Stage Struck

This article was published in Museum Practice in July 2013. I was Head of Exhibitions at the National Railway Museum during the creation of the project, and curated a session at the Museum Association conference 2012 on this topic with colleagues from Historic Royal Palaces and the Natural History Museum.

Stage Struck

There’s a major redisplay of a quarter of a national museum in the offing. Perhaps we should start some research, select some objects? We certainly wouldn’t invite in some theatre consultants, and play games and make collages…or would we?

In 2010, the National Railway Museum started a major redevelopment of its Station Hall building. Twenty-year-old exhibits were removed, new visitor circulation routes introduced and the railway vehicle display was refreshed. The new vehicle arrangement created trains that could tell stories – a Royal train, a goods train – and installed minimal interpretation.

We then focused on the visitor experience across the entire hall – and ways we could bring to life the story of station.  There were myriad challenges, including the wide open space, and  low budgets (as ever!). And we realised that while we are experts in the railways, we are not experts in the experiences of passengers and how they use stations. We knew we needed to involve our audience – in the production and in the visitor experience.

Three things led us to theatrical thinking. The stories we felt we should explore were always choreographed against the clock, with the succession of players and choruses represented by the early morning freight traffic, rush hour, the confusion of day trippers. We had seen the success of our co-production (with York Theatre Royal) of The Railway Children, a traditional play within a non-traditional museum setting. This certainly told us that in people’s minds trains were more than historical narratives, and that a station’s role is that of a portal to other experiences. When we saw Enchanted Palace, we saw how evocatively real stories could be woven into a romantic and playful setting. In short, theatre was on our minds as an exciting approach.

But we did not want to turn the space over to artists, as we knew we required something that would last for many years. And we would not have actors – this was to be a permanent installation that must stand alone without facilitation. But how to pair theatrical thinking with strong exhibition design skills? The one thing we did have was time and freedom to experiment. Knowing this, we decided to begin with theatre, and appointed an experienced set designer, Ben Gerlis, and producer, Daljinder Singh, to help us develop our design brief.

We had five workshops, about a week apart. A cross-section of staff attended, some going to all five. We did things which were new and surprising to us, but quite normal to theatre companies – playing games; walking at different speeds around Station Hall’s ‘platforms’; looking at props. And eventually, from these workshops came a shared understanding of what we were trying to achieve, the stories to tell, and a suite of collages that expressed the content and emotion of each area. We were then ready to begin a more formal development, appointing designers and so on.

But now our research and development activities were highly targeted. We needed stories of lovers lost and found, of stoic goodbyes to sons off to war, and of commuters jostling for a seat. We sought these in the archives and through reminiscence work with community groups. Our design development focused on making spaces in which these stories could be experienced, and planning the props that would be needed for visitors to participate themselves.

We learnt much from our theatrical colleagues. Firstly, they challenged our assumptions about exhibitions. Theatre projects do not end until after closing night – each performance is a dress rehearsal for the next, and the director will try to improve the show during the run. They found our approach – exhibition team hands over to operations, and moves onto the next project – bizarre. What would it mean for us to consider the exhibition opening as a beginning rather than an end?

Our objects became props; tools to service a story, to assist an actor. Rather than displayed for their inherent meaning, the objects were chosen to support the narrative and spark emotional responses in visitors This broke down the barriers between the ‘authentic/real’ museum objects and ‘exhibit infrastructure’ – models and words.

The theatrical approach paid attention to the spaces between objects more than the objects themselves. Thinking about how people could move through the space, and become part of the story just by their presence, was a direct legacy of the workshop time spent walking, running, pausing, loitering on platforms.

Most of all, we learnt to stop worrying about audience reactions – the idea of appealing to everyone is absurd to theatre professionals. Rather, do one thing honestly and well, and allow an audience to find it.

I left the NRM halfway through the project. Going back to see the end result is an interesting experience. My concerns had been that the experience may overload or trivialize the objects, or that it might fall flat and fail to engage. Actually, it does neither.

The space is still wide and open, with grand vistas offering long views of trains and a chance to promenade through the space. In places, gently lit exhibtry blends real artefacts with quirky props and minimal explanatory text. The overall architectural feel is one of a station environment. But at a smaller scale, it feels decidedly ‘unfinished’, inviting a visitor’s participation to complete the picture.

There is a hectic mix of design styles, and a plethora of different voices. It is initially puzzling – little guidance is given on how this gallery might be different to others – or how one might ‘use’ it. But, as I watched other visitors it became clear that people were intuiting their own ways to engage. The ‘gaps’ in the interpretation – the stories hinted at but untold – seem to provide a mental space for visitors to inhabit.

The trolley of wrapped parcels, of odd shapes and sizes in brown paper, conveys the idea of the ‘common carrier’ better than any text could. It is prompting conversations between visitors, and is also proving a hit with key stage 1 teachers, who are using it to encourage imagination and creativity in their visiting pupils.

The gallery is now more encouraging of reminiscence. There are many forms, but overheard phrases start with ‘I remember when…’ and ‘do you remember…’ Some unintended photo opportunities have emerged too – particularly the ‘just married’ display.

There’s a world of difference between the stage, the script and the performance. Museums attend to space and objects (or ‘props’) and neglect the notion of the audience as performers. Some visitors ignore the interventions and simply look at the trains and read the labels. However, some join in enthusiastically, playing the commuter footsteps game and arguing what the big pile of wrapped parcels might contain.

An idea we kept throughout development – differentiating between main characters and extras – creates space for different modes of engagement. Visitors can throw themselves into the action, or hang back a little, relying on the props or other visitors to occupy the stage.

It doesn’t work for everyone. Some of the audience do not enter into the playful spirit, and are clearly seeking out the more traditional displays and technical information, available elsewhere in the Museum. But this is ok – the Museum is large and diverse enough to provide different modes of engagement across the site.

Bringing the passenger experience into the gallery humanises and makes relevant the museum experience, complementing the other technical and engineering focused spaces of the Museum.

The space now reflects the transient and disposable nature of railway station experiences (tickets, parcels, a five minute wait) and contextualises this material culture far better than a traditional showcase display ever could. The deliberate lack of comprehensivity in the experience allows visitors to find/make their own place – as an obviously incomplete story it doesn’t make you feel you have to ‘get to the end’ or ‘know something’ at the end. It also offers fertile ground for the museum to exploit in its events and programmes over the coming years.

All too often museums have confined risky innovation to their events and programmes, but this shows the value of bringing this approach to permanent displays. Most importantly, it shows the value of self-reflection on our working practices, and the liberation that can come from stepping into the unknown.

my thanks to all those who assisted with the project, and commented on drafts of this article; @RebeccaA_MA , @rutheleach and @savage_joey2 in particular.

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1 thought on “Stage Struck”

  1. “The theatrical approach paid attention to the spaces between objects more than the objects themselves.” Great observation, and great wake-up call.

    I’m happy to be surrounded by theatre people and regularly meet and talk with them. They’ve taught me much about audience engagement, storytelling and so much more. I would love to be able to copy the proces you describe in this post one day in a museum.

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