Objects and storytelling

Some weeks ago on the Medical Museion blog, Thomas Soderqvist wrote an interesting and, perhaps, provocative post on Narrativity in exhibition making, suggesting that “the current enthusiasm” for stories, storytelling and narrative in object displays “is problematic”. As an historian, this idea fits into my training: I understand where Thomas is coming from and largely agree: go read the post. Yet, as someone, still relatively new to and totally untrained for the role of museum professional, I find that it goes very much against the process of developing displays as I have, so far, experienced it.

All the mangers, decision-makers, designers, interpretation specialists and educators want to know “what’s the story?”. They, and those who agree on what things the museum acquires, want to know (among other things) “what stories?” any particular object tells. The first step in creating an exhibition usually seems to be developing “the narrative”, which is then all too easily simply illustrated with a selection of objects. When things are working more satisfactorily, it might be that the available objects (in one institution, or a range of institutions) help to suggest the themes and narrative, but so far this has not really been my experience – and “the story” remains dominant in planning either way.

Some stories, though, are important, and need to be told in relevant museums. Such stories, too, might vary in how they are told. Thomas suggests that when we talk about narrative we are excluding other rhetorical modes: exposition, description, argument. I, however, would suggest that “the narrative” might be, or certainly include elements of, one or more these approaches. The good storyteller, like the good orator, can reach for a range of modes and tones. Where things become awkward, though, is when an object is used to help tell a story or illustrate a point that it, as a particular, individual item, has very little to do with. I suspect that almost every exhibition will have a multitude of little lies, told with the greater purpose of clarifying a narrative for visitors. We would, surely, never take a quote out of context in the way that objects get (mis)appropriated.

Lack a 16-century whatsisname in order to make the point that such things were used by so-and-so in whereeveritis? Stick in an 18th-century one, and the basic point will be made. Thingamabobs used by ordinary people in the 18th century no longer survive, of course, so we might as well use an ornate, one-off version made as a playthings for a wealthy gent, no one will notice. Etc. Etc.

Thinking about objects and storytelling reminded me of the recent media playing of this mode. Above all, of course, there was the very successful BBC Radio 4 and British Musuem A History of the Work in 100 Objects. There was a huge amount to enjoy and admire in this, and it gave a chance for curators and others to highlight the many different ideas and narratives to which a single object might seem to speak. Yet, when setting one of the programmes as a ‘reading’ for an MSc class, it was noticeable how many of the stories included actually had almost nothing to do with the object selected. It had become simply a handy hook on which to hang some other stuff.

This series has been successful enough to pave the way for others. The In Our Time special this January, The Written World, similarly took rare objects from a national collection and allowed Melvyn, curators and academics to take up various threads of a larger narrative. Radio 4 has also been working on a series inspired by objects from the Royal Collections, which does similarly and likewise (although the Queen owns this stuff, not the nation). Undoubtedly it is good to give some of these amazing things an airing, and it is great to have some real experts talking about them, led by good, story-telling presenters.

Perhaps the best thing would be to continue such exhibitions, events and programmes. The more the better, and the range of objects and ways in which they can be used increase. To that end, some museums encourage external responses to displays and objects. The NMM online object catalogue, for example, encourages adding information, whether it reflects expertise or idiosyncrasy. If you wish to group NMM objects by colour, form or fictional narrative, you are free to do so. Few of these are likely to work for other visitors and to gain wide interest and circulation, but it’s nice to think that some might someday influence a display – a temporary, small one, at least.

12 thoughts on “Objects and storytelling

  1. I would assume that the trend towards ‘narrative’ exhibitions also has something to do with the numbers and types of people who museums — or at least larger museums — are hoping to draw. Presumably there’s some actual research which suggests that certain demographics and percentages of visitors are more likely to relate to certain types of presentation than to others…? I’m personally someone who doesn’t need an overarching narrative to follow and will stare at every object in an interesting exhibition and read all of the text about it, etc. However, the majority of the people whom I see in at least the bigger temporary exhibitions are clearly not doing the same and seem to move through very quickly unless audio guides, films, panels and etc. are presenting them with broader narratives and themes. But needless to say, it’s not a positive thing to force objects or history itself to fit into predetermined narratives and to ignore all other potential avenues of presentation and interpretation, in the effort to attract and engage visitors! Surely museums can employ a combination of approaches.

