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What Museums Can Learn From Title Sequences

A fascination with title sequences may seem like an anorak pursuit – until you Google it.  Then you discover a like-minded fellowship of admirers of the taut content of the introduction to movies. And you also realise that there’s something here that every museum could learn from.

My own fascination began early, with the stylish Bond and Pink Panther title sequences, their combination of film, graphics, music, drama, wit and animation. it has continued ever since.  A great title sequence encapsulates, paints a picture, embodies the essence of what is to follow.  Setting the scene is a fine art and an old one- just think of the prologue   in Shakespeare. It is great storytelling.

What has this got to do with museums, you may ask?  My feeling is everything.  How often do you arrive at a museum – and somehow fall over the threshold, disoriented.  There is no introduction, no ‘why am I here?’

The first time I realised the importance of title sequences was when designing the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in 1996.  As luck would have it, Laurence Rees was making his landmark BBC series ‘The Nazis:  A Lesson from History’ soon after we began.  The title sequence is astonishing.  It grabbed the story.  It is 4 minutes and 31 seconds of original footage, and it is brilliant.

We replayed it many times, breaking it down with a stopwatch so that we could discover how well-edited film can convey so much with such economy. And you can still see how this translates into the opening of the exhibition, which contains home movie, old photographs, testimony, stock footage and subtitles, and works as one complete title sequence in space.

I have had a few opportunities to do this again.  But one of the ways that I liked best was when we began the Surrealism show at the V&A by getting the visitors to step through a pair of scarlet curtains that evoked the 19th century theatre tradition.  Beyond a theatre stage, a magical story and Surrealism unfolds before you.  Title sequences are something that theatre does naturally – and always has done.

Museums themselves, like exhibitions, can pull off the same trick.  At the Olympic Museum in Lausanne the visitor walks the title sequence. The ascent through the Park and past hte Olympic flame is their own ascent to their own Mount Olympus.  And at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo we turned the entrance stairs into a 3,000 year hourney back in time from Cleopatra VIII to Khufu. The visitor goes up on a trvellator.  if this journey had a voice-over, it would say ‘Previously on the Pharaohs’.

The masters of this genre are the makers of some of the recent US TV series – ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Rome’ and ‘True Detective’.  They are masterpieces of film, editing and sound, with constructions as complex as a sonnet.  There are essays online on the semiotics of the 1 minutes and 59 seconds that it takes for Tony Soprano to drive the New Jersey turnpike, all seen through a haze of cigar smoke.

So why can’t I walk into a musuem and get the story with this depth, concision and degree of artistry?