As surveys demonstrate, the crowds of museum goers across the globe grew exponentially every year until the Covid-19 pandemic hit the industry. Even now, with all the restrictions and precautions imposed, people continue confirming that a museum visit remains their favourite pastime, and bookable timed slots are selling fast! That said, how many of us have ever seriously wondered about what it may take to create an exceptional exhibition design? As it follows from the conversation with Colin Morris, head of Morris Associates, it takes a challenging lot. One needs to have a clear vision and simultaneously be able to think as an architect, designer, curator, conservator and museum visitor, only then it is possible to build a beautiful and safe exhibition setting, pre-empt all kinds of problems and convey the main message of the exhibition in an attractive and accessible way. It takes years of experience and practice to acquire such skills.
Since its foundation in London in 1987, Morris Associates evolved into a leading international award-winning museum design consultants & exhibition design bureau, highly commended by the professional art community for their refinement, “highest professional standards with a refreshing liveliness and enthusiasm,” intelligence and diplomacy. Colin Morris (curiously, his name evokes that of William Morris, the founding father of modern design), has been regularly commissioned with the most important museums in Great Britain, the USA, China, Europe, the Middle East and Russia, as well as such renowned art collectors as George Ortiz and Sir Nasser Khalili. I perceive it as a great privilege, to have a glimpse into the complex and demanding world of museum design and the whole exhibition development process.
Colin, have you always lived in London?
Yes, I was born in London – within a stone’s throw from the Chelsea Football stadium. Being one of six children, my early years were strongly influenced by a ‘team’ mentality induced by a large family, and by my rather firm father, who was highly skilled in his own right as a Rolls Royce Coachbuilder. He instilled in us that one must always be and do everything to the best of their ability – he was a true perfectionist, so this mantra would influence my efforts throughout my whole life. From an early age, I have always been ambitious and determined. I also had a desire to give something back to society, to contribute, although I was never sure, how this might manifest.
Please, tell us about your favourite pursuits as a child.
In my early years, I heavily flirted with singing as a soloist in a well-known choir, under the watchful eye of the British composer Benjamin Britten. When nature was to influence that path, I later came to enjoy football trials at Chelsea, though they were abruptly ended by a damaged Achilles tendon. I suppose this was all part of finding my way.
When did you first become aware that museum and exhibition design was your career path?
The first professional platform, following my educative years, was to be found in architectural model-making. There, I developed swiftly with the skills I had inherited and eventually led a team to produce a series of exceptional models of the outstanding Mies van der Rohe’s Mansion House Square Scheme in the heart of the City of London for Lord Peter Palumbo. This was to prove an invaluable experience for what was to follow1.
Museum and exhibition design, as every positive development in my life, came about by incredibly good fortune. Having reached a pinnacle in model-making terms, or so I thought, I felt that I would never have a similar opportunity or another client like Lord Palumbo. With his eye for the very best and the opportunities that were associated with his approach, a change of direction and pursuit was necessary. I eventually decided, following the influence and guidance of my good friend and architect Peter Carter, to adopt a strategy that would lead me into the museum world and, ultimately, museum and exhibition design. This would include undertaking and mastering skills and roles that I would subsequently require of others during the exhibition development process.
You have mentioned that early in your career you relied on the guidance of the architect Peter Carter and art connoisseur Lord Palumbo. How did this impact your professional development and what do you remember most fondly about these people?
Absolutely, they both contributed greatly to my development in those early years. Peter Carter, an incredibly gifted architect in his own right, and incidentally, Mies van der Rohe’s project architect for Mansion House Square and numerous other Miesian buildings, not only provided guidance but also worked within my team directly and allowed me to contribute to his projects, along with another architect and close friend Dennis Mannina. Peter not only provided me with an immeasurable ongoing education but also contributed significantly to several successful exhibitions, so I remain in his debt to this day - he continued to support my efforts, until his death in 2017.
Lord Palumbo and I ‘hit it off’ from the moment we met, despite having quite different backgrounds. He was always incredibly supportive and most gracious: once I had decided to make a career change, he made it possible for me to set up my first modest studio of around 110 m2. Being the connoisseur and collector that he is, he also provided me with numerous artworks of his own to mount and display, which were to adorn his various surroundings. Fortuitously, these were often seen by other collectors and significant leaders in the arts, as well as other notable art professionals, who, as I was told, admired the quality and unique style of our presentation. Thankfully, referrals became ever more frequent and projects grew in size, complexity and importance. Within a short space of time, we found ourselves working internationally for various renowned institutions.
