Creating an immersive exhibition in a heritage space

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Combining theatre design and heritage practice to create Marlowe Kit’s immersive exhibition, Kent’s Remarkable Writers: The World’s of Christopher Marlowe, Aphra Behn and Joseph Conrad

Marlowe Theatre kit immersive theatre exhibition pioneering places canterbury

In part two of this insight into Marlowe Theatre’s journey with its new heritage building venue, The Marlowe Kit, Set and Costume Designer and Marlowe Theatre Associate Designer , Rachel Smith, discusses site-specific immersive design for the exhibition.

Having agreed the signature style and overall vision for the Kent’s Remarkable Writers exhibition, the next step was to bring a designer on board to help create the immersive spaces. 

Pioneering Canterbury Producer, Cat Buffrey, felt strongly that a theatre designer would be the best way to go to achieve this and compliment the existing expertise on the project in digital content production, heritage and collections management, technical and theatre production expertise and graphic design.

Rachel Smith, (Set & Costume Designer, Marlowe Theatre Associate Designer) had worked on a previous aspect of the Pioneering Canterbury project, and is an Associate Designer at The Marlowe, so had a pre-existing knowledge of The Kit, The Marlowe and the project. 

This was useful as there was a very tight timescale to design and create the exhibition, but more importantly, Rachael has a lot of experience in designing immersive and site-specific theatre productions, she wouldn’t be phased by working in a ‘unique space’ that had its own challenges and personality to take into consideration – unlike working in a theatre space or a purpose-built exhibition space. 

Core considerations

“I wanted the exhibition to not only sit well in the context of the building but to feel like it was woven in to it, as a part of its core. The key to this is tapping into what is there already, and making careful decisions on what (and how) we reuse, and what we introduce”, says Rachel. 

“I was fortunate as the building has plenty of features and details, which could become a palette to work from.”

One example was a part of the existing collection – a large section of an Elizabethan wall painted with a mural of indigenous flowers, which was too large to move. 

“I brought in a scenic painter to carry the mural pattern onto an adjoining information board we had installed”, Rachel explains. 

“The Elizabethan wall permeated through onto the newly built wall, neatly melding the two. I took the style and pattern of the flowers and replicated them on the cushions and curtains that are used in the Great Hall, becoming the motif for the room”.

Fully sensory experience

The Marlowe immersive area is set as Christopher Marlowe’s dressing room, with a dressing-up box as the have-a-go activity. Initially the room was arranged so it could be easily viewed by visitors and made a balanced picture, but Rachel very quickly realised that it didn’t invite them in.

“The solution was to turn the whole space 90 degrees”, says Rachel. “This opened up an area in the centre, leaving an empty space, which invites visitors to enter as a space and populate it.”

An immersive environment relies on a fully sensory experience. From the start of Rachel’s involvement, she was keen to introduce ‘theatrical’ smells in each space to go with the material touch of good quality replicas in the have-a-go areas. 

Creating drama with light and sound

The treatment of sound in the space was another way of supporting the environments Rachel had created.

“I suggested a ‘noises off’ approach to the soundtrack and using directional speakers, with sounds natural to a person standing in that room at that time. For example, Marlowe’s dressing room has a soundtrack of an Elizabethan audience settling into their seats at a theatre, coming from the direction of the door to the stage”. 

Lighting also plays a huge part in creating atmosphere, while allowing you to guide the visitors and highlight important elements within the exhibition. 

It is with all these different elements working together that you can create a dramatic and immersive experience.

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