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?


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

Stop me if I have said this before, but in the middle of London there is a museum that is quite unlike any other.

It’s Pollocks Toy Museum, which sits in two lopsided houses in the middle of newly-booming Fitzrovia.  Pollocks is the creation of a museum-making family called the Fawdry’s, and is stuffed from top to bottom with toys, mostly English and Victorian.  The whole place has a shimmer about it of Folk Art and lost Englishness – a pre-industrial feel of beaches and Punch and Judy’s and merry go rounds and wooden toys. It’s a hymn to a golden age of children’s toys, and also to mythical Victorian childhoods,

There are  dolls, dolls houses, rocking horses, toy theatres, teddy bears and the magical pull of miniatureness.  All of which ought to suggest a cosy comfortableness, but somehow doesn’t.  In fact, it is a little dark, faintly surreal, somewhat eerie, and utterly compelling. Which is right of course because very few children ever had the mythical Victorian childhood; for most Victorian children life was much tougher.

And in a world where museums are increasingly looking samey, there is nowhere else like Pollocks anywhere in London.

So how do you get to be a museum, which is quite unlike any other?  Well, for a start, you keep it in the family.  It was Marguerite Fawdry – French, business-like, determined – who first created it after World War 2 and who fixed the look and feel of the Museum, as well as its collecting policy – which was focused on neglected, 19th century, English toys.  It was their neglect that bothered her.  Like many  another collector she was setting out to right the wrongs meted out to inanimate objects.

The Fawdry’s were toy theatre lovers, fans of popular art and artists such as Edward Ardizzone, Bawden, John Piper and Eric Ravilious.If you had told me that Pollocks was created by an artist I would have believed you.  But then that’s what collectors are like.  They live at a sideways angle to Time.

Marguerite passed the Museum on to her son John who in turn passed it to his son Eddy, the present owner.  It is Eddy that I am interviewing. He is young, genial, smiling, but not given to saying a lot if he can say a little.

‘Were you pleased to inherit a museum?’ I ask him.  ‘Not at all,’ he says, ‘i was a bit shocked but I got into it.’ ‘And your father?’ ‘I don’t think he ever really wanted it.’ ‘And your son?’ ‘He’s a bit like me.  He’s probably a bit resistant but he will soon realise, like me, that he doesn’t have a choice.’

We talk about the advantages of not looking like every other museum – which are considerable.  (You wouldn’t publish a series of identical books so why do we create identical museums?  Museums should be allowed to come in many different shapes and forms.)

And we talk about the Musee de la Chasse in Paris, a Marco Polo favourite and another deeply poetic museum.

And we also talk about the delicate question of Time and what happens when a museum doesn’t change.

Pollocks and a few others like it are the last of the Old Museums – all gloom and brown showcases. When they were the norm forty years ago it seemed right to update them – it still does – but now that there are only a few of them left you somehow want to hold on to them like an endangered species. And yet if a museum doesn’t change it becomes in the end a museum of a museum, frozen in time and sinking deep into pastness. Museums are about Time but are also perpetually confused and wrong-footed by it. So how, we wonder, can you change these museums without killing their magic?

I ask him if he knows more about the artefacts than is written on the labels.  ‘Sometimes,’ he says, and I surprise myself with a pang of longing to know more. If there’s one thing that’s frustrating about Pollocks it’s how little it tells you.  The more I come back the better I know the objects and yet the more I want to know about them.

I wonder out loud what his visitors ask for and he says, ‘A cafe.  Lighting.  Interactivity.’ (‘What do you think they mean by interactivity?’ he adds.)

‘And what if you inherited a million pounds?’ I say, ‘What would you do then?’  ‘I’d mend the roof,’ he answers promptly.  ‘Really?  So who usually mends your roof?’  ‘I do,’ he says, ‘I get up there on a ladder.’

And I ask him what his visitor numbers are like.  ‘It varies, but there are roughly the same amount from year to year.’ ‘So visitor numbers are stable?’ ‘Yes, if that’s the technical term.’  ‘And your showcases? When were they last replaced?’ ‘I don’t think they ever have been,’ he says, surprised.

It costs a lot to run a museum. Pollocks is in Fitzrovia.  Step outside the front door and you can hear the sounds of Charlotte Street and Tottenham Court Road.  This part of London was once a backwater but the real estate here now costs an arm and a leg, cafes and fancy restaurants are springing up in every direction, and each year Pollocks feels more and more like an anomaly.

‘And can Pollocks really survive?’ I ask.  ‘I don’t see why not,’ he says, genial and smiling, optimistic but also defiant.

I hope it does.

Pollocks Toy Museum is at 1, Scala Street, London W1T 2HL  Tel:  020 7636 3452

By Rachel Morris