260 Years of History in 11 Metres - The RSA Rawthmells Mural

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Synthesising information and visual thinking are at the heart of whiteboard animation and what we do best at Cognitive, we love a challenge. So, when the RSA came to us asking if we would create a mural for their new Rawthmells Coffeehouse we jumped a the chance. Condensing more than 260 years of history into one mural is no mean feat, in this post Cognitive founder and mural artist Andrew Park talks about the experience of creating it and the events he and RSA Historian Anton Howes have held.


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Firstly, a little about the mural, can you describe the moment the scale of the project hit you?

When you think about mural – you think it’s going to be big. I hadn’t quite appreciated the actual scale until I saw the venue under construction. Rawthmells was being built in the cellars of the RSA building and we were lucky to have a tour whilst the construction work was underway. We snaked our way through the labyrinth of tunnels and connecting corridors, which was quite disorientating, and then we came out into the space where the mural was to be housed. I thought, ‘That’s big!’

The original documentation that I had been given by the RSA was a word document with a potted history of highlights that they wanted to include on the mural. Looking at the space stretching out before me and seeing just how long it was - I wondered how I was going to stretch the information to fill such a big wall.

The RSA’s history is a big story to tell, were there any surprises for you or any unexpected challenges?

When the project started, I didn’t have a masterplan. The shape of it emerged when I started to do some independent research. I purchased book called the ‘History of the RSA’; it was a reprint, scanned from an old copy kept in an American University. I managed to work out some ideas from information I gleaned from this book and the internet, but I also started to hit a few brick walls early on. One of which was the book I had purchased was scanned incorrectly and in the later chapters the text was cropped so a third of the page running vertically was missing, which made it quite useless. However, I managed to put together a few sketches – quite broad strokes – incorporating elements from the word document I had and also expanding upon certain areas with information from my own research. It wasn’t until I started to work with RSA Historian Dr Anton Howes that the real scope of the project started to take shape.

Now the mural is finished, and Anton and I are friends he actually admitted he had doubts about working with an artist on a historical project of this scale. He said that he thought I would be quite flippant about visualising information correctly. He was pleasantly surprised when I started badgering him for detailed and accurate information. I don’t think he expected me to be as thorough as I was.

Are there any takeaways or learnings from the mural?

We all finish projects and wish we had done things another way, but if we had done that, then we would be standing in front of something quite different today. Of course, there is always a time issue. Funnily enough, when I started the project I thought, ‘how am I going to fill this thing?’ Now in hindsight I wish we had another panel to really flesh out the research that Anton uncovered for the early 20th century, which was still underway when I was finalising the drawings.  

I have noticed there is a spare bit of wall above the amphitheatre that would be perfect!

The event brief alludes to several hidden jokes and secrets, can you give any of them away?

There is a small Inspector Clouseau saying ‘It’s a bim’ (It’s a bomb) in the building that is on fire. Also, Matthew Taylor (RSA CEO) is riding an elephant. This references Matthews RSA Animate talk ‘21st Century Enlightenment’ when he talks about conscious thought and automatic systems.

What was your goal of the talks you gave?

To invite an audience into the process. This mural is a complex beast and it really does help when it is explained in context. If you have ever been to a heritage site and decided to listen to the audio guide, it’s a far richer experience than going in cold.

We also wanted to meet other fellows and invite some of our clients into the RSA building to experience the work we do on a personal level.

How did the mural guide and inform the discussion by Anton and yourself?

It was really a collaboration and whilst we were working on it. We would collaborate on sections of information. I would glean the historical context from Anton and try and visualise it as best I can and then send it over to him to verify.

I am proud to say that it wasn’t all one-way traffic. My various questions about prisons and reform led to Anton uncovering some research that actually made it into his book, so my visual research actually uncovered some unknown information.

What did the audience make of the mural?

I can only report what people told me when I spoke to them. Obviously if you are offering free wine and canapes people tend to be generous in their praise. The overriding impression I got was that people were impressed by the scope, scale and detail of the piece.

When I pitched the idea to Oli Reichardt – I explained that it needed to work on a number of levels. A 10ft view – you can register the mural as a whole and it makes sense as a big picture. A 5ft view – you are seeing a view that provide contextual information for discreet subject areas, and a 2ft view – individual areas of detail that stand alone. This approach means that you can engage with the information both passively and actively.

Are there any comments or questions about the way that the mural which stand out?

How long did it take? This is quite a common question that I get asked. I don’t know if I am mythologising this in my own head to make myself feel better, but I think the actual physical drawing took about 3 months. The research and upfront activity inflates that timescale somewhat.

Read more about the RSA Rawthmells mural here. We would love to apply our whiteboard animation and illustration style to your story, contact us here.