So, when did you start your own business: straight after the university or sometime later?
I didn’t open my own design studio until 1987, but by then I already had some measure of experience in running a company, and this, again, was made far easier by my friends Peter Palumbo and Peter Carter. The name ‘Peter’ has figured strongly in my life and includes the ‘St Peter’s’ (the Pontiffs) I was fortunate to encounter as part of our Vatican Pavilion Expo 2000 project.
What do you consider to be the greatest challenges and core competencies in your profession?
I can only respond from my own perspective, as I am sure each designer would have their own emphasis. Challenges vary greatly in this line of work. Each space is unique, as indeed is the content, and this can be compounded further when there is a range of 3-dimensional objects of variable volume and mediums, with very specific environmental requirements. One has to treat every project individually and ensure that the methodology, that one has developed and adapted with renewed experience, is applied vigorously.
Core competencies include a studious and dedicated approach to each task. A good designer is normally found to have a well-rounded skillset, combined with a readiness to engage as a good all-around team player. A sound ability to fully digest and positively interpret a brief, to respond with creative yet realistic solutions, and then to see these through to their realisation with close attention to detail, are the fundamental requirements for any museum and exhibition designer.
Could you tell us about the philosophy behind Morris Associates? What values lie at the core of your practice? How did it evolve over the years? Do you have any representations in other countries?
Our philosophy, while often technically challenging, is very straightforward: it involves creating aesthetic and elegantly presented solutions, with primary emphasis on the artworks, rather than allowing a designer’s inclination to demonstrate their creative ability, which, in my view, often overwhelms. I believe that ‘less is more’; although it is often an overused cliché it is, indeed, our focus and one of the major guiding principles we stand by. This is not to say that everything should be monochromatic and rectangular – far from it! More to the point, ‘if it doesn’t contribute, it’s not necessary,’ – I must have repeated this, hundreds, if not thousands of times.
On reflection, I think, at the outset, we may have been a little too dogged in our approach, but it did provide direction and a firm foundation – we had to start somewhere. However, as the years have passed, there have been so many positive influences that now our direction has to be constantly reviewed and adjusted. I suppose these changes have been derived from the extraordinary challenges we have faced over the years, as well as the individuals and clients we have collaborated with, so we are now far more fluid. This creative fluidity is also influenced greatly by the confidence that experience brings, which allows us to step outside of our comfort zone. I feel we are now able to undertake projects of any size, medium or complexity.
We have a full range of in-house facilities and services. Our studio is essentially a 450 m2 converted warehouse, almost in the heart of London, with design, storage and workshop facilities. It allows us to test ideas in 1:1 mock-up form, even if that includes a 4 or 5-metre-high fabrication! This studio facility allows us to undertake most tasks related to our work, and if, and when there are special requirements, in areas of expertise beyond our knowledge or capabilities, we have a range of highly respected external consultants that we collaborate with, in order to provide and fulfil any aspect of our clients’ requirements.
Where representatives are concerned, as far as I recall, we have representation in Asia, the Middle East, North and South America, as well as Russia – apologies if I have omitted anyone. These are capable individuals or partnering companies that are able to service our projects locally.
How do you select your team? I have noticed, you are currently looking for new people.
Team selection is not a science, it is more about observation and intuition. Being blessed with skills and not being able to apply them is so wasteful and can also be damaging to the team! So, we often have set trial periods, to understand how people may gel. Based upon this approach, we have assembled a sound core team with a variety of key skills and personalities that truly complement each other.
Which projects do you cherish the most? What do you consider your most striking, unusual, or memorable concept/design?
This is truly an impossible question to answer! There were so many exhibitions that had very differing personalities: some with extremely tight budgets and others that were far less constrained, and I cherish them all for their unique set of challenges and characteristics.
However, the George Ortiz Collection that was exhibited at the State Hermitage and Royal Academy in London has a special place in my heart for more reasons than we have time to discuss within the remit of this interview. The Hermitage exhibition was an extraordinary spectacular visual feast in one substantially large space (1500m2), whereas the galleries at the Royal Academy seem to have been designed in perfect proportion and just awaiting to showcase this particular collection. The chronology of epochs and object groupings seemed to simply fall into place. My sole regret is that the image records we have inadequately capture the ambiance and the intoxicating visual wealth the artworks generated.
