Ruth McKew, Consultancy Director of Headland Design talks about the experiences and challenges of their most recent project in Malawi

Headland has been providing heritage design and consultancy services for more than 20 years. We particularly enjoy our projects in the north-west, often in museums that we visit with our families or where we already know the staff and volunteers. I was Museum Officer at the Cheshire Military Museum in Chester, when I first met the Headland team, who were the exhibition designers. I now find myself on the other side of the table as part of the consultancy team.

We recently completed a rather unusual project in Malawi. In this resource poor country museums are not well funded and most of the exhibitions are based on the post-colonial displays put together by the British, with little interaction and dusty looking exhibits.

I spent three years living in Malawi with my family, where I was invited to assist with a grant application to Wellcome Trust for an exhibition about medical research. Once funding was secured I worked with the team at Malawi Liverpool Wellcome Trust (MLW) to undertake research and write an Audience Development Plan. The project was in two parts, an exhibition within the medical research building and outreach materials for use in the community. The exhibition had to appeal to medical researchers and practitioners as well as patients and clinical trial participants. Text was to be in both English and Chichewa and where possible we were keen to have exhibits that did not rely on reading. We worked with the designers at Headland to create outreach exhibits that could be tested in the community and properly evaluated. I moved back to the UK and a job at Headland and after securing funding, MLW asked us to design, create and install the exhibition. Two of us travelled to Malawi and worked with the researchers and the communication team based in Blantyre to develop the concept and content. It was an exciting trip and included changing a wheel on the side of the road while we were on our way to catch the flight home!

We returned in December last year to install the exhibition. The giant mosquito is a source of much discussion, the touchscreens are really popular and the full size skeleton and Perspex man already have nicknames! The exhibition is based inside a medical research facility and will be visited by school pupils, patients and researchers. The outreach materials include games about malaria and diabetes and will be used to enable discussion and debate about the role of scientific medicine in everyday life.

Installing the exhibition was a challenge. In Malawi everything can take a lot longer than expected and materials can be hard to find. The idea of interactivity in exhibitions is a new phenomenon and we had to encourage people to have a go and include ‘lift the flap’ in the instructions. The audience research was used in an academic paper and is now published in a new Routledge book ‘Museums, Heritage and International Development”.

 

 

 

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