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.

#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.

Continue reading “#AAM2016 – reflections”


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.

2 small thoughts on old empire museums

I began the week with Courtney Johnston’s blog. She’s rebutting a reactionary blogpost from the UK, which states that Museums must be enlightenment scholars of objects, and that any community perspectives are of little value when set against (and it is ‘against’) scholarship (western, obv). Her amazing response was a great way to start the week.

What grabbed me in particular was her quotation from Mark O’Neill

The sense of being the invisible centre is reinforced by the exemption of one culture in each museum from scrutiny – that of the metropolitan country itself. 

This touches on one bugbear of mine. Once a person or organisation decides to apply disinterested rational enquiry to everyone but themselves, they’re bad scholars and should be called out as such.

After a few days reflection, another point occurred to me. Enlightenment thinking is teleological; it runs in one way, which is assumed to be towards ‘better’. The very framing of’old empire museum’ principles is towards a complete, completist, collection and body of knowledge, and that is self-evidently ‘better’. The notion, therefore, of contested meanings, of returning to communities for a new perspective that may unravel that linear journey, must be resisted if the enlightenment isn’t to fail on its own terms. It’s an internal failure of the frame of reference.

Disclaimer / announcement of humility: Since moving to Australia two years ago, I have learnt a lot. And I have been [forced to / able to] reflect on past experience differently. The above is me wrestling with it. My lacking of deep scholarship doesn’t really equip me to demonstrate and reference any of that and i’m perfectly happy to be shot down for sub-undergrad theorising 😉

What do we call them?

How do we name the [non-specialists that use museums]? Are they the audience? the visitors? The users? Or guests? And because language shapes thought, and influences our communications with colleagues, what does this mean?

So here’s a start to conceptualise this – super personal, no broad sampling base but interested who else sees this (or disagrees!)

We call them…* Who do I hear using this term? What can it imply that’s positive What can it imply negatively?
Audience Marketing, exhibitions, Education/Learning Lots of them 😉



Might applaud

A homogenous mass – not individuals.

Museums broadcast ‘at’ them

Visitors Exhibitions, marketing, Commercial Individuals and social groups. Feels ‘real’ Fleeting and not engaged in depth
Users Digital Purposeful, driven, knowledgeable Self-centred. Get it and leave, rather than browse and linger


Guests Customer service, tourism specialists Museums should be good hosts

We might know their names.

Focus on ‘basics’ such as toilets, signage

Being welcoming is ‘enough’

Not here to learn/engage

Customers Commercial, customer services They can help the museum financially.

We can use service industry practice

If they aint spending money we don’t care about them. Don’t value (free) web offer

*let alone what they call us!

Some terms are preferred and socially encouraged by managers / CEOs. This can be brilliant – an org that depends on immediate financial return for its survival might do well to think of everyone as a customer.

But there are hidden downsides too. ‘What are we offering for our customers?’ doesn’t sit in the same conceptual field as ‘how are we serving our audiences?’ A team with too many terms will confuse itself. I have seen confusion between exhibition and digital teams with the word ‘users’ – user doesn’t really make sense to the showcase layout designer.

Personally, I hate hearing visitors referred to as ‘customers’, I think because in my ideal world all museum services are free and bountiful and everyone wants them. Hippy, yes. Though this is a rational overlay on something deeper I can’t articulate.

‘Guests’, however, has made me think differently. The implied obligation to host well forces a focus on the most basic Maslowian needs during exhibition development. I recently used an unexpected underspend to buy seating; I think that was influenced by thinking of ‘guests’ not ‘visitors’.

I don’t necessarily think the museum world needs to agree on one definition – the diversity is good. But I do think we need to be more aware of how we speak of visitors (my preference!) – and what that may imply to others.

Interpretation is dead. Long live interpretation!

Crisis of professional confidence. And, being me, I’ll write it publicly and allow cleverer people than i to let me know how i’m missing the point…

I’m seeing that the word ‘interpretation’ is no longer fit for purpose – its meaning is too degraded to be useful. Taking four definitions…

The US National Association of Interpretation

Interpretation: A mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.


Heritage interpretation refers to all the ways in which information is communicated to visitors to an educational site, such as a museum or science centre.

Interpretation Canada

Interpretation is a communication process, designed to reveal meanings and relationships of our cultural and natural heritage, through involvement with objects, artifacts, landscapes and sites. 

Interpretation Australia

Heritage interpretation communicates ideas, information and knowledge about natural or historic places in a way which helps visitors to make sense of their environment. Good interpretation will create engaging, unique and meaningful experiences for visitors.

So why does this list of definitions bother me? Apart from disquiet that a profession over 50 years old can’t agree on the basics, it’s the introduction of multiple meanings and unchallenged assumptions that feel problematic.

So one meaning is around a process – interpretation as a verb. ‘The team will make this exhibition using methods collectively referred to as interpretation.’

Another is around an end product – interpretation as a holistic, collective noun. ‘The team will make the [interpretation] using objects, text, lighting, sound…’

A third is as a specific subset noun within something else. ‘The team will make an exhibition containing objects, interpretation and lighting.’

Never mind that some definitions are struggling to make a noun of something they seem to treat as an adjective.

But there is a much wider problem for me. The notion that a ‘resource’ has only one intrinsic meaning or set of meanings is woven tightly within all of these. While the better ones are generous in allowing audiences multiple meaning-making, and acknowledging they may have different interests and motivations, the authority over meaning is kept very close.

Who has chosen which meanings are valid? How transparent is it who has made that choice and how? And it’s implied that there are correct ways to engage with the resource and incorrect ways.

I’m starting to think about it differently. I suppose over the years I have been influenced by Learning outcome methodology, and the concept of ‘engagement with’ rather than ‘communication to’. And being in Australia, where certain truths about museum collections are more visibly, actively and helpfully disputed, has made me question this authority position further.

So I think I’ve landed here. Interpretation happens inside the minds of the visitor, and all that is – or isn’t – in the space contributes to the active meaning-making going on inside any individual mind. We in exhibition-making are there to create the conditions in which people can do this.

Our job is to understand and enable this meaning-making. We present, display, write about, theatrically present, select, light, etc etc – and in so doing enable the visitor to make their meanings. All of these skills are encompassed within the loose network of professionalisms we call interpretation, evaluation, informal learning, curation, etc. If we deploy these skills critically and enthusiastically, the end product will enable audiences to make meanings, and those meanings will be life-enhancing. This could involve selecting what meanings we think should be made – that’s fine but we need to consciously own (document and publish) that we are doing so.

Following that logic, we must grant extraordinary generosity of spirit to our visitors – they are arriving for a reason, and they will use the stuff we make for that reason.

Visitors are the meaning-makers. Visitors do the interpretation. Long live interpretation!