MET Studio has designed a challenging, graphics-led exhibition called Conflicts of Interest for Britain’s National Army Museum on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea. The brief for the project was to examine the last 40 years of major conflicts involving the British Army across the globe and the impact of those conflicts on forces personnel, both within and beyond the confines of military life. The approach was to use multiple, first-hand perspectives from all levels of the British Army, in order to give voice to both the positive and more negative aspects of soldiers’ lives.
‘The idea behind ‘Conflicts of Interest’’, explained MET Studio’s Design Director Lloyd Hicks, ‘was to examine the differing aspects of conflict and pressure in army life, from enemy action to the stresses and pressures of army life on the home life of a modern-day soldier. This examination was expressed through the real, first-person voices of soldiers who have served and lived through each conflict. These are not the voices of the British Government, or of the Museum, or indeed of senior British Army spokespeople – but of the front-line troops, who have lived and fought in the featured conflict zones.’
The conflicts considered in this way include: Northern Ireland; Sierra Leone; the Gulf War; the Iraq Conflict; Afghanistan; the Falklands and the Balkan states of Bosnia, Herzogovina and Kosovo. As well as the conflict zones, the exhibition also includes a high-impact introductory corridor area, an ‘At Home’ area (which examines changing attitudes towards gender, ethnicity and sexuality in the British Army) and a final concluding area that asks visitors about the conflicts the British Army was less or not involved in, from Sarajevo to Rwanda.
Visitors to the exhibition enter via a high-impact, shiny-floored black entrance corridor, which kicks off the exhibition by exploring recruitment techniques employed by the British Army through a series of historic recruitment posters set in gilt frames (both referencing the museum’s adjacent art displays and showing how history can add a precious air to graphic designs from past eras).
The entrance area’s real work of art, however, faces the visitor at the far wall of the corridor: a huge-scale image of a modern female British soldier, made up of hundreds of tiny images, each one a real image from the life of a contemporary soldier. The right-hand wall of the corridor alludes to the military/real-life overlap of soldiers’ lives in the form of a series of domestic-scale framed images of soldiers at home, getting married and so on, whilst a soundscape introduces the important role of sound in the exhibition, with a stream of words from politicians, wives and children mixed in with the sound of marching boots on the parade ground.
The 450 sq m space that houses the main body of the exhibition creates an initially dramatic, stark and highly graphic impression thanks to the overall blacked-out floors, ceiling and walls and through the geometric arrangement of ceiling-hung panels, with the content of the exhibition only truly revealed as the visitor moves around the space and into each individual area, dedicated to one of the major conflicts examined. The ceiling-hung panels, which form external ‘envelopes’ to the zones, depict media portrayals of the conflict on the outside, representing our ‘received wisdom’ window on what happened within each conflict (including, for example, The Sun newspaper’s infamous ‘Gotcha’ headline from the Falklands War).
Once within each zone, that media portrayal is juxtaposed with other materials, from photography and work by war artists to soldiers’ – and civilian – testimonial, expressed both graphically and via dedicated soundbites taken from interviews and played on loops into each area. The hanging ‘envelope’ surrounds also serve therefore to keep the sound pertaining to each zone neatly demarcated. A ‘facts panel’ relays the skeleton history of each conflict – dates, times, operation name and what took place. Each of the conflict zones also houses a film projection that aims to give the visitor a sense of place and orientation, as well as stories direct from the soldiers on the ground. Carefully-chosen objects from the Museum’s own collection complete the multi-faceted treatment of each individually-designed area.
‘We reconditioned existing showcases to keep the clients costs down on this project’, added Lloyd Hicks, ‘but the result is nonetheless extremely sleek and visually arresting, from the propaganda posters making up the floor of the Northern Ireland area to the scud missiles and chemical war suit in the Gulf War area.’
The home area features an artistic interpretation of a living room, with a rug, sofa and bookshelves. On closer inspection, however, the wallpaper and rug design feature the emblems of war, from tanks to guns, showing how the impact and pressures of army life enter the home one way or another. A telephone can be picked up to listen in to specially-recorded oral histories. A two-sided dresser is used to display items from a soldier’s life, including family pictures and trinkets, as well as a selection of uniforms used by the force. A sofa is the place to sit to find out about the history of equality in the British Army and its record on women’s and gay rights. A medical area is represented by a hospital bed, projected film and Get Well Soon cards. The area is completed by a full-height photo of a homeless ex-serviceman, showing the real problems often faced by ex-servicemen and women unable to fit back or be accepted into civilian life – including homelessness, violence, alcohol and substance abuse.
The final areas of the exhibition consider the conflicting factors which impact on the decision to take military action. Conflicts including South Ossetia and Rwanda are highlighted here, with the focus turned back onto the visitor – what would YOU have done? The exhibition ends with a comment area, where visitors leave reactions to what they have seen. An early response by an ex-serviceman was typical: ‘It seemed a lot of my professional life was opening up in front of me – wonderful!’
MET Studio was originally set up in 1982 by its Chairman and founder Alex McCuaig, taking its name from the Metropolitan Wharf in London where the company’s first design studio was sited. Twenty-seven years later, the company enjoys a global reputation, with a lengthy list of highly-acclaimed masterplanning, museum, exhibition, visitor centre, zoo, special event, retail, AV and branding projects, created for corporate clients such as Cunard, De Beer, Virgin, Lucent, Swire, Hongkong Telecom, Portugal Telecom and The Wellcome Trust, as well as non-corporate clients including The Dutch, Irish and Macau Governments, the local councils of Hull and Birmingham and the London Borough of Southwark, as well many national museums around the world. MET Studio has won some of the world’s most prestigious business and design awards, including The Queen’s Award for Enterprise and the Business Link Exporter of the Year Award, as well as being a winner at The Museum of the Year Awards, The DBA Design Effectiveness Awards (which measure the tangible results of design) and taking Design Week’s top plaudit – the Best of Show Award – for the best design of any kind in a 12-month period.
The company has offices in London and Hong Kong.