26th April 2014:  To the ‘Chaos at the Museum’ conference at Central St Martin’s where, amongst many ideas and much sociability, there emerges over lunch the idea of the Museum with many clones. The thinking goes like this – that digital technologies mean that every museum can be replicated a thousand times in digital form across the web, and that whilst many of these clones will be poorly made and unimaginative, there will be some (a few?) that will be beautiful, imaginative and more than a match, in their own way, for the real thing.

But stranger than this is the fact that none of these clones, nor their content, will be under the control of the original museum. Which gives us the dizzying prospect that we may get digital clones of the Natural History Museum that take the same artifacts and present them as evidence for creationism.  Or we may get a version of the Imperial War Museum where the artifacts are taken as evidence for the German point of view?

‘It’s going to be the Wild West,’ as someone at the conference observes with gloomy relish.  ‘How are we going to know the truth about anything?’

To all of which the objectors will reply, ‘But there have always been paper museums – because that’s exactly what a catalogue is, a museum in the form of a book – so what’s the difference now?’

And it is true that in (for instance) 1791 the Dutch brothers John and Andrew van Rymsdyk published a book that they called ‘the Museum Britannicum or a display in thirty two plates, of antiquities and natural curiosities in that noble and magnificent cabinet the British Museum . . . ‘   And then went on to list what they saw in the real museum, including ‘A brick from the Tower of Babel;  a very curious Coral, modeled by nature in the form of a Hand or a Glove; and the Flagello, an unlawful instrument used in the Irish massacre of King Charles I’s time, although far be it from me to advance anything that is untrue . . . ‘  (I love that qualification.)

But the difference now is that whereas in 1791 a book might take several months to cross the Atlantic a virtual museum now can spin round the world in thirty seconds and acquire an audience of millions, each of whom could visit the real museum with a different version of the content buzzing in their heads . . .  Thus raising the question, So who owns the Museum’s content now?

Hence the enormous and transformative power of the web.

With thanks to:

‘Chaos at the Museum’, Central St Martins, 25th and 26th April (www.re-xd.org)

Dave Patten of the Science Museum (@davepatten)

and Elaine Heumann Gurian (www.egurian.com) who collectively set this train of thought in motion . . .

(The image is from the Children’s Museum of Memphis Blog)

A conversation has been zig-zagging through the office, dying down when we’ve all been busy, and starting up again when we have some time on our hands.  It concerns the scale of the stories that museums tell and who should choose them?

It begins when the office decamps to the old Post Office building near Paddington to experience the latest Punchdrunk show, which – in case you haven’t heard of it – fractures its story into about twenty incomplete fragments and then allows you, the visitor, to wander through a series of ruined spaces, picking up fragments of the story in any order that you happen upon them, and reconstructing the story like a jigsaw puzzle.

After the show opinions are divided. Some of us like reconstructing stories.  Others think that a story should be more than a puzzle, that it should have feeling and meaning, and how can you get that from fragments?

This conversation dies down but starts up again in a different guise when some of us visit Riverside, Glasgow’s new Transport Museum, which tells its story through dozens of small and very personal vignettes, many chosen by the community, whilst avoiding a big narrative altogether.  Which makes some of us (okay, mainly me) wonder how you can make any sense of Glasgow without knowing the big story – the growth of cities, the rise and fall of manufacturing and shipbuilding, the two world wars, the coming of globalisation and all the rest.  If you don’t give your visitors the big story surely you are cheating them of any understanding of why their lives are what they are?

But with its emphasis on the personal and on small narratives the new Riverside has a Punchdrunk feeling.

By now you will have seen which way this post is going – that it is about the rise of a particular form of storytelling, which we can call post-modernism because it has no third-person, authorial voice – and what happens when that kind of storytelling meets museums.

This, I think, is the timeline that lies behind post-modernism and museum storytelling.  Back in the 70’s and 80’s post-modernism began to question the classic story form, to undermine the author’s voice and to question the big story. But back then it was largely confined to academia.  Then in the 1990’s post-modernism met the new technologies which were fueling the rise of self-created content – at which point the professional storyteller found himself increasingly unemployed as readers vanished and everyone became a storyteller.  And then finally, more recently, has come the rise of community museums, with a fashion for small, personal and very local stories. Which brings us back to Riverside and to Punchdrunk.

Small, personal stories are lovely but they are also safe. Big narratives are contentious, sometimes political, often debatable and difficult.  Small stories can be made to have a universal significance – in which case they are wonderful – but it takes a great deal of storytelling skill to give them that significance. I think it would be a pity to tell only small, personal stories and to abandon the big ones.

