On misusing ‘narrative’ in exhibitions

Thinking a lot about narrative in museums and, specifically, exhibitions. It’s at risk of becoming a ubiquitous buzzword.
I have seen or heard, written or said, all of the following 

  • What is the narrative of the exhibition? 
  • What is the narrative structure or frame for this piece of text? 
  • What is our narrative? 

Why is it problematic?

Firstly, narrative is singular, but the museum experience (stories, facts, things, people, audiences) is diverse. Secondly, narrative is cohesive and repeatable: when I watch Citizen Kane, the narrative does not change, he always spends some time as a newspaper mogul, he always dies unhappily. This is not like a museum. Thirdly, narrative is linear: there is a beginning, middle and end. Few people experience a museum (exhibition) in this way, and the museum is conceptualised in law, policy and culture as a never-ending entity. Most difficult, though, is the notion of scale; the term is applied at all levels, some of which are useful some of which are not.

I think scale is the most useful place to begin.  

  1. A museum 
  2. One experience (exhibition, outreach, program) within a museum 
  3. One ‘node’ or ‘unit of experience’ within an experience 
  4. One piece of copy (or linear media eg 2-min film) 

Taking each in turn, 

1. A Museum

As a never-ending entity, narrative is not useful here. Better to talk about mission or purpose: a big hairy audacious goal whose achievement spans at least beyond 5 years. This qual goal may not be subject to quant measurement. This Vision is then a shaping tool for everything else. It can of course be explained – and this can be a tailored narrative (to government? When onboarding staff?) but narrative is not the chief method for conceptualising the museum.

2. One experience (exhibition) within one museum

There is a vast body of research describing exhibitions as ‘free choice learning environments’ – they are experienced as non-linear, experiential spaces in which social and emotional outcomes are of primary importance. This contrasts enormously with the behaviour of many museum professionals, for whom the textbook is the mental touchstone, and an exhibition is to be considered as a narrative consisting of intro, chapters and then a conclusion. This is often present in reviews, too, in which the exhibition is judged as a thesis.

I would suggest that our most successful exhibition experiences are ones in which we do not use whole-of-exhibition narrative as a lens during development. Begin instead with the behaviours our audiences display in exhibition spaces – pinballing around, stopping reading while having a chat, chasing their toddler.

3. One ‘node’ or ‘unit of experience’ within an experience

By this i mean a cluster of experience consisting of a couple of different elements such as a showcase, video and pieces of text. Think of it as a single scene in a film. Narrative is totally helpful here.
Taking Forster’s analogy, 

Story: The king died and then the queen died

Plot: The king died and then the queen died of grief

Thinking in narrative terms allows us to ‘add the grief’ – in the above example, we design the visitor gaze/attention/interaction to be to the king first, then the queen, then leave the visitor with the grief.

Or, we rewrite the idea as… of grief she died, mourning her dead king 

…and begin with the emotion. But this requires story-based thinking to achieve and design. The two sequential facts do not create the material for an engaging exhibit. And ‘presenting’ the facts will not cover that up. ‘…of grief’ is missing no matter what fancy typeface I use on the label.

And this is where we must think beyond objects and labels and go for multiplatform. ‘The grief’ may be communicated through an image, not words. We must think of the components acting together, think through complementarity and tension between say, words, image and sound.

4. One piece of copy (or linear media eg 2-min film)

Narrative is so often our downfall here. Being structurally hidebound to a vision of narrative, we write ‘the perfect 80 words’ framed as introduction >> exposition >> resolution.

However, visitor research shows that attention is fickle, and a proportion of visitors drop off at each sentence. Web homepage editors, or tabloid journalists, are the best reference for this type of copy. All the information front-loaded into headline and sentence 1. Sentence 2 is a layer of detail, but self-contained. Sentence 3, the same. The end result isn’t pleasing, to the avid reader schooled in literature. But it allows every visitor to stop at any point and be satisfied, not feeling they’re obliged to read or the miss out. How many of us read every newspaper article to the end?

We also know that visitors appropriate written content to use in conversation. So we should write in ways conducive to this – conversational tones, for which the register is magazine. Or, think ‘snackable content’ – ‘you’ll never believe what this man thought when he saw these Galapagos finches!’  Using the tone and register appropriate to a book is no good.

We can look to ‘narrative paradigm’ – I think Fisher’s notions of Coherence and Fidelity matter a lot, they are useful tools. Though there are challenges, I think, in applying them to non-linear multiplatform environments. Often, Fidelity for ‘us’ does not match fidelity for the visitor. And coherence is a major challenge for a medium in which the experience is non-linear. If an exhibition is totally narrative in form, which each chapter based on the previous, it will fail for visitors even if it seems coherent to us – because visitors do not use exhibition spaces this way. Imagine ripping out the chapter from Of Mice and Men in which Lenny dreams of the farm and the rabbits – without it the final chapter makes no emotional sense whatsoever. And yet, museums keep creating exhibitions that depend on pivotal moments many visitors skip over as they manage a child or chat to a friend.

