Entering the World of Wedgwood through Interactive Displays
By Cara Caputo, Class of 2021
Marketed as a “unique, interactive visitor experience celebrating the very best of British craftsmanship,” the World of Wedgwood in Stoke-on-Trent focuses on the life and career of Josiah Wedgwood, one of the most influential potters in the 18th century. While my expectations before visiting the World of Wedgwood consisted of viewing beautiful examples of jasperware (a dry-bodied stoneware often colored blue or green) and personal objects from Wedgwood’s life, I was struck by the extent to which this institution provides the unique and interactive experience promised on their website, thereby ensuring that visitors—regardless of their age or interest in pottery—leave the institution with a memorable museum experience.
The display and interpretation of material objects can be just as significant as the materiality of the object itself. Each object holds several threads that can weave a multitude of stories depending on which way those threads are twisted and intertwined. The responsibility to decide which narratives to forefront and present to visitors lies with curators and exhibition designers. During our visit, Senior Curator Gaye Blake-Roberts discussed the decisions made by her staff, including highlighting the role of Wedgwood’s business partner, Thomas Bentley, and the importance of the factory’s location in Stoke-on-Trent. Most importantly, the staff carefully considered how to present this information in creative formats to increase visitor participation.
My journey through the World of Wedgwood galleries provided an opportunity to engage with various types of museum displays and interactive components. The interactive components scattered around the exhibit increase the amount of key “takeaway” or “stand-out” moments visitors may have within the space that they’ll remember after their visit, including a book full of reproductions of Wedgwood’s patents that provides a tactile experience when you flip through the rough, textured pages.
One specific element in the exhibition struck me as a particularly successful way to encourage visitor engagement: a display that focuses on the experimental trials of various glazes and enamels Wedgwood conducted as he searched for novel, attractive forms of pottery. As you approach several wooden drawers, the labels on each identify various ceramic types, including pearlware, black basalt, and jasper.
After choosing which type to further explore, you are invited to pull open the drawer to reveal numerous trials, each identified by a unique number. While peering through the layer of glass protecting the objects, visitors may notice that the trials are all displayed within their original drawers, which have their own unique numbering system. The act of pulling open these drawers to examine the trials presumably mimics the actions of Wedgwood himself as he repeatedly pulled open these original drawers to meticulously compare the results of each of his experiments until he created the perfect “recipe” that met his standards, ultimately inviting visitors not only into Josiah Wedgwood’s world but also his experimental process.
My personal experience with this aspect of the exhibition was immensely enhanced during our session in the Wedgwood Museum’s archives. Several intriguing objects were pulled for us to examine and I happened to sit in front of Wedgwood’s “Experiment Book” in which he recorded the “recipe” for each and every experimental trial as well as his reaction to the result. This notation system is fascinating as Wedgwood notes the most minute changes to each ceramic, recording that Trial 441 was “like the preceding, but blistered” while Trial 442 was “spongy and a bad color.” Flipping through the pages of this book and searching for the written formulas that corresponded to the numbered trials I saw in the galleries presented such a clear picture of the scientific process in which Wedgwood was absorbed and the innovative strides he was making in ceramic design and manufacture.
While we may have been used to seeing large numbers of impressively-crafted and beautifully-decorated ceramics within Winterthur’s collections, our journey to the Potteries Region allowed us to witness the beginning stages of these wares’ life-cycles. The interactive displays at the World of Wedgwood, including the drawers full of Wedgwood’s trials, also work to provide visitors with enhanced knowledge and appreciation for ceramic production by allowing visitors to examine and judge the trials just as Wedgwood would have as they exited the kiln. The tactile experiences incorporated into this gallery provide an enhanced visitor experience, allowing visitors to draw new connections from these objects and encouraging them to further place themselves within the world of Wedgwood and his creations.