Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

In Defence of the Tell-me-More-ists

15th November 2015

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that if you are looking for a point of view laid out with flamboyance and conviction then Maurice Davies is your man.  And so, for a passionately argued account of why museums should be more about feeling, less about thinking, and definitely less about words on the walls, can I refer you to Maurice Davies’ article, ‘ Why We Should All Do Less Thinking In Museums’ on the front page of this website.

But if, like me, you sometimes come out of exhibitions puzzled and thinking, ‘I want to know more, it’s just that I don’t want to know what they are telling me and I want to know things differently,’ then stay with me for a moment.

After fifteen years of museum-making we must have met every approach to museum interpretation possible.  We’ve met the ‘Tell-me-nothing-ists’ (and let the objects speak for themselves, but honestly, when did an object ever talk?).  We’ve met  the ‘Big Story-ists’ (laying out the displays to tell an overarching narrative, an approach liked by some and much disliked by others);  and we’ve met the ‘Small Story-ists’ (no story bigger than the object to which it belongs, which sounds convincing except that since every object can tell a thousand stories which one will we tell?).  We’ve met the ‘Minimalists’ (who believe in just a handful of plain words to explain the objects) and the ‘Kitchen Sink-ists’ (who believe in throwing everything at the object, film, sound, graphics, everything they can lay their hands on).  We’ve met the ‘Technologists’ (who believe that without digital no child will ever come into a museum), and the ‘Extreme Technologists’ (who say let’s dispense with interpretation altogether and let the visitor google the answers on Wikipedia), and the ‘Low Technologists’ (who say that children spend too much time on screens so let’s put everything into the analogue world instead);  and the ‘anti-Wordists’ (which may include Maurice?) who believe that words and things are fundamentally from two different worlds and will never sit comfortably together.

Science Learning, 1830, from Museum of History of Science, Oxford

Science Learning, 1830, from Museum of History of Science, Oxford

So how to choose between these different approaches?  And here, although your choices are partly dictated by what you think your audiences want, the fact remains that there’s an awful lot of personal taste involved – or, to be more accurate, an awful lot of ferociously held opinions.  Interpretation and Story is where all the arguments spark in the museum-making process.

And it’s all made more heated by the very small physical spaces with which we have to work – a graphic panel here, the edges of the showcase table there.  It’s like a war between eight different armies for the smallest amount of real estate in the world.

So where do I stand in all this?  Not usually with the ‘Tell-me-nothing-ists’ and nor with the ‘Kitchen Sink-ists’ and not with the ‘anti-Wordists’ either.  (I like words and I don’t see why they can’t work with objects.)

But if we are going to defend the rights of visitors to learn less – which seems only fair – so also we should defend the rights of the ‘Tell-me-more-ists’ of which, it seems, I am one.

Now add two more thoughts to the mix. When museums became institutions in the 18th century they adopted a plain, direct and authoritative voice, one that doesn’t reveal its doubts or the workings out behind what it is telling us.  And that was fine then, but now that the world is a riot of opinions, passions and irony,  how much longer before the cool, impersonal voice begins to seem clunky?  Likewise from the visitors’ point of view, for how much longer will all visitors be happy to learn the same things and to learn them in 150 words or less?  Aren’t you ever curious to know more?

So I would go in the opposite direction to Maurice, not towards less knowledge but towards more, just so long as it comes in more human, more varied, more imaginative ways.

And how, you ask, will that happen?  And here I would nominate the concept of the Museum’s Publishing department, if you are lucky enough to have one. Suppose we bring it up to date so that it encompasses film and podcasts as well as books, and digital as well as paper (because there’s far more elbow room in the digital world than in the real one) – a multitude of ways of thinking, some inside the gallery but lots outside of it, and a multitude of voices, not only the museum’s curators but also writers, poets, artists and film-makers.  Think how interesting that could be.

I am, as the kids would say, just putting it out there on behalf of the ‘Tell-me-more-ists’.