It's Only Rock 'N Roll—Exhibitionism—the Exhibition

The Rolling Stones, one of the most iconic and influential musical acts of the last five decades, are the subject of the lauded traveling exhibition entitled “Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones,” designed by Pentagram. Exhibitionism opened first at London’s Saatchi Gallery, continuing to New York’s Industria Superstudio and Chicago’s Navy Pier, before its Australian opening in Sydney in 2018 as part of a 10-city tour. The exhibition was the recipient of an Honor Award in the 2017 SEGD Global Design Awards.


Start Me Up

“Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones” weaves the dramatic story of the Rolling Stones, capturing the vibrant spirit of the band, their constant evolution and their contributions to culture through the use of environment, artifacts, media and audio. It gives visitors unparalleled, immersive insight into the legendary group and its origins—in the largest touring experience of its kind.

The idea for the exhibition was brought forward by International Entertainment Consulting (iEC), the Australian production company that staged the band’s 2014 tour. Conveniently, the members of the band—and Mick, in particular—had been storing costumes, instruments and other band-related items for years. According to the Exhibitionism website, Jagger remarked, “We've been thinking about it for quite a long time but wanted it to be just right and on a large scale, just like planning our touring concert productions. I think right now it's an interesting time to do it.”

The exhibition would be a traveling show that celebrates the long history of the Stones, incorporating fashion, film, photography, memorabilia and—importantly—sound and music throughout, requiring sound isolation to help separate the spaces. The message needed to be simultaneously reverent and irreverent, always faithful to the character of the band and impart on the visitor not only the enormous popularity and success of the band, but also their contributions and innovations such as highly engineered stadium concert spectacles.

The Pentagram design team, led by Partners Abbott Miller and William Russell, was brought on to the project after the band had agreed on an overall content outline, allowing them to build on an already established narrative arc by developing the approach to the exhibition’s physical manifestation. The design team collaborated on the exhibition with producers Tony Cochrane and Thea Jeanes-Cochrane of iEC and curator Ileen Gallagher, former director of exhibitions for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (Cleveland).


Just My Imagination

The design process began with a thorough accounting of compelling recent experiences, including the recent David Bowie exhibition in several venues. The Pentagram designers felt strongly that using the tactic of visitor headphones—with everyone milling around a silent space—did not feel right for the Rolling Stones. In fact, the contrast of the final Bowie gallery where everyone listened to the music together for the first time cemented the sentiment that an exhibition like this needed to create very social spaces with music as the connecting thread.    

The design team was asked to explore the design of the space in thematic terms rather than chronological ones. They embraced the challenge of the segmented galleries of the Saatchi Gallery, developing a definite through-line using typography, but also telling the story in eight distinct chapters. However, they still needed to start at the beginning. “Because of the incredible longevity of the Stones, we needed to establish the context of London when they were just starting. I think now it’s hard to appreciate just how specific their interests were in terms of how important American Blues music was, and we needed to show a few key aspects of those early days,” remembers Miller.

Part of the process, though, was designing for touring. The exhibition sections needed to be flexible enough to be rearranged to accommodate various venues while retaining the coherence of the experience. The solution was to make the beginning and the end the only static placements. The designers worked through a few physical concepts, including an open-walled one, before presenting 3-D printed models to the band. The meetings with the band members went longer than expected because the Stones were so meticulous and detail oriented, something that Miller appreciated.


Beast of Burden

“Working closely with the band and curator Ileen Gallagher, we approached the space as if it were a set list for a concert, viewing it as a performance rather than an exhibition,” explains Russell. “There is a range of tempos, sensations and emotions that build into one orchestrated experience: It is tactile, authentic, glamorous, messy and suffused with the sounds and images of the band.”

The Rolling Stones are arguably the most prolific and most-seen band in history, with an incredible work ethic despite their rock and roll image. “The Beatles were together for seven years, the Stones for 50 and counting,” Miller reminds. In examining a three-year-long gig roster, the design team was astonished by the number of shows the band performed: almost everyday, sometimes two shows a day and typically six days a week. This inspired the team to recreate the aggressive itinerary on a digital display board with the look of a split-flap train station sign. 

Similarly, they wanted to demonstrate the full arc of the band’s performing history, so they employed animation—a kind of whiplash display—showing every concert in every city, zooming back and forth across the globe. They also tracked every song and every album, counting their total recorded minutes.

