Reflecting back to our first museum job
Director, Will Jackson talks about how Factory Settings moved from working in theatre to the world of museums and exhibitions.
One of the more positive effects of the pandemic, that we can all benefit from, is the need to look again at our capabilities. To reassess what we've achieved in the past, and think how we might apply long held skills and knowledge to a new world.
So much of what we do, how we work, who we are, changes incrementally and imperceptibly over a period of time. The evolution of a life, a career, an organisation, is a story that too often passes without acknowledgement. The result is that we end up somewhere we never expected to be. Never planned to be.
And there are always certain junctions which define the story. Forks in the road that we can only see when we look back. To spot them and take the right direction for us, or for our organisation, is the trick.
Factory Settings has changed and adapted consistently over the years; we've had to. In the early days, Lu and I probably weren't aware this was even happening. New projects came along and, being us, we were always up for a new challenge. We'd get a call about a TV set, a fashion show, do a bit of domestic work, or build some giant clockwork Chocolate Orange machines. We were happy to have a go. It was fun (and always hard work). But once in a while a project came along that did more to define our direction than most, and we would stop to question if this might be something we should be doing more of. One such project was Telling Tales at the V&A.
Between 2005 and 2009 we mostly built theatre sets, along with a few more random projects. Scenery was our bread and butter. Growing from an opportunity at the Pleasance Theatre, when a young visionary named Christopher Richardson gave me the keys to their workshop around about the millennium, by 2009 we had worked on pretty much every stage in London, including the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre and the West End.
Then Pippa Nissen rang us about a show she was designing in the V&A’s Porter Gallery. For us this was a big deal. I remember Lu and I in the interview with the 'big-wigs' at the museum, trying our best to give a good impression. We knew we could do it, and Pippa had great faith in us, but how to convince the panel to let us into their museum with tools!?
Telling Tales, curated by Gareth Williams, was a journey through contemporary furniture design as influenced by myth, fable, fantasy and storytelling. It was exactly the sort of show I would have been inspired by as a wide-eyed sculpture student, recently moved to London from the countryside. And here we were, me and my mate, actually in the room building it. Getting to see the objects coming in. Working with the curators, technicians, lighting designers (ZNA), and object handlers to realise the finished show.
The process was not without its challenges. I remember building some of the most over designed walls yet, to span the space. I don't know what we were expecting - an earthquake perhaps - judging by the pictures. (We were clearly employing a very enthusiastic structural engineer back then.) After much toil, late nights and weekends, the show opened. We enjoyed the first of many V&A foyer opening nights. We'd set off in a new direction.
Before long we were in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial War Museum. Temporary exhibitions became our bread and butter, as we moved away from theatre. Although we still keep our hand in: just the choice projects now.
We're very lucky to continue our great relationship with Pippa, and Jim, at Nissen Richards Studio. We're ever grateful for that chance to move into a new environment. Yes, you need the chance, but it's the hard work and commitment that counts when you have identified an unexpected opportunity.
In a strange way the pandemic has given us another opportunity. For obvious reasons the temporary exhibitions are less frequent, so we've re-examined what we have, the skills, the knowhow, the people, to identify new directions we can go in. All of them exciting, and reinvigorating. The difference is that now we are actively making decisions about the way they take us.