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The Case For Museums Telling Big Stories

Few things cause as much argument in museum-making workshops as the subject of the Big Story.  As in:  should museums tell big stories?  Are the big stories that they tell us true?  And how can they tell a big, forward-flowing narrative in free-flowing exhibitions where visitors can wander wherever they want?  In Maurice Davies’ article, The Case Against Story (see below) Maurice puts the case against museums as big storytellers whereas the Museum of Marco Polo is putting the case for – or at least for-ish.

So first, for non museum-making readers, Small Stories – the ones that connect to individual artefacts – are always popular with visitors, because they can be human, engaging, witty, passionate – whatever you want.  But the Big Story or the Big Idea? – those (often invisible) threads of meaning that hold galleries or entire museums together – are another matter.  Big Stories are far harder to express, at least without lecturing the visitors or turning the experience into a book on the wall – but does that mean that they’re impossible?

Read Maurice’s article for a more nuanced version but essentially the case against Big Story goes as follows.  Firstly in a free-flowing art form, which is exhibition-making, how can you compel visitors to follow one narrative thread? Secondly, now that the internet has dismantled narrative, nobody wants a single story imposed on us when we could make up myriad stories of our own with myriad beginnings and endings.  Thirdly, when museums did tell big stories (way back in the 19th and early part of the 20th century) they often got the big story shockingly wrong, producing colonial narratives that we are still unpicking today.

So that’s the argument against.  But what about for?

Stories come in many different shapes and forms. Sometimes they are tight, often tragic narratives – of wars, genocides, slavery – with clear beginnings, middles and endings.  Sometimes they are closer to Big Ideas, of which there might be two or three in an exhibition. And sometimes they are more like collections of short stories, with or without the framing narrative. It all depends on what you’re saying.

Sometimes there is a big narrative that needs to be told (genocide and slavery, for instance) and just because they’re difficult that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  The truth also is that when the story is big enough and powerfully enough told – as we discovered when we did the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum – visitors will largely follow a single narrative thread.  But it’s also true that sometimes the objects cry out, not for one big narrative but for a collection of short stories – or a narrative with many different viewpoints.

So I think the better question is not, should we be telling big stories? but rather, when is the Big Story the right choice?  And how can we tell it well?  And here, I grant you, it gets difficult.  Because not every visitor is good at ‘reading’ a three dimensional space.  Over-tell the story (over-signal it, make it too explicit, tell it like a book on the wall) and it will suffocate the objects and co-opt them into a narrative that they don’t want to tell.  Under-tell the story (don’t put enough weight on it, don’t signal it strongly enough) and the experience feels incoherent and the objects die anyway.  Sometimes a story works beautifully the day before opening when the gallery is empty but becomes incomprehensible when the gallery is crowded.  There’s an art to telling a story in three dimensions and there’s an art to reading it.

The spatial argument, that visitors don’t go round the exhibition in any one order, is complicated because it depends on the space.  There are some galleries with only one way in and one way out and a kind of forward drift in between – and here you could tell a Big Story with one beginning and one ending, so long as you allowed the visitors to meet many different middles in between.  But there are other galleries with many entrances where a Big Story would die – although I have seen these galleries designed with a strong central piece – in the belief/hope that visitors will go to the middle first?

But honestly?  I think that those who argue against Big Story are really saying, Let us make up our own stories – we don’t want to be told what to think any longer.  And as someone who spends a large part of her life on storytelling isues, who am I to argue?  Except that sometimes I too want to relax and let someone else tell me a story. And I do notice that twenty years into the history of the Internet, Big Story is back with a vengeance – Game of Thrones, House of Cards?

One last point. Maurice imagines the Museum of Marco Polo as being a place of wonders, through which the visitors can drift in no particular order, marvelling at what they see. So, absolutely yes to a place of wonders and drift, but I am also absolutely sure that there will be a thread of story running through the Museum of Marco Polo, that thread being the journey that Marco Polo took and the cities he met on the way, with each city unfolding, one after another, and each one more wondrous than the last.  The Story shaped like a Journey is one of the loveliest stories of all.

What do you think?  Which one of us is right?