When legendary French avant-garde filmmaker Jean Luc-Godard was asked the deceptively simple question, “What is photography?” he answered with a stark, but profound statement: “Photography is truth.” Ask what a museum is, and many people will describe it as a building – usually old and grand – that’s packed with artefacts. But, I like the Godard approach: A museum is not a building, it’s what’s inside that counts. That all sounds pretty philosophical, and it is, but it’s also an approach that characterises an important piece of work our agency undertook recently in Dubai. We created a pop-up museum – a temporary structure – to exhibit a never-before-seen collection of photography from the private archives of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum as well as a diverse range of 20th-century masterworks and 21st-century contemporary photography. It was a stunning perspective made up of 868 works by 129 photographers, from 23 countries.

The ‘Dubai Photo Exhibition’, as named, was organised by the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Award (HIPA) and ran concurrently with HIPA’s 5th Season Awards which attracts both professional and amateur photographers from around the world.

Action Impact was tasked with creating a temporary contemplative space for the exhibition. It had to allow visitors the time and space they needed to seek their own truths from within each stunning photograph. The pop-up museum needed to be designed and built so that it could be seamlessly integrated into the heart of Dubai’s new creative centre, the Dubai Design District. And, of course, it also had to meet the exacting standards of an international team of 19 renowned curators, whose selections are usually housed in venerable museum spaces under optimal conditions.

We had less than a month to build a space that enabled visitors to enjoy the artwork in peace – and at the right temperature and light levels. So, inspired by the growing trend for pop-up structures, from shops to arcades and, of course, museums, we got to work.

Our team, led by Producer Matthew Serpico, and Creative Director, Adrian Little, created a design that fitted in with the existing street furniture in D3, and the surrounding architecture. “We went for a very neutral design so that the photography could shine,” said Matthew. “We organised the galleries as a series of connected spaces to ensure that each curation worked as a story. We also had to try and give the impression to the visitor that this was a solid, almost permanent structure.”

We worked hard to create a space which could handle a considerable volume of visitors, and ensure that they could flow through the spaces freely, giving them the time and space to view each image in detail. It took quite a lot of resources to get it done: the 3,000 square metres over five structures needed 2,250 metres of mains cabling and four generators, 900 metres of ducting, 200 square metres of tempered glass and 39 metric tonnes of steel!

It worked. Wall space was, obviously, the point, so our design offered the curators almost 3,000 square metres of it, lit by 1,600 lights. And it was all built in just 22 days. The best comment I heard once the exhibition was in full swing was, ‘This place feels like a real museum like it’s been here forever.” The purpose was not only to create a space where visitors were able to view artwork, but also a space where people could meet each other. We designed an orientation café at the heart of the structure so that visitors could engage in dialogue, or just sit in comfort to think about what they were seeing.

“What intrigued visitors was the fact that each of the galleries was concealed from each other,” said Adrian. “We designed them that way so that visitors could feel as if they were on a journey of discovery.” Our overall goal was to put the artwork at the centre of the experience, this led our thinking, and we succeeded. The exhibition was a success, and it will now become an important part of HIPA each year.

The structure has now been dismantled, which makes me a little sad. But, in a strange kind of way, its absence makes it seem even more solid in my memory. It felt permanent when you were in it, but once you left, only the memory lived on –  like a moment captured by each click of a camera.

The HIPA Exhibition took place in Dubai Design District between 16th and 19th of March 2016


Mike Wain

Co-founder and Executive Director