. So we had all of this overseas interaction with the producers. Yeah, it was really interesting. The third kind of project in terms of the range of things I work on is more of a temporary exhibition that we develop ourselves. So we have an incredible collection. And as much as we can, we try to put that collection on the floor and share it with Queensland visitors. So I’ve just designed an exhibition called I Do: Wedding Stories from Queensland, and it was telling all of these wedding stories via mostly garments, wedding garments. And yeah, that was really interesting. Exciting. It’s a lot of work, you know, compared to something like NASA where all of that work has been done and we mostly house it in our gallery and make it look great. We’re actually developing all of that content from scratch. So I find them deeply satisfying. And I love the fact that we get our collections on the floor sharing those Queensland stories with our Queensland visitors.

LC: You haven’t always worked in museums, have you? 

AR: No, I trained as a stenographer, which is a production designer and costume designer for live performance.

LC: Have you worked in any other areas of design?

AR: Oh, yes. That training took me into production design for film and television and festivals and live events.

LC:  Are there any design principles that you’ve brought from those other areas into your museum exhibition design?

AR:  Oh, definitely. All of those other mediums involve storytelling and engaging with an audience. So I feel like I directly draw on all of that experience of creating a world for a visitor where they get immersed in this particular story that we want to tell. Designing for theatre has also given me a real appreciation for drawing the focus for the audience toward what we want them to focus on and the story we want to tell. So in theatre, we’re very much profiling the actor, showcasing the actor in their story, sometimes in film, its location, as well as actors in a museum context. That’s very much about the object and the story associated with the object. So I feel like that’s also given me a real appreciation for how to take a visitor or an audience member on a journey. Another thing I’ve definitely drawn from in those related industries is working collaboratively. I mean, we’re always a very multifaceted team to bring this story to the stage or to the film, to an audience. And exactly the same applies in museums. It’s a really large group of people that bring that story to the floor and then market it and share it in an educational way. And, you know, it’s just it’s a very multifaceted realm and also pragmatically, I’m very used to doing things quickly and cheaply. So I’ve had to draw on all of those same approaches to how we produce something. There’s always many ways to skin a cat. So we’re having to often think outside the square of how we can produce things quickly and cheaply.

LC: Alison, what are some of the challenges you faced in your work here as an exhibition designer?

AR: Well, most recently it’s probably designing during Covid. I very much like to be face to face with the people I’m working with and also face to face with the objects I’m designing for. And we have the luxury of working on site with the venues that I’m designing for.  So I’ll often pop down to the gallery and take a measurement or a photograph or even stand in the space and imagine what it will be like to have something in that corner or overhead. And we weren’t able to do that when we were working remotely. So a number of exhibitions that I was working on had to be designed remotely with curators and other designers on Teams and via Skype and one drive and we transfer and all of the technology that we’ve all been using for the last year.

LC: Have you got a favourite project that you’ve worked on so far?

AR: Oh, look, I feel like I’m going to draw on something fairly recently, I designed a small show here, an exhibition called Threads, and it was profiling Alyssa Jane Carmichael, who’s a Quandamooka woman and the predominant thrust of the exhibition, is showcasing six garments that she designed when she was doing her Masters of Fashion Design at QUT and they’re very contemporary. They’re very accessible. They’re really vibrant, but they use a lot of the old weaving techniques that were lost at a time on Stradbroke when during the mission days. So it just I thought it was an incredibly impactful and beautiful exhibition. And even knowing some of the back story of how difficult because it was a Covid related challenge that it took to bring that exhibition to life, including filming on Quandamooka  the day before we went into a lockdown. And all of those kind of challenges. I find it really special and I love working on First Nation stories. I think they’re incredibly important and I always feel really privileged and humbled to be invited to engage with that content.

LC: Is there anything in the collection that you’d love to be able to create an exhibition design around?

AR: I probably don’t have an answer for that exactly. But the more I get invited to engage with science because it’s not my background, my background is social history and visual art. And so I don’t have I’m not steeped in a natural science, natural history background. So I find it fascinating and challenging and great to be invited to work on any of our natural history projects. So I just put my hand up to do more of that, basically.

LC: Well, I think we’re going to wrap up now with our museum in a minute. Rapid fire questions. Are you ready?

AR: Yes.

LC: OK, here we go. Favourite collection item?

AR: All of the wedding dresses, in I Do.

LC: What year was Queensland Museum founded?

AR: No idea. But I’d say we’ve been around for over 150 years.

LC: When you were a child, did you dream of working at the museum?

AR: Kind of. Sort of.

LC: How many objects and specimens make up the state collection?

AR: Oh, a lot. I’m going to say at least one million.

LC: Favourite exhibition, past or present.

AR: Oh oh SparkLab.

LC: OK, which is the more iconic Muttaburrasaurus or Mephisto?

AR: Muttaburrasaurus.

LC: Would you prefer to work in the field or in the office?

AR: In the field.

LC: Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park?

AR: Indiana Jones.

LC: Favourite animal in Wild State?

AR: Kangaroos

LC: Here is one, biodiversity in geosciences or cultures and history.

AR: Cultures and History.

LC: And we’re done. You did pretty well. Alison, thank you. I know that you enjoy bringing the best possible experiences to our visitors, and we look forward to seeing what you come up with next. Thank you for joining us today.

AR: Thanks for having me, Laura.

LC: Thanks for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast. What did you uncover this episode if you’re interested in learning more view the show notes linked below. You can follow Queensland Museum on social media @QLDMuseum or head to our website at qm.qld.gov.au. While you’re there, sign up to our e-news list to find out what’s on at the museum. Until next time. Stay curious.

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