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.