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The Case Against Museums Telling Big Stories

It’s my first visit to Buyukada and the Museum of Marco Polo.  I’ve explored them both virtually many times, of course.  But this is my first time in the flesh world, to borrow a rather creepy phrase from digital enthusiasts.

And what a place this is!  From my digital explorations I was aware of the museum’s wondrous stories, but never before imagined the power of the museum’s smells, its particular atmosphere or the varied moods of its myriad spaces. And the collections!  I hadn’t anticipated the startling juxtapositions of objects, or the varieties of scale:  on screen everything was similar in size, but in the flesh some things soar above you and others are so small you have to peer closely to see the fine details.

More than that, is the impact of the other visitors. Such a variety of people, big, small, young, old, tourist, local, expert, generalist.  Some are studying, scribbling in their note books;  others are chatting with friends, only glancing at the collections;  in some family groups, the children’s interests rule as they drag their adults from thing to thing; in others they are seen and not heard, kicking their heels and bored, so, so bored.

Some people (only a few, mind) are going around systematically; most flit around the room darting to things that catch their eye. Some people are spending perhaps five minutes looking at single objects, others never stop moving, continually doing that weirdly slow ‘museum walk’.  Some visitors are drawing, others are snapping on cellphones, not looking at anything directly.  Some are using the museum’s official audio guides, others are following unofficial ones, streaming to their phones.  Some people prefer the museum guide leaflet, others the laminated room sheets.  One person seems to be reading every label and looking at nothing, another is just looking and not reading a thing.  Some people stop and read the introductory panels in each room, even discussing them in detail with their companions.  Other people march straight past, not looking at anything until they are over half way across the floor.

I think you get the picture.  Every visitor is having their own particular experience.  Sometimes that’s determined by what the museum has done (the labels, panels, sequence, audio guides . . . ) but often it’s not.  And maybe we can try to group their experiences and behaviours to give us a simple taxonomy.  We can separate explorers, doing their own thing, from followers, dutifully going round in the museum’s version of the ‘right’ order. We could say people are there for reasons that are social, intellectual, emotional or even spiritual.  Or that they are people who prefer to learn by looking, doing, reading, listening or in a myriad other ways.

But this attempt to bring order can’t disguise the fact that the Museum of Marco Polo’s audiences are as varied and wondrous as the museum’s collections.

In the museum’s temporary exhibitions there is a sense of sequence and narrative, of beginning, middle and end – although even in the carefully structured exhibitions plenty of visitors do not go round the ‘right way’, turning to left instead of right when they enter a room, or skipping key sections, especially later in the visit when the feet ache and the attention wonders.

But in the main ‘permanent’ galleries, people can follow myriad different routes.  The strength of a museum is that like a painting or a website it can be non-narrative.  You don’t have to follow a pre-set sequence.  How liberating is that! How jealous of curators must be writers of novels, the composers of music, the directors of film, radio, tv and plays – all stuck with a time-based linear format.  Constrained by fixed narratives!

But in museums we can be free.  Free from beginnings, middles and ends. Free to liberate our visitors to create, usually unknowlingly, their own paths, their own experiences.  The first curators of the Museum of Marco Polo realised that if their museum was in some way to represent the world and life itself it would at heart be chaotic and confusing, always becoming but never arriving.

Then their successors sought order.  First came those who attempted visual order – the aesthetes or antiquaries;  then those who overlaid taxonomic order – the encyclopedists or cataloguers. For some time now we’ve had those who try narrative and story as an organising principle – the journalists and social historians.  Now, definitive expert encyclopedias have gone and print newspapers are heading for the exit.  I wonder if museums will soon adopt new organising principles.  Or principles of non organisation.

When news, and people’s sense of the world, comes increasingly from overheard or glanced at fragments on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.  When information and opinion is thrown out there in fragments, and received almost at random.  What does that mean for the museum?  Will we persevere with structure, with taxonomy and narrative?  Or will we find ways to free up our flesh world presence?

We could achieve what film, novels, tv and radion never could.  Something without predetermined sequence, non-linear, responsive to every individual visitor’s interests and input.  Somehow I feel museums have the potential to be the flesh world equivalent of social media. I don’t yet know, but I hope that future visits to Buyukada and the Museum of Marco Polo will help me think about it.

Maurice Davies is a partner in the Museum Consultancy.  You can find him at http://www.museumconsultancy.co.uk