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
objects
, 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 expert-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.

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