For instance, the kudos associated with the Vatican Pavilion, as part of the millennium celebration in 2000, was incredible, as was the manner, in which the project came about, there is no science to winning projects. From a wide-reaching international competition, contenders were shortlisted to six: five German-based designers and ourselves. Given this event would be held in Hanover as part of Expo 2000, I certainly had some misgivings, being the only ‘British-based team,’ and felt our chance of success may be significantly reduced – my few words in German were not going to get us anywhere. However, for one reason or another, good fortune once again played an unfathomable role, and everything seemed to fall into place. Also instrumental, was the fact that I was most fortunate to gain the support of German Nuncio at the time, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, who was later to become Cardinal Lajolo, President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State and President of the Governorate of Vatican City State.
Whenever a significant challenge arose, providence seemed to play its part, and solutions effortlessly presented themselves – whenever I reflect on the events, I remain convinced, we were destined to undertake that project.
Interestingly, part of our brief was the requirement to attract 350,000 visitors – I had never seen that specified before. As we were also responsible for developing the curatorial themes, I knew that we required strong content to get that number through the door. So much so, that even when I somewhat boldly declined the initial offerings from the Vatican museum, the hierarchy at the Holy See unexpectedly stepped in to ensure that I eventually received exactly what was needed – the objects of distinction that portrayed the narrative. At that point, despite including minor ‘trinkets’, such as a Michelangelo’s Pietà of David, I knew our fate took a sharp turn, when his Holiness John Paul II, approved the loan of the revered Mandylion – the 6th century image on linen cloth – venerated for centuries as the true representation of Christ, which had never been seen outside the Pope's private chapel (Redemptoris Mater) at the Vatican. Even the outline of Christ’s portrayal lent itself to become the stylised emblem for the entire project. It was providence, indeed, and it eventually attracted 2,500,000 visitors – divine intervention? In my future memoires, I shall share what seemed even more incredible interventions, including an anecdote involving an airport and a full-size x-ray of the Turin Shroud, while transporting it to Cologne.
Numerous projects spring to mind when reflecting upon striking, unusual, or memorable. When you add conceptual design to that as well, the list becomes far more extensive. Sadly, with NDA’s protecting almost every project these days, we are unable to make this public, so let me focus on those that were realised. ‘Off the cuff’, I have much enjoyed three of the many exhibitions we undertook in Abu Dhabi for very different reasons: The Arts of Islam (Khalili Collection), A Story of Islamic Embroidery (Amber Foundation) and A History of the World in 100 Objects (British Museum), with its continuous sinuous walls and comparative sight lines into the future and past. More recently, we have staged exhibitions from the Al Thani Collection. These included a visually engaging presentation in The Forbidden City, Beijing, noted, if I recall correctly, as ‘the creative and graceful demonstration of the harmonisation and self-assured poise of antiquity.’ In addition, we have completed two exhibitions of a series at the State Hermitage. They are all quite different, but I feel that they all capture and demonstrate our approach and identity.
As you have mentioned of working with the George Ortiz Collection, -- and George Ortiz was hailed as the owner of the ‘finest collection of antiquities’ – tell us, how you first met him?
Having attended an opening at the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, on the outskirts of Norwich, I recall admiring a rather marvellous Francis Bacon canvas, when I was suddenly accosted by ‘Are you Colin Morris?’ at maximum decibels and velocity. Somewhat taken aback, I turned to my left and there was a rather short gentleman in an ageing Burberry raincoat with a somewhat wrinkly Sainsbury’s carrier bag. I believe that I answered somewhat nervously and pathetically with ‘yes’ in an equally stunned, yet muted tone. He continued, ‘I want to speak with you’. Oh, really, I thought. ‘Allow me to introduce myself, I am George Ortiz, and we are going to work together. Are you going back to London?’ Somewhat dismissively, I responded, ‘yes that is my plan’, and he yelled back ‘I am coming with you!’.
It is important to appreciate that this was in the 1980’s, when I was just setting out on my design career, and I had no idea who this aggressive and somewhat excessive ‘crazy person’ might have been. The story continued for the next two hours, as he followed me to the railway station by separate means, and was later to berate me for my decadence, and namely, for forcing him to buy a first-class ticket, in order that he may speak with me. ‘I did not build my collection by travelling first class,’ he concluded, to which I replied: ‘No, probably for the best, as I doubt, they would allow you in first class, if you maintained that volume’. He stopped, became silent, thought for a moment, and then smirked. With the loudest roar of laughter, he pronounced: ‘I like you.’ And then added in a more considered tone: ‘we are going to do marvellous things; you must come to Geneva.’ Of course, for my sins, I was completely judgemental and refused to believe a word. Little did I know at the time, that this would prove to be the beginning of a strong and enduring bond of friendship, that persisted over 25 years until his death in 2013. George was truly one of the most outstanding collectors of the past century and renowned for having assembled the greatest collection of antiquities in private hands. More importantly, he was also the only client that ever wished to ‘adopt’ me!
