High Mind

From madness and chaos, to visionaries and therapy, Bedlam:The Asylum And Beyond at the Wellcome Collection explores the history of how society has treated and been influenced by mental illness. Martin McGrath talks us through his design for this fascinating show... 

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We caught Martin McGrath just as he was putting the finishing touches to his work for The Wellcome Collection's new exhibition exploring the history of mental illness and asylums, starting with that infamous institution Bethlem, which gave us the word 'Bedlam'. McGrath is known not only for his exhibition design work for institutions including the National Gallery and The British Council, but other exciting cultural clients like Derek Jarman and Little Joe Magazine.

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Exhibition signage, Bedlam:The Asylum And Beyond, Wellcome Collection, designed by Martin McGrath

How did your relationship with the Wellcome Collection come about?
I first worked with the Wellcome Collection in 2013 on an exhibition about outsider art from Japan. It was a very collaborative experience developing the interpretation system and displays, they really value design and the designers role in exhibition making, there was a trust there from the beginning. So I was really excited when the opportunity to pitch on the design for Bedlam came up in partnership with muf Architects. muf have a really interesting take on not only how spaces are designed but lived. I knew they would have an interesting way of approaching such a large and potentially problematic narrative.

What was the brief for the exhibition design?
The brief for Bedlam posed a few unique challenges, first and foremost was the complexity of the subject matters and images, along with the diversity of the works: from 16th Century case books to new work from contemporary artists. So one of the key problems to solve was how to find a voice to carry such a story. Another key aspect of the brief, and something that is very important to my practice, was to design an exhibition that was truly inclusive and accessible. We took a lot of time at the start of the project really connecting with the content. We also all undertook mental health training which really helped us connect deeper with the content and better understand the needs of our visitors.

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Exhibition view, Bedlam:The Asylum And Beyond, Wellcome Collection, designed by Martin McGrath

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Exhibition view, Bedlam:The Asylum And Beyond, Wellcome Collection, designed by Martin McGrath

How did you tackle the theme and weave that into the visual elements?
In terms of the graphic system we knew we needed something flexible and accessible that could hold the breadth of the subject and remain sensitive to the many voices and personal stories. In order to do this we developed an interpretation system that had three different forms, one for each of the main exhibition sections; ‘Introduction', 'Scenes of Bedlam', and 'Beyond the Asylum’. Each section uses a different typeface; Neue Haas Unica provided us with the objective curatorial voice for the introduction, we used Caslon for the main historical section, and PX Grotesk for the final section – Beyond the Asylum. We hope these decisions help to locate each section and illustrate it’s context in the wider story. The design for the exhibition title went through many iterations and forms, but we always new we wanted something sculptural and three dimensional. Something that echoes one of the reoccurring themes throughout — the idea of freedom versus restraint — but without being too explicit.

Are there any special techniques, materials or processes involved in the project?
As well as the mental health training, we visited Bethlem Gallery and Bethlem Museum of the Mind and spent a day talking to the team there and sounding out some of our initial ideas. Their experience of working with this type of material and how to be sensitive to the artists and visitors was invaluable. It felt like the design process was very open and something the whole project team could contribute to, what would traditionally be a presentation became more like a workshop and discussion.

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Exhibition captions, Bedlam:The Asylum And Beyond, Wellcome Collection, designed by Martin McGrath

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Gallery Guide,Bedlam:The Asylum And Beyond, Wellcome Collection, designed by Martin McGrath

You work a lot in the cultural sector and especially in exhibition design - what excites you about that field and what special opportunities does if give you as a graphic designer?
Working at lot with museums and galleries on exhibition projects is completely fascinating. Although the design process is similar, each exhibition brings a new topic, artist or history into the studio. We’re always learning.

Bedlam:The Asylum And Beyond is open at the Wellcome Collection until 15 January 2017.

Martin McGrath's next project is design for Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery, opening 12th October.

Find out more about McGrath's design practice here.