I came to think about the role of narrativity in museum exhibitions when I saw the programme for the The Swedish National Exhibition Agency’s annual meeting in Visby last week.

The aim of the Agency (Riksutställningar in Swedish) is to promote exhibition development. And since Sweden has a pretty strong, and internationally oriented, tradition for exhibition making, these meetings are a kind of a gauge of the state of art of exhibition making.

What has prompted me to write this post is how the notion of narrativity permeated the annual meting.

The focus on narrativity is overwhelming. The meeting actually started with a “Storytelling workshop” with the argument that ”storytelling can act as a key to bringing an exhibition – or even an entire museum – to life”, and that “many visitors testify that what they remember from a seminar or a visit to a museum was the narrative”.

The storytelling workshop was followed by another workshop titled “A world of stories” led by the Agency officer in charge of exhibition methodology development. Quoting American poet Muriel Rukeyser (“The world is not made of atoms – it is made of stories”), he discussed personal development theories about the narrative self and ended the session (according to the abstract) by creating a world picture “in which the story is reality and reality is filled with stories”.

Both these introductory workshops thus put narrativity at the center stage of the Swedish annual exhibition meeting. And the following three days continued in the same vein.

For example, the director of one of the leading regional museums talked about “how storytelling can permeate and provide a profile for the entire museum operation”. The announcement for the session “A weave of stories” claimed that “everyone has a story” and that “sharing one’s story with others is an essential aspect of our cultural heritage and is part of being human”.

And in yet another session (titled “Starry-eyed: storytelling in museum and exhibition operations”) narrativity was set in opposition to knowledge communication; to “include knowledge in a narrative”, was seen as an alternative path to presenting facts (that’s really a strawman’s argument!). And, of course, the city of Visby experienced its first Storytelling café.

All this focusing on narrativity and story-telling at the Visby meeting is by no means a specific Swedish phenomenon. In the last decade or so, narrativity has become a fashionable approach to exhibition making all over the Western world. New Zealand’s Te Papa museum, for example, has formulated an explicit “narrative approach” to exhibitions and visitor programmes. A few minutes browsing on the net will easily convince you that international museum exhibition conferences abound with references to narrative theory.

In my view, however, the current enthusiasm for narrativity and story-telling in exhibitions is quite problematic.

First, because narrative is only one of several rhetorical modes. The classical modes also include exposition, argumentation and description (and perhaps others which specialists in literary theory are more knowledgeable about than I am). And these other modes play a very important role in exhibitions.

For example, exhibitions are to a large extent expository. That is, they present concepts, images and things, they explain and inform, they invite to discussion about how the world is. And even if the text isn’t the most important part in a exhibition – because material things and images are more important – an exhibition usually nevertheless is more like a textbook or encyclopedia article (the archetypical examples of expository writing) in three-dimensional space filled with material things, than a sequential story (narrative).

Exhibitions are also to a large extent descriptive. As the Wikipedia article on modes of writing says, “the purpose of description is to re-create, invent, or visually present a person, place, event, or action so that the reader can picture that which is being described.” Seems to me like a standard ingredient in exhibition making.

Argumentation is also a very common mode of exhibition making. That is, many exhibitions are made to discuss a topical issue, present arguments in favour of an idea, and convince the visitors about something – or maybe just provoke visitors to think deeper about something, to urge them into action. In other words, when a museum makes an exhibition about climate change (like here), it is not in the business of story-telling; it is thinking in terms of an argumentative mode of exhibition making.

In other words, my point is that narration is not the only mode of exhibition making there is – it’s probably not even the most important one. For example, here at Medical Museion, like in most other sci-tech-med museums, the galleries and installations are not particularly narrative. They reflect (like in most other kinds of museums) much more expository and descriptive (and to some extent argumentative) modes of expression.

I’ll continue in a later post with another reson why I think a too one-sided focus on narrativity in exhibition making is problematic. Stay tuned!

PS: The featured image is from http://www.exedes.com/storiesatwork.php.

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  • Adam Bencard

    Couldn’t
    agree more. I would take the critique one step further and say that the focus
    on narrative actively obscures some of the fundamental non-representational
    qualities that are inherent the what museums are best at – that is, bringing
    objects into our presence. What happens in
    narrative exhibition making, much like in historical writing, is that objects
    often are displayed in ways that work to minimize what Eelco Runia calls the
    metonymical qualities, in favor of a representational and narrative structure,
    in which the objects primarily serve to represent the text. So much effort is
    put into narrative continuity that the ability of objects to engage us in the
    non-representational aspects of our lives is undervalued and underused.

    And losing sight of
    these qualities, these object presences, is losing sight of something vital
    because they are part and parcel of the museum business. It might even be
    argued that they are fundamental part of our raison d’etre – if we cannot provide experiences that are
    qualitatively different from a textbook, we are on shaky ground. And most
    anyone who has been to a museum, much less worked in one, will agree that the
    objects have the potential of gripping us in ways that we do not expect and
    make us see ourselves and our surroundings in new ways.  Stories are important, but they cannot and
    should not be allowed to structure how we engage with and produce exhibition.
    Objects are valuable because they can show us the fragility and incompleteness
    of the narratives that we tell ourselves and each other – and thereby show the
    gaps between waht we say and what we do, the gaps between life as it is lived
    and as it is thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adam-Bencard/715699786 Adam Bencard

    Couldn’t agree more. I would take the critique one step further and say that the focus on narrative actively obscures some of the fundamental non-representational qualities that are inherent the what museums are best at – that is, bringing objects into our presence. What happens in narrative exhibition making, much like in historical writing, is that objects often are displayed in ways that work to minimize what Eelco Runia calls the metonymical qualities, in favor of a representational and narrative structure, in which the objects primarily serve to represent the text. So much effort is put into narrative continuity that the ability of objects to engage us in the non-representational aspects of our lives is undervalued and underused.

    And losing sight of these qualities, these object presences, is losing sight of something vital because they are part and parcel of the museum business. It might even be argued that they are fundamental part of our raison d’etre – if we cannot provide experiences that are qualitatively different from a textbook, we are on shaky ground. And most anyone who has been to a museum, much less worked in one, will agree that the objects have the potential of gripping us in ways that we do not expect and make us see ourselves and our surroundings in new ways. Stories are important, but they cannot and should not be allowed to structure how we engage with and produce exhibition. Objects are valuable because they can show us the fragility and incompleteness of the narratives that we tell ourselves and each other – and thereby show the vital gaps between what we say and what we do, the gaps between life as it is lived and as it is thought.

  • http://twitter.com/museionist Thomas Soderqvist

    Hi Adam, you are preempting part 2 of my blog post series on narrativity :-) Stay tuned!

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