Felt Tips and Whiteboards

At the Manchester Museum this week I really enjoyed the multicoloured-felt-tip-on-whiteboard design of the small but nicely formed Manchester Gallery, which was developed in collaboration with local communities:


I like the way all of the arrows, underlining, dotted lines, capitalisation are both so lively but also so precise. The looseness and informality of the design, as well as its busyness, does not to my mind produce confusion or disorder.

As one of the wall panels states, “the design of the gallery was shaped by the development process – we’ve used a colourful, lively ‘mind map’ to capture and share the fantastic diversity of information that was generated.” I like this idea of the finished product referencing its own construction. I’m guessing, however, that this design was very carefully and precisely developed: the finished result is a consequence of the development process, not an artefact of the development process.

Something I’ve been pondering recently is how to write museum labels and texts that are clear but which also acknowledge their contingency on current understanding: a label that says, of an object or thing, “this is what we think of this object right now, but we might think something differently of it in the future”. I think the erasable/revisable nature of the whiteboard and felt tip pen look is quite apposite for this.

The recent Large Hadron Collider exhibition, at the Science Museum in London and currently at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, extensively uses whiteboards and felt tip pens, or rather, trompe l’oeil whiteboards and felt tip pens.

This is part of the general aesthetic of the exhibition, namely the attempt to recreate a sense of the quotidian, sometimes grubby, work-in-progress backstage at CERN. Bicycles, hardhats and radios are placed throughout the exhibition, signalling again and again that this is a workplace where things are made and unmade and revised and rejected and developed. The exhibition also acknowledges that the fragments and sections of particle accelerators on display can be very beautiful, but to almost all visitors utterly mysterious. A lot of text is needed to explain them, and it’s an open question as to whether or not there is ultimately any connection achieved between these otherworldly, disarticulated techno-things on display behind glass, and the artfully messy desks, dirty corridor walls, and felt-tip-on-white-board diagrams and text. The exhibition would probably work even without any of the “real” objects.

Otherworldly disarticulated techno-things

Otherworldly disarticulated techno-things

I’d like to see more felt tip and arrow work in exhibitions on contemporary scientific practices, preferably in multiple colours. There’s definitely something the opposite of pompous and certain in the use of multicoloured, childlike, but not childish, felt tip pens, and I’m all for non-pompous and non-certain, or at least non-pompous and non-overly certain, critical display and discussion, in museums, of scientific practices.


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