Behind the scenes with Royal Pavilion and Museums’ designer Alex Hawkey

RP&M Designer Alex Hawkey paints a stuffed seabird Tucked away in the Old Courtroom buildings, opposite the Dome, a certain type of alchemy is taking place.  A little bit of science, some technology, a large dash of creativity and some judicious editing results in some of the most exciting work taking place at the Royal Pavilion and Museums.

Designer of the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Alex Hawkey is responsible for creating the exhibitions rooms which constantly change in the museums. It’s a job he’s been doing for many years now in a place he has loved since childhood.

“My father, Gerry used to be the carpenter here,” says Alex, 43. “He used to bring me to the museum to work with him as his assistant while I was still at school and I loved being here. We’d come to his workshop and he’d let me help him and have a go on his lathe. I always loved making things, so I really liked it. I once made a handle for a tool there and everytime I visited, he’d made an excuse to use the tool, though I’m sure it was probably useless.

“It was a real treat to come to the museum for me. He’d make me a cup of tea and we’d have some cake and it would feel really exciting.”

RP&M Designer Alex Hawkey in his workshop with museum exhibitsAlex went to college to study theatre design and worked for some years in London for large theatres such as the Royal Opera House. But when he heard about the role of designer at RP&M he jumped at the chance. He’s worked here 17 years now.

“It’s a job which is getting better and better,” he admits. “I like it even more as I’ve got a great boss who has really encouraged me to learn more and more.”

Alex’s job involves a huge variety of skills. He works with the museum staff as they plan their shows for the future. The curators will research and find the exhibits to go on show. They will then work with Alex to decide the lay-out of the show and how the items will be displayed, the colours and the styling of each show as well as how to make the show as accessible as possible.

He plans the show on a 3D computer programme before deciding what cabinets or mounts will work best for each item.

Shelf in workshop of designer Alex Hawkey“We try to re-use what we have or I will design a new piece if necessary. I will also work out where to place the exhibits so that people move around the space in the way we want them to navigate the room. We’ll highlight certain pieces and by placing objects in a certain way, you can guide people around the story. Sometimes I just watch visitors to a show to see how they move around and look at the objects.

“Research has shown there is a limited time in which to engage a visitor’s attention and so carefully plan to attract them with interesting items throughout a show.”

Exhibits from Booth Museum in Alex Hawkey's workshop“I don’t see myself as a storyteller,” he says. “More of an editor. I’m helping a story to be told by making it as easy as we can to show what we’re trying to say.

“The teams will come to me with their thoughts on how they want to tell the story of the objects and documents they have for display. I try to help them but it can sometimes mean highlighting one object or losing another.”

His skills also include understanding the science of the old items to ensure they will not give off gases which react with other objects within the cabinet and to having some understanding of security issues when working with such priceless objects.

A potter around Alex’s workshops reveals that he is not just thinking about wall mounts and lighting. The rooms are an eclectic mix of old exhibits, computer technology and artists materials.

As well as designing the exhibitions, he conserves and repairs many of the exhibits around the five museum sites. On the day I visited, he was busy repairing a stuffed sea bird with a damaged wing and had recently repaired some exquisite sea-horses, both for the Booth Museum.

Alex Hawkey workshop  At the moment, Alex is working on the big WW1 exhibition which opens this summer and promises to be fascinating.

Even so, Alex admits he’s rarely off–duty. “I like to visit museums at the weekends,” he admits. “I usually visit a different show about twice a week. It’s great to see how other museums design their shows and I’m always learning more and more. I love the Natural History museum, for instance, as their text can be really funny. That’s what visiting a museum should be about. They can be fun, they should be about giving pleasure.”

Caroline Sutton, Blogger in Residence



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