Finalist 2021

Treasures of the Natural World

Museums Victoria Design Studio / Studio Peter King

Treasures of the Natural World is an immersive exhibition showcasing some of the rarest objects from London’s Natural History Museum.

Treasures of the Natural World is a touring exhibition from the Natural History Museum in London. On display are some of the rarest objects from their collection, the brief was to create an immersive experience taking visitors from the cathedral-like pillars of the museum to the far flung corners of the earth. Sustainability and decolonisation were central components of the brief, acknowledging the problematic past behind many of the objects while celebrating the connection to country of our local First Peoples.

Design Brief

The primary deliverable of the design brief was to present objects from the British Natural History Museum in a way that acknowledges their problematic provenance, while also highlighting and celebrating the beauty and diversity of the natural world.

It was also essential to introduce a local lens to the exhibition, celebrating the connection and relationship to Country of our local First Peoples. A secondary component of the brief was to reintroduce context to the objects after they’d been taken from their natural environment, and in doing so create an immersive world for visitors to explore.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

For Museums Victoria to inspire audiences to care for our greatest treasure, the natural world, we chose to apply the principles of a built form derived mostly from sustainable and recyclable materials.

Cardboard was chosen as the primary material of the exhibition for its sustainability and diversity. Towers of stacked boxes were designed to echo the vast collection stores of a traditional museum while CNC-cut cardboard shapes create mountains, caves and even the 19th-century office of Charles Darwin.

The entire exhibition is wrapped in a 360-degree fabric circle of illustrated trees, echoing the feeling of being in the middle of a vast forest.

Working with Studio Peter King, the design team undertook extensive prototyping including building a full 2-D and 3-D virtual reality model of the space. This ensured that the design could be shared with local and international stakeholders throughout the concept phase.

Local set designers Synthesis and ShowWorks were chosen to fabricate the exhibition, along with Design to Print and AFI branding - all Victorian based companies.

Design Excellence

Many museums face the challenge of displaying objects outside of their original context. By choosing a highly flexible material like cardboard, we were able to create diverse immersive spaces that emulate aspects of the natural world, in which to showcase these extraordinary objects.

Presenting rare minerals in a cave of carved out of cardboard boxes, evokes a feeling of compression and intimacy, while displaying Charles Darwin’s collected objects in his 19th-century study asks visitor to consider the ‘gentleman collector’ practices of the time.

Creating entirely immersive spaces also allows visitors to embark on their own adventure of discovery through the exhibition. Audiences can formulate their own narrative between objects and link this abstract natural world to the one they know so well.

Treasures of the Natural world is an exhibition unlike anything held locally or globally before. It blurs the lines between a traditional museum experience and theatre, and allows visitors rethink the treasure that’s around them.

Design Innovation

As the first touring exhibition of this size made out of cardboard, many design innovations were required to ensure the project was able to be delivered.

The material itself was treated in new and unexpected ways in order to achieve the required aesthetic for the diverse range of worlds represented within the exhibition. For example, multiple long cardboard tubes were sliced vertically to create a dramatic and unique projection surface at the entrance. Strength and safety were paramount, so a custom structure was build to house the boxes in a way that they could easily be swapped out if damaged.

Several innovations were made to meet the display requirements for the objects. Many of these objects needed to be lit in low-lux levels, in which traditionally printed text labels would not have been legible. Instead, the design solution was to create cardboard tube plinths, echoing the cardboard aesthetic, which could be back-lit from the inside. These glowing beacons were able to be produced at a perfect reading height without the need for walls, and are able to be recycled after the exhibition.

Design Impact

Treasures of the Natural World opened in June 2021, as Melbourne was exiting a long period of lockdown. The exhibition gave visitors an opportunity to travel to remote parts of the natural world without having to leave the state, as well as giving them a new perspective of their own backyard.

With support and collaboration from NHM, Museums Victoria worked with the Yulendj advisory group of First Nations Elders from south-eastern Australia, to overlay the existing exhibition interpretation and content with local voices and stories. Language names for animals from global First Peoples communities were introduced into the interpretive labels.

The legacy of this exhibition isn’t just limited to Melbourne. The success of the exhibition has inspired the Natural History Museum in London to rethink how their objects are presented, with a particular emphasis on decolonisation and First Peoples consultation. They have also expressed an interest in learning more about the processes we have developed around the innovative use of cardboard to create the exhibition experience.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

Touring exhibitions are traditionally resource heavy, often requiring temporary structures to be built to the same specifications as permanent ones.

For Treasures of the Natural World, we sought to ensure that as many components of the exhibition were able to be recycled as possible. All of the cardboard boxes will be disassembled and either reused or recycled, and the scrim is sourced from a supplier with a fabric takeback scheme.

Further to this, the modular box design was able fit around existing showcases, meaning that no new object display cases were required.

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