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The Seven types of Museum stories

16th March 2014: Somewhere near the beginning of the museum-making process there always comes the question, ‘How are we going to lay out our story?’ It’s probably the question that prompts more arguments than any other. So here are 7 ways we’ve laid out museums. Tell us how else you’ve seen it done and which ways you think work best?

1. Chronologically.  This is the traditional way that museums have always done it, by date order, from the oldest to the newest.  It’s an approach that’s been around a long time, and its problems are obvious – not least that it pushes us towards linear layouts and they don’t work well in museums. But lately chronology has been falling out of fashion and so, on the principle of speaking up for the underdog, I would say that not every chronological layout is dreary. I don’t mean calendar dates – which are certainly dull – but what lies behind them, which is Time.  Time is always interesting.  Time gives you cause and effect – this happened and it led to that – and on a personal level it saturates the story with pathos and regret. Many of the greatest novels get their poignancy from the sense of passing time – ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘War and Peace’, for instance.  I am only putting it out there, as the kids would say.

2.  Thematically.  This is the usual alternative to chronology and is generally assumed to be as interesting as chronology is dull.  In fact it is only as interesting as the themes that you choose. Choose dull, overly abstract themes and you will have a dull museum. We once pitched for a museum in Eastern Europe and proposed laying it out by the themes of ‘Heaven’ (for their art, religion and culture) and ‘Earth’ (for their everyday world – largely agricultural).  We lost the job.  Too poetic, said the Client.  Maybe he was right?

3.  Like Sheherazade.  This is the approach that says, ‘Look, a museum is not a novel and never could be. But it could be a collection of short stories.’ And it’s true that there is a very natural, easy affinity between museums and short stories.  In which case I would speak up for the frame narrative – the narrative through which you step in order to reach the short stories.  Hence the reference to Sheherazade, whose story frames the ‘Arabian Nights’, and is probably the most beautiful frame narrative ever invented.

4.  Geographically.  I have only seen this done a couple of times but on each occasion it was lovely.  The first time was in a British Library exhibition on the Silk Road (2004) where they laid out the story, city by city, as if you, the visitor, were making the journey along with Marco Polo.  The second example comes from the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul where they have laid out the Byzantine finds, street by street, to imply the old Byzantium city.  The effect is lovely – it gives you an eerie sense of past and present collapsing together.

5.  Subjectively.  This approach says, ‘Let’s forget the big story and concentrate instead on personal stories, on what it felt like to be alive then.’  The upside is that it gives you a powerful and emotional take on the past.  The downside is that you will always feel like a local museum because you have no bigger narrative.

6.  As journalists do it.  This is the kind of storytelling that begins as newspaper articles do, by laying out the entire story in the first paragraph and then drawing you further in to explore the details.  And a lovely example of it comes from the Oxford University Museum – built in the 1860’s, but despite its age still looking like no other museum that I know of.  Step inside and you feel you’re in a cross between a Victorian railway station and a cathedral of vegetation.  The wrought-iron pillars that define its many naves are festooned with iron flowers.  Where the pillars divide and spring outwards to support the huge glass roof, they turn into long meadow grass and woodland fronds.  Even the gothic door through which you enter is lined with stone vegetation.  From all this the story is clear as daylight, that the museum is about the earth, its formation, the development of the natural world and how we’ve learnt to understand it.  First you read the big story in the architecture, and then you step closer to explore its details in the showcases.  Simple – and perfect.

7.  As you, the Visitor, want to shape it. I have left til last the joker in the pack, because all the examples so far have been in the analogue world but now we have the digital as well – and in this parallel world we can shuffle stories and reconfigure them like a kaleidoscope, in any way we want.  In the analogue world the museum lays out the story.   In the digital world the visitor can shape it and reshape it and play it back again. We’ve hardly touched on what this can do for visitors.

There are of course a multitude of possible blends and hybrids and combinations of the above. But whichever way you choose one thing is certain. If you don’t begin by asking the question, ‘What is the story?’ and if instead you say, ‘What is all this talk about story?  My job is to put objects in showcases,’ then you have virtually guaranteed yourself a stiff and ponderous exhibition. It’s the nearest thing you’ll get to a law of the universe.

So how else have you seen it done and which ones have worked for you?