3D Designer at the British Museum, 1975 to 2013
Our colleague Geoff Pickup, who died aged 71, was the designer of many popular exhibitions and important permanent galleries during his 38-year career at the British Museum.
Born in Wembley in 1951, he attended Cheshunt Grammar School in Hertfordshire before training as an architect at University College London Bartlett School of Architecture. He then worked as an assistant in several well-known architectural offices before coming to the museum in 1975.
As a 3D designer assistant in the museum’s expanding design office, he first worked on part of the 1976 exhibition Nomad and City, the first immersive exhibition – which mimicked the atmosphere of place – at the Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens, home of the ethnography department of 1971 to 1997.
As a 3D designer, he worked with curators, graphic designers, editors, technicians and contractors to design a further six exhibitions there, including another immersive exhibition for the 1982 Festival of India, Vasna: Inside an Indian Village, for which he traveled to India traveled doing background research and collecting props; and the 1990 exhibition, Images of Africa: Emil Torday and the Art of the Congo 1900-1909.
At Bloomsbury, the most memorable of the 12 exhibitions he designed were: The Golden Age of Venetian Glass, 1979, Süleyman the Magnificent, 1988, and The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, 1991.
Under the leadership of David Wilson, who was director of the British Museum from 1977 to 1992, the Design Office’s remit expanded in the mid-1980s to include responsibility for the public face of the museum: public relations, public spaces and galleries, and furnishing a house style. Geoff’s design skills and knowledge of enclosure construction were geared toward creating permanent galleries.
First he designed part of the suite of Greek and Roman galleries on the upper floor, followed by two galleries for what was then the Oriental Department: The John Addis Islamic Gallery in 1991 (now closed) and The Korea Foundation Gallery, 2000.
With the Department of Ethnography’s collections returning to Bloomsbury, Geoff designed the JP Morgan Gallery North America, the Sainsbury’s Africa Galleries on the basement level, and the Wellcome Trust Gallery: Living and Dying. These galleries remain and are his monument.
Geoff was known for his enthusiasm, endless patience and attention to detail. One of his academic colleagues said of him that he taught her what it means to be a curator presenting the collections, as he studied the context of each exhibition and knew how to relate objects to others, always following the embassy asked visitors conveyed.
He spent hours of his own time adjusting the lighting on objects to get the best results. These skills inspired many younger designers. There has also been his lectures for museum studies courses at various institutions both in the UK, including the Museums Association, and abroad. In the early 2000s, the museum’s policy changed from supporting an in-house design facility to outsourcing the design of most of the temporary exhibitions, galleries, and public spaces.
As lead designer, Geoff spent the remaining years in the museum’s capital and estate department, which was involved in the management of projects. But when he retired in 2013, he founded a small consultancy with two former colleagues and, back in design, was the lead designer for a new gallery of pre-Columbian art in Santiago, Chile, which opened in 2014.
Although more of a private person, Geoff had many friends and contacts. He spent a large part of his free time intensively visiting museums and exhibitions. He had wide ranging interests including architecture, chamber music, opera, collecting prints and contemporary ceramics. As the quintessential museum designer, his talents, knowledge and expertise will be greatly missed.
Margaret Hall was Head of Design at the British Museum from 1964 to 2001 and Geoffrey House was Head of Public Services at the institution from 1987 to 2003