Post-narrative exhibitions?  

In summary, I think we use narrative in a super lazy way, and we over-apply it to contexts where it doesn’t help us. What might be more useful things to consider? This is less a thesis and more a bundle of thoughts that may or may not resonate (just like…)

Martha Nussbaum’s work on the value of emotions in our meaning-making is useful here: Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself. The Enlightenment’s shaping of rational thinking as superior to emotional nuance in making sense of the world has imbued museum practice to the point where we find this difficult as a sector. We are in a position where rational reasoning must be used to determine that emotional approaches are OK. The Arts, always in touch with emotional response as the primary shaper of the art experience, do not have this battle. What would it be like if we began with emotional mapping of the experience, as we are laying out the space for flow and content?

Also, we make far too much of text. It’s as if a theatre director works on the dialogue without considering the set design, music or costume. Judged by the amount of time spent of different issues, the level of seniority for which sign-off is formally required, and team job descriptions, we rank
, text
and the ‘look and feel’ of the design as of great importance. But we rate ‘design as experienced’, sound
, imagery (photo, illustration, diagrams) and placement and procession through the experience as less important. 

In terms of genre, we think partially about it but not thoroughly, and we often stumble into it through familiar societal tropes. We are often in a heroic genre – questing against ignorance. We have a lot of scientist-as-hero, in which they use effort, brains and a ‘magical agent’ (such as a DNA machine) to defeat ignorance.

In a storyworld, the makers, the characters, the audience, are all together in enacting a story. They all believe. So I see that we need to place ourselves within a storyworld as well, not as simply the abstract producers of the product people come to see. If I use Dr Who as an example, when i read the comics, watch the TV show, buy the products or indeed do all three, I am having a consistency of engagement with the storyworld. Dr Who is always clever and kind. But I am not shut out of the TV show if I don’t read the comics. How do we achieve that – how can all our audiences feel part of one consistent ‘Museum world’ whether they attend everything we do or just visit the website now and again? And how does the storyworld idea promote continued and deepening engagement? I might watch a show on Netflix just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I liked the Iron Man films. That’s very different from promoting a show to me, and I think it’s deeper than ‘brand loyalty’ – I’m not being loyal to the brand, I’m being loyal to a storyworld. 

We should think about our character – are we Aragorn, Frodo or Gandalf? The kingly hero, the ‘nobody’ with a heart of pure courage, or the wise one who initiates others into their knowledge? A museum could be all or any of these, but we usually default to being Gandalf without it being thought through.  

Literature is an interesting metaphor. We try to think like novelists, or the great essay writers. But I think exhibitions are closer to poetry. Individual moments, brief and rich in meaning, clustered together in suite and bound together as one entity: exhibits as poems, an exhibition as a volume of poetry, and the museum as a body of work of a range of poets.


I’m so upset i can hardly type. I cannot believe that UK is heading for leaving the EU. Living in Australia, I’ve got used to the idea of two homes; but it’s really hard to see the UK as home at the moment.

Australia is far from perfect. Refugee policy, treatment of aboriginal culture, extractive industry, sexism… There’s lots to dislike. But the trajectory is towards better: there are active conversations about building new futures, a sense of hope, a self-reliance that it can be done. Anger is motivating positive change.

I left the UK in the afterglow of the 2012 Olympics & Paralympics. When a multicultural, hopeful Britain at ease with itself as a post-colonial nation felt like it was just round the corner. But now, the impetus for change looks like in reverse: into a small-minded, xenophobic and evidence-free bubble of petty hate and blame. It looks like a majority of people hold the EU responsible for the Austerity measures that they voted for.

So while I can’t say either culture feels perfect, I’m much happier with the Australian trend than the British one.

What can I do to be a better collaborator?

My working group in our adaptive leadership training program is looking at collaboration: within our museum’s context, what is it, how can it be effective and deliver value to our public. Challenged to arrive at three questions that get to the core of the issues, I reflected on advice that a colleague received from a 360 reviewer recently, that ‘the only thing any of us can ever really influence is our own behaviour.’

Which led me to these three points.

  1. How can I better forgive, and work with the grain of, your foibles of personal style, professional codes and pressures of role in order to collaborate with you effectively?
  2. What can I do to overt my foibles of personal style, professional codes and pressures of role so that I am easier to collaborate with?
  3. How can I forgive myself for the inevitable remaining consequential negative impacts of my approach on my collaborator, in order that I may remain in an adult, not parent/child/codependent, state of interpersonal behaviour?