This is certainly one of the most enjoyable stories I have ever heard! What is your method for delivering your interpretations in stimulating and accessible ways? For instance, I still remember your design for the Zoroastrianism exhibition at SOAS – I was mesmerised, spellbound, especially by the space with the hymns chanted from Avesta! I did not wish to leave the exhibition – only to linger there for hours!
Thank you for your kind sentiments regarding the Zoroastrian exhibition at SOAS. It is interesting how a simple word or throw-away thought can develop into an impactful solution. We always engage with curators at great length and glean as much information as possible from their expert knowledge. We then undertake our own research and development, to interpret key facts (or beliefs) to demonstrate fundamental aspects of the content. In the case of the Zoroastrian rotunda, the curator Dr. Sarah Stewart, mentioned the importance of ‘divine light’. We took this topic and chose to recreate a room with the inference of divine light emanating from above, with the added element of the chanting of Avesta texts by monks, which were also presented in the original script on the curved vertical surfaces. It ultimately became a balanced display for the senses. I am so happy to learn that you found it mesmerising!
Where do you draw your inspiration from? What makes you thrive as an exhibition designer, a creative person?
I feel that inspiration is derived from my insatiable curiosity and interest, as well as an intrinsic enthusiasm and determination to portray every narrative, theme or element to the best of my ability, and the willingness to input the effort, in order to attain the best solution.
With each new project comes renewed freshness and vigour. I can be like a child with a new toy, throwing around ideas with my colleagues and sifting through the many thoughts of the team, most of which are then quickly discarded. We also thrive due to our clients continued appreciation and support of our in-house style, approach, and willingness to realise our designs to the highest possible quality – this is key to all our projects! I realise that this might sound like a sound bite or sales pitch, but it really is our ethos, and we follow it diligently.
How did the field of museum and exhibition design change over the last decade? Which trends in the museum design do you welcome and which ones try to avoid at all costs?
I feel that the most significant change has seen a steady increase with the incorporation of new technologies in exhibitions. Used with care and when necessary or appropriate, it can add immensely to the content, and I fully support it.
However, this is not always the case: to demonstrate that a museum or gallery is ‘current’, I have witnessed technology overused, rather than applied as a productive and enhancing tool. I have also observed reproductive images presented instead of the original objects, which I happened to know, were available and without conservation restrictions for their display. This seemed to me a wasted opportunity and quite pointless.
What would be your dream project (which institution or individual would you like to work with)?
I have been incredibly fortunate to date and have had the opportunity to work at many of the world’s most prestigious institutions. However, I continue to aspire to obtain a project, where I may apply the full depth of knowledge and experience gained over many years to one specific and major development. Where that commission might be located, is somewhat irrelevant, but I hope to collaborate with a client that is equally driven by quality, elegance and visual appeal, in order to make a fully accessible, aesthetically stunning masterpiece – I suppose, this might prove the culmination of a lifetimes pursuit to fulfil and reflect my father’s mantra.
Any words of wisdom and recommendations for young up-and-coming exhibition designers?
The secret to being a good designer is relatively simple. Play your part to benefit the team, as this approach will help you to resolve issues, as well as to grow professionally and find the best solutions.
The very best designers are not necessarily the most creative - although it helps - they are the ones, who can explore many ideas being circulated, scrutinise them all, discard and select the ‘right one’. And then ensure that they have the tools and ability to see this idea through to its realisation.
1 To any lover of contemporary art and architecture, it is a matter of great regret that this original property development project, initiated by Lord Palumbo and great modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, never came to be. Otherwise, London would have boasted a major 20th-century architectural landmark. In 2018, Lord Palumbo gifted Mies van der Rohe's Mansion House Square archive – which included the architect’s original feasibility drawings, designs, plans, bronze door handles and hinges, photomontages manually produced by Dennis Mannina and Colin Morris, and then reshot by John Donat — to the RIBA collections. The seminal gift from the property developer and architecture connoisseur also contained three large-scale models: one of the city of London; one of Mies van der Rohe's unrealized proposal for the Mansion House Square; and another of the building's underground shopping concourse (this reference is provided by the author of the article, Irene Kukota).