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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#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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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.

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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!