The last is hardest. However hard we try we won’t always get it right. And as i have learnt over the past three weeks of conference challenge, there are many reasons why someone may find collaboration really hard. But it will not serve our goals if I am too riven with fear and guilt to continue to act. And it cuts both ways – my difficulties in collaboration are likely to be my problem, not yours, and it is up to me to fix them. Remaining Adult-Adult (in the transactional analysis sense) is essential – I must notice and resist the push from guilt and fear to enter into a non-Adult state.

Easy to write. Hard to do.


#AAM2016 – reflections

My second AAM and I’m reminded that you can’t step into the same river twice. Since Seattle, the American museum world seems to have become simultaneously more radical and not advancing. Explain.

There’s a swell of anger about pay and conditions and intersectional representation. But this year it burst into the mainstream. And I’ve never seen so much anger expressed so constructively – every speaker, every session, seemed to be amplifying the last. Arguments from personal experience, precedent, data, emotion – and people who’d made it up sending the ladder back down for more climbers. I have never seen a conference so female, non-white and queer.

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An idea: Director of Inclusive Practice

First all the caveats. I’m not well read in this, I don’t know how I may be misunderstanding issues or behaving offensively, doing all the white- and man-splaining. Please believe I mean well; I’d love to know who/where has done this thinking already. I asked one colleague for advice – they added loads more to this – but any residual wrongness is mine alone (& not my employer’s either).

The MA16 conference left me reeling with heightened personal awareness of the systemic privilege I had in my attaining my job. Moana Jackson and David Garneau’s keynotes, then the tone and volume of so many speakers, questioners from the floor and on twitter, have all given perspectives with huge generousity. They’re gifts I don’t yet fully (may never) understand the value of.

So prompted, I’m working through an idea. I personally believe that workplace culture and process work together to fix problems. So I’d like to suggest creation of a directorial role. Director of inclusive practice; on the executive management team, with power in a range of specific areas and a wider power as part of the ‘top table’ influencing all decisions. What I am suggesting, I suppose, is how to flex an existing set of systems in the service of inclusivity – so that there is a structural powers as well as specific roles within the organisation. True authority inside the system, not on the edge. When inclusivity is ‘just normal business’ we’ll make real progress. And this means existing models need to change.

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Three days in Auckland, currently on the post-conference comedown. A far superior conference to last year – the best of Museums Aoteroa and Museums Australia. Others are dedicated note-takers, and so can name and cite, highlight trends and draw conclusions.  I, from preference and the extraordinary nature of this conference, cannot – I merely offer sincere humility, one observation and some suggestions.

I feel drenched with emotion, awash with the after effects. Many aspects were confronting, many beautiful. My awareness of my privilege has risen enormously. I have little language with which to express that, so I need to double down on my listening and then understand how to act. This is going to take a while.

Continue reading “#ma16nz “

Attenborough’s grace

As Sir David Attenborough turns 90, I’ll add my story of him.

In 1999, I was the lead developer and press spokesperson for the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition,Voyages of Discovery. The day of the VIP launch, we held a preview of the exhibition for Sir David and Mark Lawson, host of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The botanical curator, Dr Sandy Knapp, and I were hosting and touring them round the exhibition. We were both a bit starstruck, and were surprised and disappointed in our encounter. He seemed offhand, over-critical and his questions were challenging rather than exploratory. Not what we had expected; or, perhaps we had done something wrong. We were very concerned – maybe the exhibition was rubbish, and Sir David was about to tell the nation, live on the radio.

We tuned in later that afternoon and of course he was glorious. He summed up the exhibition, detailed some of the hero objects we had discussed but added his own colour and context, and wrapped up by highlighting his desire that the joy and wonder of  nature be discovered and enjoyed by all.

We had the VIP evening. Sir David was there, of course, but I didn’t speak to him. Still worried that I had done something wrong, I didn’t approach; anyway he was in circles of trustees, professors and media.

Near the end of the evening, he suddenly appeared at my elbow. ‘Excuse me, Paul,’ he said, and then went on to apologise. He said he’d been unaccountably moody that morning, and it was no reflection on the exhibition, which he thought was great. I barely said a word, maybe a mumbled awed ‘thank you,’ before he disappeared into the soft flow towards the exit.

Next morning I found out more. He’d been about to get into his taxi, when he stopped and hurried back to find me. And, as she excitedly told me, Sandy had the same experience. So I’m humbled and awed. From the heights of his intellect, fame and influence he remembered Sandy and I, and made right a minor wrong. And he liked the exhibition too!

He’s a great person indeed but not just for the reasons I’m seeing anyone else write. He’s also kind and humble, and acts with grace and generosity. We all have off days. But it’s a remarkable human who always tries to own and fix the consequences.

When I met him again, eight years later, he remembered, too. That’s also amazing.