Haley Sharpe Design – creating two distinct visitor experiences at The Postal Museum

Main Image: Industrial heritage is mixed with interactives that tell the stories of those who worked on the Mail Rail

Covering 500 years of the history of the Royal Mail, the design of The Postal Museum has not only unearthed and pieced together lost or hidden stories but has also created an immersive experience from underground tunnels that once transported mail around London in the form of Mail Rail, which opens next week (September 4)

For the project Haley Sharpe Design (hsd) provided full interpretative planning, HLF bid support and exhibition design services and have taken it from concept stage right through to the finished product. By using focus groups and sketch-ups they were able to follow recommendations from the public and keep the museum staff up to speed with the designs in real time

From the very beginning it was made clear to hsd that The Postal Museum’s organisational vision statement, ‘to connect people through the evolving story of communications past and present’, was to be the guiding light for their creative design.

For Calthorpe House, a former printing factory and the home of The Postal Museum, hsd were tasked to create a lively, dynamic and entertaining experience, to attract new audiences and to help the museum realise its vision ‘to be a living space, at the heart of a community, connecting people to our stories and sharing the impact of postal communications on the nation’s social history’.

For the Mail Rail the brief was mainly focussed on the visitor journey, creating an immersive visitor experience which would increase the dwell time. “In simplistic terms, hsd were asked to create two complimentary visitor experiences that would add to the rich landscape of attractions London has to offer by designing ‘museums’ that present aspects of our social history that had arguably not yet been told,” says Jan Faulkner, hsd Designer and Director.

Hsd say that exhibition designers can ensure that the subject of an exhibition is clearly communicated to the visitor by making it exciting and engaging and then testing it with focus groups. “The curatorial teams are often too close to the subject to be truly objective from the visitor’s perspective. We need the depth of content but we don’t want to present the whole history, otherwise the exhibition would need to be almost as long as the tunnels! We want to present just enough to inspire and make the visitor ask ‘how do I learn more?’”

Wider audience

With a subject like the mail, you know there is a certain audience you will attract to a specialist museum or experience says Faulkner, but the secret is making the narrative relevant for a wider audience. ‘How did this affect me?’ and ‘why should I care?’ are fundamental questions exhibition designers should ask when developing a script and design. Designers also have to remember that on average it is still true to say that visitors will only remember around 10 per cent of the facts they deliver to them.

Hsd’s process is to review the narrative or script and provide thematic adjacency diagrams that map a proportional representation of the stories within the architectural space, plot the visitor route as well as identify where key artefacts would be placed, acknowledging their display criteria, i.e. light sensitivity, climate and security requirements.

“This creates an initial interpretative plan that we then detail out adding interactives, media and educational spaces. In parallel we would have also started to develop a graphic communication document that agrees style, colours, fonts and word counts for types of panels, and allows the writers and curators to quantify their tasks as well as help the designers and the greater client team agree the general dwell times. Over a few months this is honed down and fine-tuned, including initial budget allocations to represent the final schematic design plan as a viable affordable design.

Faulkner says that Sketch-Up, a 3D modelling software, has become the best design tool hsd could have asked for other than good free-hand drawing skills. The ability to take a client through the evolving design and create walk-through animations has really helped in how we convey design.

For this project there were two different stories to tell. In The Postal Museum hsd say there is a fairly traditional presentation of the history and the wider story of the UK’s mail service, shown through collections, narrative, different types of media and interactives. However, the Mail Rail is an immersive experience within a real piece of industrial heritage, the building and tunnels being the first and best artefact. This part tells the story of those people that worked in the Mail Rail and the service they provided.

The museum and the Mail Rail are in two different buildings across the road from each other.  The museum is filled with very colourful immersive displays incorporating the collections, supported by large-scale graphics, projections, physical and digital interactive exhibits. The museum’s look say hsd, is exciting and engaging resulting in a truly rewarding and memorable visitor experience. At the Mail Rail there is more of an industrial feel as they worked to compliment the original industrial infrastructure of the building and tunnels. In this part of the experience there are not as many objects but more interactives supported by large-scale graphics and a soundscape.

“Part of the design process is to be mindful of visitor fatigue. Designing to change the nature or pace of the exhibition from the visitor’s perspective, to engage and surprise the visitors, to ensure nothing is too repetitive or formulaic unless we want it to be. We often use a term ‘design by destination’ that means when a visitor enters a space or turns a corner they must intuitively be able to navigate that space both intellectually, emotionally and physically. They need to be able to make a conscious decision on where they go next and what they engage with next.”