The Rolling Stones have also fostered a plethora of collaborations with producers, stage designers, filmmakers, clothing designers, musicians and all manner of top-of-their-field creatives over the years, from Fairey to Warhol, Scorcese to Godard. This time-honored practice of collaboration continued with this exhibition. The extended team included video/production design firm Fray Studio; longtime Stones lighting designers Woodroffe Bassett Studio; milliner Stephen Jones; a filmmaking team led by Sam Pattison and Paul Dugdale; and the Paragon scenic team, in addition to Pentagram, Gallagher and the iEC team.


Ain’t Too Proud to Beg

The 18-month-long process wasn’t without its trials. The sheer amount of information to relay and display was mind numbing. There are 500 original artifacts in the exhibition, 1,800 gigs and over 600 songs covered and over 50 years of history to tell.

There was risk involved in giving each of the rooms or chapters its own aesthetic identity, but the designers walked the tightrope through the use of typography inspired by the band’s early posters that welcomes visitors and introduces themes from room to room, often using the language of the band members. Miller explains: “The exhibition’s arrangement by theme allowed us to give each room its own design aesthetic. Some are loud, others calm, some are bright, others dark and some are dense with objects, while others are very singular. These deliberate shifts in mood are unified by the voices of the band. We wanted them to be the narrators of their own story, so their quotes and voices are everywhere.”

Another challenge to the design team was how to convey the amazing stage sets designed by Mark Fisher that the Rolling Stones used for their tours, as the footage from performances does not accurately show their ambitious scale, complexity or absolute inventiveness. The Pentagram team decided the best solution was to commission replicas of the models for the exhibition as the originals had been lost to time.


Wild Horses

Exhibitionism is a thematic, engaging, visceral ride through the Stones’ long career, from their first dingy apartment to recording studio albums to their incredible stage shows. The narrative is presented through the use of costume, exclusive interviews, rare audio and unseen video, instruments and personal effects, set designs and depictions in popular culture.

The exhibition opens with enormous glowing dimensional letters that read “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the introduction to every Rolling Stones performance. Their career is introduced through a timeline of songs, a map of gigs played and screens with footage of headlines, fans and tours.The next stop is a life-sized re-creation of the Stones’ first apartment on Edith Road in Chelsea, complete with dirty dishes, cigarette butts, worn-out furniture and strewn-about records. Some items were saved by the band, but others had to be obtained from collectors and museums. The experience is immersive, with an acute attention to detail. The design team found many actual vintage items for the display, including magazines, wrappers and bottles.

The band’s meteoric rise is documented in another section, with artifacts like contracts, posters, instruments, films and interviews. A recording studio has been set up, replicating the band’s West London setup down to the finest detail. Interactive kiosks allow visitors to mix tracks. The exhibition takes a deep dive into the art and design of the band’s logo and branding and their many album artworks, including preliminary sketches. A fashion portion of the exhibition displays the Stones’ evolving style through photographs and costumes designed by heavy-hitters like Prada, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen.



The Pentagram team also designed a book to accompany the Exhibitionism experience, which documented materials and artifacts, providing an in-depth look at the band and its impact. When asked what the design team would take on to future projects, Miller replied, “The having-it-both-ways dynamic of galleries that deliver  displays of artifacts and experiential components, the coexistence of traditional media and immersive moments, and the freedom to shift tone and even narrative approach from one gallery to the next.”

Exhibitionism has been a resounding success in both the United Kingdom and the United States, receiving critical acclaim from major media outlets including Creative Review, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. The show effectively balances fan culture and an objective assessment of the band’s legacy in a uniquely celebratory manner. This ideal mix of information and entertainment has worked, even with moderately high ticket prices, giving fans the satisfaction they seek.



Design Firm: Pentagram

Client: iEC

Project Area: 17,000 sq ft

Open Date: April 2016

Design Team: Abbott Miller (partner in charge), William Russell (partner in charge), Sarah Adams (designer), Tiziana Falchi (designer), Jesse Kidwell (designer), Yoon-Young Chai (designer)

Consultants: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones; Tony Cochrane and Thea Jeanes-Cochrane of iEC (producers); Ileen Gallagher (curator)

Fabricators: Finn Ross and Adam Young of FRAY Studio (video and production design), Patrick Woodroffe and Adam Bassett and team at Woodroffe Bassett Studio (lighting design), Stephen Jones (milliner), Robin Brown and the Scenic Team at Paragon (set design), Benchworks (fabrication)

Photo Credits: Ed Reeve © 2016


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