Popularism with Integrity: John Sunderland, Museum Designer.

By Anra Kennedy | 22 November 2001
Left: Anra Kennedy spoke to Sunderland at his latest project, the Helly Hansen National Mountaineering Exhibition in Cumbria.

From Kenny Everett's Captain Kremmen to 19th Century mountaineers, taking in Vikings and Chaucerian pilgrims along the way, museum designer John Sunderland's career thus far could never be described as dull.

Twenty years ago Sunderland's first museum was the innovative and hugely successful Jorvik Viking Centre in York.Now Sunderland is one of the world's leading interpretative exhibition designers. This feature looks at the ethos behind Sunderland's designs and his latest work: the Helly Hansen National Mountaineering Exhibition in Cumbria.

One of John's early jobs was as an illustrator of children's stories on television. He describes it as 'creating a world on a flat piece of paper, a believable place'. He also worked in film production - a half-hour Captain Kremmen film being one of his more unusual projects - and animation. In 1981 though, his career course changed.

Right: The bustling market of Coppergate in York was recreated in Jorvik.

'When I got a chance to work at the Viking Centre it was a wonderful opportunity. Of course it turned out to be a most enlightened client: I found my true course in life was telling stories.'

After three years in production the Jorvik Centre opened its doors in 1984. It was an instant success and twelve million visitors have since experienced the timecars, streetscapes, noises and smells. A £4.2 million revamp was completed earlier this year.

Left: the old wharfside exhibition. Jorvik was relaunched in April 2001.

"It was revolutionary, absolutely revolutionary." When Sunderland talks about Jorvik his passion for the project is striking: "I believe it changed the face of British interpretation. I think it had a major effect and impact on British museums, I really do."

"It was commercial and independently produced. It charged money. It promoted itself in the way that it did - shamelessly! It had popularism with integrity. It told a story to people, it de-institutionalised a subject that had been very academically presented before - archaeology.'

One of the key differences between the Jorvik Centre and previous exhibitions was that the design team all had film or television backgrounds. None of them were museologically trained. The York Archaeological Trust provided the historical expertise whilst Sunderland and his team injected a fresh philosophy of design.

Gordon Rankmore, Head of Exhibition Research and Design at The British Museum, elaborates: "The Jorvik Centre had huge significance; it presented a dry science, archaeology, to a popular audience. Sunderland was one of the first to take artefacts and tableaux out of glass cases, to present them in a realistic setting. He recreated the story and then presented the artefacts later."

Right: original excavations at York.

The Jorvik concept of design has spawned many an imitator and Sunderland himself went on to work on a range of interpretative exhibitions. Most of them share a core theme: "many, many of my exhibitions have a linear thread of storytelling."

"I just like telling stories...I find the story format, with a linear beginning, middle and an end works very well and you can do it in all sorts of different ways."

That zeal comes through again when I ask Sunderland how he approaches new projects: "My first job as project designer is to think about the public...to tune in to what the public might be interested to discover about it. It comes down to embarrassment of ignorance. I don't want anybody who comes to our exhibitions to feel in any way patronised or embarrassed because they don't know something and I think that used to happen in the past."

"The next little key phrase is one I've already mentioned: popularism with integrity. I've carried that as a sort of mantra all my working life. I want to reach as broad a public as possible. I don't want to patronise them. I want to be on their side asking questions and to simplify the subject, in such a way that doesn't degrade the subject and retains the integrity of the subject.'

These theories are exemplified in Sunderland's latest project: A Splendid Adventure, The Helly Hansen National Mountaineering Exhibition, at the Rheged Discovery Centre in Cumbria.

Left: Four climbers contemplating the ascent of Changabang. Copyright, Chris Bonington Picture Library.

This narrative exhibition is a celebration of British mountaineering, from the early days of woolly vests and the Alpine Club in the 1850's, through the Everest Ascent of 1953, to the experiences, equipment and challenges of modern mountaineers.

Right: Curator John Innerdale showsPrime Minister Tony Blair the Mallory collection, an exhibition exclusive tothe HHNME.
Left: Everest mountaineer George Band shows Prime MinisterTony Blair the panorama at the Helly HansenNational Mountaineering Exhibition.

It's an inspirational subject, the endeavours and achievements of humans in the face of the grandeur, power and beauty of nature at its hostile best. Sunderland manages to convey this despite having had a challenging space within which to work.

Right: from the National Mountaineering Exhibition: Geoffrey Bruce being helped by sherpas, 1922. Copyright, Audrey Salkeld Collection.

In an area of astounding beauty with mountainous views galore, the Rheged Centre is tucked away inside a hill reminiscent of the Teletubbies' abode. So well camouflaged is the building that one morning the designers arrived on site to find a group of tourists had set up camp on the roof in the night.

It's a challenging space in which to build a museum: "We're in a concrete bunker really with no opportunity to create a sense of space or vista," said Sunderland.

"I was reading an Everest book where somebody described what it was like to be inside that fragile little tent while outside nature was doing its best to blow them away, some terrible storm ... that fragile membrane between certain death and getting through the night.

Left: images and sounds from the Himalayan peak are projected inside a mountaineer's tent.

"I thought - that's what I'm going to do, create a series of tent-like environments into which I could project a film"

Film is central to the exhibition. Punctuating the exhibition, projected onto various artefacts, is a film featuring broadcaster John Peel, himself a mountaineering enthusiast, shot in the Cairngorms.

Peel tells the visitor a story, interweaving old footage with reconstructions and a mountaineering journey of his own. Temperature and sound effects add to the illusion of each visitor undertaking individual journeys, culminating in the final tent, representing Everest Base Camp, being uncomfortably cold with whistling winds.

Right: personal effects from the successful 1953 Everest team are displayed.

Another human element is lent to the exhibition through the story of George Band, one of the 1953 Everest team. The inclusion of his diaries and memories bridge the gap between the vast mountains and the people who try to scale them.

Left: Ang Nyima putting out flags in a traditional summit pose. Annapurna II, 1960. Copyright, Chris Bonington Picture Libary.

What does the future hold? The field of interpretative exhibition design is growing and technology is getting even more advanced: Sunderland, now also involved in a Display research project called Timeframe, will no doubt continue to make his mark for another twenty years.

The creation of a Bob Dylan Museum in the singer's hometown has been mooted as a possible project. A poet and songwriter seems an apt subject for Sunderland: a man who says of himself, "I'm not a designer, I'm a storyteller." We'll watch this space.

(Contact John Sunderland on j.g.sunderland@worldnet.att.net)

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