Creating the right atmosphere for the exhibition in terms of lighting, AV and the use of graphics and interactives was key to keeping the visitor engrossed in The Postal Museum which takes them on a journey through five themed zones of postal history. Each zone has a clear identity in terms of its atmosphere and colour palette and took cues from the interpretative messages, archival material and object displays. Light levels for the general visitor experience were carefully balanced with the conservation requirements of the museum artefacts. A key exhibit, the priceless Penny Black sheet for example, had very specific lighting and security requirements and the display hsd created allows the visitor a personal encounter with the iconic object, which illuminates on approach.

Mail Rail’s underground location with its cavernous exhibition space, platforms and confined dark tunnels is atmospheric in its own right. Hsd’s challenge was to create a visitor journey through these spaces, communicating the story of the system and its workers. “We storyboarded the experience, and then using a combination of techniques – projection mapping, special lighting effects, soundscapes and audio narratives, created a multi-sensory immersive ride and an exhibition space with object displays, interpretive graphics and hands-on interactives that illustrate how the system worked and the key roles of its workers.”

The Mail Rail created many challenges for hsd’s design team, which were overcome by the varied disciplines and experience of the team. Having provided designs for many varied heritage attractions and museums, both in the UK and internationally, such as varied Smithsonian projects, Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral’s Magna Carta exhibition, for more than 35 years, hsd has generated a huge portfolio of diverse and engaging visitor experiences.

“We are very proud of our talented and skilled design teams led by a core of dedicated staff, some of which have been with hsd for more than 25 years. None of our personnel come from the same design background, and as such we all approach design slightly differently. These mixed perspectives and skills give us the opportunity to challenge and evolve design in an innovative and engaging way. We are also big on communicating design through sketching with clients to gain consensus and (hopefully) a level of trust that facilitates a real fast pace and energy to the process.”

This was tested to the full with the Mail Rail experience, which is situated in the disused Mail Rail car depot and a section of the tunnels under the Mount Pleasant sorting office. This space was never meant to be seen or visited by the public and its technical infrastructure made for quite a hostile environment and to turn this space into an informative and immersive visitor experience was a challenge. It required dedicated communications with the museum team throughout on how the design process would work.

“A reoccurring topic when we work with bigger, diverse client teams is reaching consensus. That is why we really see the benefit in face-time and sketching. We also have to educate clients in the interpretative design process, i.e. why deadlines and milestones are important, why certain decisions need to be made sooner than others, why recognising and working with long lead times for some suppliers is crucial, whether it is capturing seasonal changes when filming or integrating technologies into the base build architecture. Planning and guiding the client through projects is so important.”

“A technique that was new to us when working down in the Mail Rail tunnels was 3D Mapping. We worked with ScanLAB and CentreScreen on the digital aspects down in the rail tunnels. The reasoning behind using 3D Mapping projections is because it works with the curving structure of the tunnel as opposed to straight forward projection onto a flat surface.”

The way it works is that the physical structures are first scanned and the projections digitally altered to effectively make the original structures disappear when projected onto. This helps create amazing digital presentations without affecting the fabric of this important part of our national industrial heritage.

Another big challenge, says Faulkner, was the soundscapes and oral narratives within the Mail Rail. The carriages are enclosed but the noise generated by the wheels on the tracks had to be considered and special wheels developed to minimise the noise.

Hsd also wanted ambient sounds in the platforms that needed to be focussed and theatrical without travelling along the tunnels. In the end they synchronised all the audio to one soundtrack and then choreographed the sound so that any sound bleed from the tunnels added to the Mail Rail exhibition atmosphere.

Accessibility was also an issue with hsd being fully conversant with working within Universal Design Principles, i.e. access for all and general accessibility guidelines across three continents and they try to attain an ‘access for all’ policy.

“We often create “User Design Groups” to test out accessibility, it is something we do not take for granted. We don’t always know best and guidelines are continually evolving in recognising the needs of all visitors.”

In this instance, The Postal Museum and the Mail Rail exhibitions are accessible. However, the Mail Rail ride is not accessible for buggy and wheelchair users so hsd created an alternative film-based experience for those visitors unable or uncomfortable riding through the tunnels.