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.

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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. Continue reading “An idea: Director of Inclusive Practice”


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.