Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
In 2015, we won a pitch from London’s Kew Gardens to develop three physical data visualizations for their summer ‘Full of Spice’ festival.
For these pieces, we focused on celebrating the ‘star spices’ that we all use everyday, like ginger or chilli. With these at the heart of our concepts, we got stuck into the data research for the three different editorial angles, while considering the final forms – which were monoliths, vinyl stickers (decals) and large scale board-mounted posters.
While other projects might need wireframes to understand user experience, in this instance, we knew it would pay off to spend time recceing Kew itself. We wanted to understand the placement and architecture of the buildings, paths and desire lines… how visitors might move around and interact with the installations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the biggest challenges was the materials for the pieces. It was crucial to ensure our installations were weatherproof, made from ecologically sound materials and that they’d be durable for a full summer season. And in fact, beyond, as the pieces proved so popular we were asked to extend them by an extra three months to November 2015.
To help make sure there were no hitches, we created prototypes. We wanted to see how illustrations would print on our chosen wood and even which eyelets were optimal for threading parachute cord. We made sample decals to check their ‘stick’, as well as the legibility of text on their smooth surfaces. And which boards could be printed on sufficiently crisply while resisting the fading and weathering brought by an unpredictable British summer?
We worked with Kew’s super-helpful team on the health and safety aspect too, making sure our 2m tall monoliths were safe and secure.
Our first piece, ‘Origin of Spices’, was placed near the main entrance of Kew, making it one of the first things visitors saw on coming through the gates. We created five monoliths, each around 2m tall. These took visitors on a history of the spices, such as, where did they originate? When and how did they first arrive in the UK? Eve Lloyd Knight’s distinctive illustration style brought these individual spices to life.
As well as being used in cooking, spices can play an important role in keeping us healthy. And this ‘Spice of Life’ piece had more of a myth-busting concept. We plotted each spice’s health benefits against evidence-based data – no small feat in terms of research. Then, visitors could quickly gauge which spices really DO have health benefits. (For example, allspice has a reputation for being ‘anti-cancer’, yet the scientific evidence for this is weak.)
Spice of Life was exhibited on glass on the outside of the imposing Princess of Wales Conservatory. We chose colourful, perfectly scaled decals to represent each of over 40 spices.
It was great to work with Kew’s curators and scientists, who were all very generous in answering our questions, sharing interesting sources and sense-checking our ideas along the way.
Our final piece, ‘Spice Invaders’, consisted of two large panels housed in the Spice Exchange (a performance space). These timelines showed how spices changed the world, say, in culinary or cultural ways. The changing price of spice was also shown. Children were encouraged to get involved too, by posing questions like ‘What spice made Cleopatra more beautiful?’.
(It was saffron. It was added to her baths for fragrance and colour. An expensive soak…)