When we started making museums it seemed revolutionary enough to say that museums are storytelling places. But now the bigger questions are, ‘Yes, but who is going to choose those stories?  And how are we going to tell them?’  And since museums are one of the ways in which we remember the past and pass it on into the future, all this matters a lot.

So who do you think should choose the museum’s stories?  And who should do the telling?

Incidentally, if you are in search of a post-modern and immersive take on storytelling, rather than Punchdrunk I prefer Philip Pullman’s Grimms Fairy Tales, currently on at Shoreditch Town Hall in east London.  Like Punchdrunk the story is spread through the ruined spaces of an old building, but unlike Punchdrunk, each fragment, being a fairytale, is complete in itself.  And although each story is different each circles round and alights on a similar set of themes – which means that each story is more powerful than the last.

The stories go back before the rise of publishing and the spread of reading in the 18th century.  They may even go back before the invention of printing in the 15th century, back to a world when memory was everything and only stories of a startling simplicity and truthfulness were likely to be remembered and survive. When you listen to them you can feel them come alive – because the spoken word is their true medium.  On the page they lie down and die but when spoken they get up and walk.  In the Museum of Stories they would be prime exhibits.

Who should curate London?

Stephen Greenberg

13th April 2014:  In the last few weeks a ground swell of opinion has been gaining ground in the Sunday papers that the London skyline is about to be destroyed by too many high-rise buildings. So what is to be done?

London, we like to think, is a complex and romantic city.  We believe in a deep history, of Shakespeare’s London, old London Bridge, the Thames freezing over, the Blitz, Monet, Wordsworth, and above all, Canaletto.  London is both past and present – and always etched as such in our memories.

The photograph above shows the Gherkin, the Cheese-grater and the Walkie-Scorchie, as seen from Drake’s Golden Hind (a copy) on the south side of the Thames. From this angle these three buildings are definitely not the Three Graces. In fact, apart from the question of how we got from the timber construction of Drake’s boat to the engineering of these towers in less than 500 years, the big questions are: How did no one notice how awful these three buildings look together from this point?  And how did it happen that three of the best firms in the world could mess up so royally?

The reasons are myriad and have much to do with how a free market operates as well as the way architects tend to get obsessed with the thing they are designing.

In a museum we curate the objects and make still life compositions, so why not curate the city in a similar way?  Apart from the problem of who is going to do it, the idea that arrangements are made, that pattern books are used, that clusters and groupings are formed, is not unreasonable.  Aren’t these big forms on one level just a still life group, a lovely cruet set, mummy, daddy and baby gherkin, the three cheese graters?

If the city were considered a work of art then the first architect would be asked to design the next two buildings so that they would form a cluster, hold a conversation, anchor a part of the city, like the three towers do at the Barbican, whose design is loosely based on a famous but un-built Frank Lloyd Wright project, St Marks in the Bowerie.  What, three Gherkins?  you say. Well not necessarily, perhaps one Gherkin and two whatevers, but in the same visual language so that they are clearly a dialogue?

But this is not the fashion these days.  Even in one large development the work is usually divvied up, so that famous architects each get a block to do – as happened eventually at the World Trade Centre – although arguably, New York works better than London because it is a grid city and grids are very forgiving of the duds in between the great buildings.  London has odd-shaped plots, an under grain of a medieval street pattern and all the bends in the river, whilst the Manhattan Grid strides across America.

The French took a different tack and put all the skyscrapers out at La Defense on axis with L’Etoile around a new grand arch, whereas the City of London has gone into competition with Canary Wharf.

So who should curate the city? Well, not an architect, planner or developer, I think, because it needs people or trustees who can rise above the fray – so why not a sculptor, a curator, a poet or a historian – or maybe all four?  And what about the public?  Are they not grown up enough to have a voice?

In the meantime the uproar is fascinating.  So many artists and thinkers have put their signatures to letters or petitions, rather as Prince Charles once did because he felt that something should be done.  (Although I am not aware that any of the architects concerned have spoken up?  I keep wondering wouldn’t it be great if one of them had ever said, ‘My colleague should design this building, this group should all be of a piece’ – or better still, ‘Enough, let’s have no building here at all.’)

And we still have an opportunity to do all this on the South Bank at London Bridge. The Shard looks very beautiful, because like the pyramids, it has a shape and form that is scale-less from a distance.  The pale glass makes it almost dissolve into the sky so that it looks like a spire from another time.  If it is crowded with a collection of liquorice all-sorts surrounding it, that will be the end, and it too will become grace-less.  No other architect should be let near this cluster.