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Interior Architect alumna Heather Dowling: “Ultimately museum design is about visitor immersion and experience.”

Heather Dowling, a Griffith College Interior Architect alumna, helps museums interact with visitors.
5 min

Heather Dowling, a Griffith College Interior Architect alumna, creates memories through immersive and multi-sensory design. Last year she co-founded DMW Creative, a Dublin-based business specialising in experience design for museums, heritage sites and visitor attractions.

The World’s First Climate Change Visitor Centre

Heather and her two business partners have spearheaded the design of the Cool Planet Experience, a new visitor centre at Powerscourt Estate, Co. Wicklow. Launched by Richard Branson in January 2018, it is the world’s first tourist site dedicated to climate change. Heather explains:

“The aim of the six exhibition spaces we have designed is to educate and inspire visitors about climate change, and provide visitors with an interactive and multi-sensory experience of what the world might look like in 50 years’ time if we don’t take action to lead more sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyles.“

Opening March 2018, the centre’s design has already received Best Technology Innovation Award at the Digital Media Awards 2018 for the exhibit ‘Race to 2050’, an interactive 3D model of a city that visitors need to save from disaster. Engaging people in an interactive and fun way was key to the success of the project:

“Race 2050 was initially designed for school groups but as with many things we’ve designed for children, we find they’re also suitable for adults too as we’re all kids at heart! Along with our project partner, Thought Different, we were delighted to receive this award.”

Fusing A Passion For Design, History and Heritage Conservation

Heather’s passion for history sparked an interest in the stories attached to old buildings: “It isn’t just the built fabric itself, but the heritage, authenticity and the people associated with the building during its lifetime that fascinates me.”

After working in an architect’s practice, Heather decided to pursue her interests in history and design. She received an MA in Conservation Studies from the University of York. Uncertain how to combine interior architecture and conservation in her career, Heather was unaware of the existence of the niche sector she now works in. However, her LinkedIn profile caught the eye of PLB, a UK-based interpretive exhibition design agency who offered her a job:

“I gained invaluable practical experience in the UK as they are at the forefront of heritage conservation, preservation and interpretation. Working on Heritage Lottery Funded projects meant I had to become proficient in providing value for money, justifying the budget expenditure, whilst simultaneously providing high quality content, interpretation and innovative design.”

Notable projects during Heather’s time as Interpretive Designer at PLB include the Charles Dickens Museum, Tower Bridge and Bowes Railway Gateshead.

Returning To Ireland

On her return to Ireland, Heather joined Martello Media, where she worked on projects such as the Irish Whiskey Museum, Thomas Hardy’s Birthplace in Dorset, UK, the GPO – Witness 1916 and The Siege Museum in Londonderry. Heather has also worked closely with St. Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, and St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, helping them balance the needs of religious worship and heritage tourism.

A highlight was developing an immersive visitor experience at Richmond Barracks to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising: “It wasn’t designed as a commercial tourist attraction but more so a place where the local community and past residents could come together to commemorate and share memories.”

Crafting Immersive Experiences

Central to Heather’s design process is: “Ensuring access for all in terms of learning and engagement, and of course the fun factor is crucial too.”

Identifying audiences, key messages and stories enable Heather to develop stimulating exhibition spaces that fully immerse the visitor in a multi-sensory experience:

“We don’t use technology for technology’s sake. There was a trend a couple of years ago where using audiovisual or digital technology was seen as a unique selling point, but that’s no longer the case. How the digital media palate is used, how it makes the visitor feel, and how it immerses the visitor IS today’s USP.”

Challenges Of The Job

A key challenge for Heather is to produce innovative ideas: “The Cool Planet Experience is a really good example of our innovation because we tested some new designs, prototypes and technologies that you won’t see elsewhere. We’re very aware that as designers we need to keep learning and growing all the time to keep our designs unique.”

A further challenge is managing client expectations in a competitive market.

A Project’s Timeline

Initially Heather is desk-based formulating an interpretive project plan. She researches subject specifics, visits similar attractions, and produces a design and content framework. Experts are consulted to confirm the integrity and accuracy of the content, and audience consultations ensure it is relevant and appealing. Heather is responsible for planning visitor flow and their movement through space and narrative, likening it to the pre-determined path taken in a supermarket:

“Certain products have been placed in your way because of customer psychology and visitor behavior, and it's the exact same in museums. In the journeys I design the vistas visitors will see are carefully thought out.”

Then she makes a detailed design, spending time on site measuring dimensions, considering materials, samples and lighting. Then, prototypes are built for the testing stage. Finally, during installation Heather spends the majority of time on site:

“It varies from being sat at a computer for 8 hours a day to then being on the go – perhaps being in workshops or on site - which is great! There’s a cycle I’m in with every project and if I’ve got two or three projects on the go, and they’re all at different stages, it means my week is full of variety.”

During the first three months of opening she listens to visitor feedback, monitors engagement and tweaks the experience accordingly.

An Exciting Project In The Pipeline

Heather is currently working on MUŻA, Malta’s new museum of art and flagship project for Valletta’s European Capital City of Culture 2018. A joint venture with a firm of Maltese architects, Heather has been working closely with the curator of the project to create an accessible and immersive fine art experience. Due to open in June 2018, the museum has been shortlisted as one of the top fifteen noteworthy museums opening this year by Architecture Digest.

Future Plans

Heather describes DMW Creative as “visitor advocates who are always on the look out for interesting projects.” They aspire to work on projects that have been as fun as the Cool Planet Experience, as intellectually challenging as MUŻA, and as rewarding as Richmond Barracks.

If you need help with clarifying your project’s vision, or want to refresh an existing exhibition, Heather urges you to get in contact.  For those who are studying Interior Architecture or considering it, and have a strong interest in this fascinating specialism, Heather says:

 “Engage in dialogue with us, as a career in Interior Architecture is very exciting!”

Connect with Heather on LinkedIn or the Griffith Alumni Network.

We've got graduates like Heather who are high achievers in their fields. That's why we created the Griffith Alumni Network. It allows us to connect those high-fliers with valuable experiences with Griffith College students and graduates. Whether it's career advice or a mentor - we've got you covered