Behind The Scenes: Underworld Exhibition Design
What most excited you about designing Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties?
Trying to evoke the ambience captured in the glass-plate negatives. The design started out as a play on the interior of a police station, with the visitors moving from room to room through timber-trimmed doors as if they were the subjects of the images. The first concepts were dark with mottled finishes reflecting those in the background of the images. I was given great advice to concentrate on the people in the images, their stories and clothing instead of the locations. With a few tweaks to the materials and finishes, the design evolved to play on the feel of bars and clubs of the Roaring Twenties.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered while working on the exhibition?
Once the concept was signed off, the challenge was to deliver the desired quality of finish and materials throughout the exhibition. None of the chosen materials – semi-gloss timber, mirror black plastic and linished brass – were inexpensive. There were many discussions with the joiners to achieve the right balance of finish, materials and price.
Did you find anything surprising in working with the archive?
How easy it is to judge a person from their photo and how often my assumptions were wrong. Many of the subjects seemed to be playing a part for the camera, and were neither as tough nor as gullible as they might appear.
Other than the images themselves, where did you find inspiration for the design?
Lots of research of extant 1920s interiors and design. Sydney still has a wealth of art deco buildings, some with interiors still intact. The 1930s Hayden Orpheum cinema in Cremorne is one of my favourites, and this influenced the design of the theatre section.
Do you have a favourite image from the exhibition?
So many great images. One that stands out as requiring no explanation sits at the end of the exhibition. Printed life size is George Phillips, standing with his arms crossed looking directly at the camera, and he is obviously not happy. In the background are the blurred forms of a police officer and detective. Despite their fuzzy features, their amusement at George’s discomfort couldn’t be clearer.
What aspect of the exhibition design are you most proud of?
A happy curator. Nerida Campbell is passionate about the glass-plate negative archive and the stories they reveal. To have her approval of the design hopefully means it met her high standards. It’s also fantastic to visit the exhibition and see so many visitors spending time in the space, enjoying the images, trying on the dress-ups and attempting to write their name backwards. On my last visit I saw a visitor at the How to Write Your Name Backwards interactive doing so in Chinese.