    • Yes, there’s undoubtedly relevant museological research put there on this. I’d love references if anyone has them as I should be reading it! What’s interesting to me, though, is that there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of engagement with such work among those on the ground. Likewise, the process of getting an exhibition idea approved internally often requires a very headline sales pitch, which various groups need to OK. A clear story is certainly an easier pitch, whether or not it’s a better exhibition.

  2. I don’t see a problem with making the stories people tell about objects if they have a relationship with them being part of an exhibition. Thinking of my local museum, 19th century collectors often had a somewhat tangled relationship with both objects and narrative. So referencing what is going on behind the scenes and relationship between the collector and the collected may also be an appropriate topic.

    Sharing stories is something people do in very different and culturally specific ways. People are often not very open at sharing stories with strangers and we generally ask two key questions by way of greeting before we embark on telling stories with breathless abandon. Who are you and where do you come from?

    Once you have that information folks are perfectly capable of constructing narratives that have some relevance to that specific moment. I think the who are you and where do you come from part is what I want to see in a museum, the rest I can manage to construct without help.

    My initial bias on reading was that a heavy approach on narrative must have at least some relationship with ethnicity and identity issues or at least could become deeply problematic in this regard.

    Te Papa mentioned in original post threw up a fascinating minefield, that blew up in the press a few years ago in this regard. Surprisingly in reference to a backstage rather than front of house event.


  3. Not sure if I was clear.

    i.e. I want to know what an object is and where it comes from when I am introduced to it. I can than construct a narrative for myself built from that initial contact and introduction.

    • Quite clear – thanks @Jeb. I take your point, especially with the culturally sensitive objects you indicate, which create particularly tricky issues. Online catalogues are, I suppose, the best opportunity for giving people the basic information and letting them develop and – if they want – share their responses.

      Of course with gallery and exhibition displays it’s not quite so simple. Just pragmatically selections have to be made, since most museums own many more objects than they have space to display. Beyond that we want displays that can be enjoyed by visitors, used by school groups and that relate to contemporary issues/historic research/local interests etc etc. There is an essential tension right there.

      One thing, I think, is that the trend for object-poor, design-rich galleries has peaked and (perhaps?) passed.

  4. I was brushing up the other day on how I was taught to deal with such tensions as an actor.
    You don’t worry about the wider implications of the text just focus in on being the specific part you are playing. Who the hell am I, what am I doing at this specific moment. The character is going to be unaware of the wider implications of his action or broader sweep of the text but if you get the focus right the audience begins to draw wider aspects that are relevant to themselves from the play.

    May not apply directly but the issues do seem to have some relationship, which suggests exploration of craft based performance skills may be useful to a degree.

    • Interesting thought – I like the idea of integrity here. Of course, the writer or director can get actors to portray all characters needed to tell the story or create the experience, while the curator may not have the luxury of having some of the key objects they need!

  5. Indeed. After I initially read the post I went off and checked a few papers on the subject. While far from an exhaustive review on the subject I did notice a heavy influence from English lit. peppered with buzzwords from post modernism.

    I suspect on this issue you could get academics attacking this subject or indeed supporting it not for anything to do with the subject itself but simply for ideological reasons.

    English lit critics are not storytellers or indeed performers I don’t think you can learn much about such craft skills here although you may learn a lot about the manner in which certain schools of philosophy or critics like to view things. Which is from a very different and at times somewhat perplexing perspective.

    • Agreed that trying to include that touches on the methodology and language of literary criticism would probably be unhelpful for curators, but I think that postmodernism, taken at a basic level, is actually hugely useful. It encourages us to consider different perspectives and to not shy away from presenting more than one – even if they conflict – to the audience. Allowing visitors to create their own stories, find their own meaning, is, surely, inherently postmodernist.

  6. The ideas are very useful. Yes they are found in postmodern thought. Many academic articles seem to suggest it is some new conclusion that can only be found through the careful reading of a narrow group of philosophers, and that such readings are essential and the only way texts/ objects can be understood is through such a lens.

    One of the most legendary teachers of drama in the 20th century was fond of saying “you can talk about it but can you do it”?

    Storytelling is a doing activity.

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