At the Museum of Marco Polo, our storytellers (there are two of them – one older and one younger) will tell you that museums are places that tell stories in three dimensions and that you can always tell a museum that does it well because artefacts, stories and spaces dovetail sweetly together in ways that are utterly satisfying.
And they will also tell you – so long as you are not looking too bored – that how intuitively the story unfolds through the spaces is partly a physical matter (the shape of your spaces, ways in and ways out, the routes through) and partly a story-ish issue (how are you shaping your story? where are its peaks, its troughs and its turning points?).
And it’s exactly at the point when you start to decide these things – so quite early on in the museum-making process – that passions begin to run high. Because although all this may sound geeky the fact is that those who shape the story determine what’s important about it, and what’s remembered and forgotten. As always, the storyteller is god. No wonder passions run high.
So how then should we shape our story? For a long time there was no debate around this point. Chronology ruled – the principle of ‘and then and then and then’ – and had done since at least the 19th century. But by the beginning of the 20th century chronology had become caught up in the big, colonial story, the grand narrative of Britain as a major power. It ceased to be about neutral Time and became about progress – more specifically, our, the West’s progress. By the middle of the 20th century it had become so laden with dubious values that it became discredited. At more or less the same time post-modernism came along and under its pressure the big narratives began to splinter anyway and to fall into different viewpoints.
Thus revealing the questions that underlie all these discussion. Is there a story bigger than the individual objects? What is it? Who chooses it? And how do we express it?
In our experience when we sit in a meeting and ask, ‘So how are we laying out this story?’ back will come a dozen answers. This is how the conversation tends to go.
Person A will say, ‘Surely we are not doing this chronologically?’
‘So how else?’ asks Person B.
‘Thematically,’ says Person A, ‘Definitely thematically.’
‘Themes are harder,’ says Person C. ‘You have to work harder to explain them and to draw the visitor across to them. At least with chronology everyone gets it.’
‘Actually they don’t,’ says Person A. ‘Most people don’t know any dates at all.’
‘But chronology isn’t about dates’ says Person C, ‘Chronology is just the idea that one thing happens after another.’
‘But how,’ asks Person D, ‘are you going to lay out a story chronologically when you don’t know which way people will go through an exhibition? You can’t make them follow only one route. An exhibition isn’t a book.’
‘No,’ says Person C, ‘but you can use objects to tempt them in one direction or another.’
‘Can’t we just be old-fashioned here and let the objects lead?’ asks Person E plaintively.
‘Difficult,’ says Person A, ‘These are little scraps of pottery. They don’t say much to most visitors. We are not talking about exquisite porcelain.’
‘Maybe it’s neither themes nor chronology,’ says Person F suddenly. ‘Maybe it’s like a collection of short stories and you can sample as many as you want in any order that you want.’
‘I like that,’ says Person D, ‘I think it works better for museums.’
‘Have you read that novel by Perec called ‘Life: A User’s Manual?’ asks Person G. ‘It’s all about the inhabitants of a black of flats in Paris. Every room and every person in it has a story, but you can read them in any order that you want.’
‘That sounds perfect,’ says Person D, ‘just the kind of story-telling that works in museums.’
‘So do you mean?’ asks Person C, ‘that you have all these short stories but you don’t have a big, over-arching narrative that holds them together? You just wonder around and discover them.’
‘Exactly,’ says Person A. ‘That’s how Perec’s book works. And I think it’s right for museums too. I mean, which one of us believes in those big narratives that museums used to tell?’
‘But unless you have a big story visitors get lost because the big story guides them. And anyway I thought you said that a museum isn’t a book,’ says Person C more plaintively than ever.
And it’s at this point that the Museum’s storytellers want to leap to their feet – and sometimes do – to say, ‘But hang on a second, are you sure you have understood what Perec’s doing here, because that’s not how I understand it.’
Perec’s book is a strange and wonderful novel about the inhabitants of a block of flats in Paris. The book is a vast hymn to people and their infinite numbers of things as well as stories. It bursts with lists and has the same manic quality that many museums have, the feeling that everything that has ever been made in the world could be here, in this verbal junkyard. Though written pre-computers, reading it is weirdly like following a Google search, with one thread leading on to the next and no one moment seeming to have any more significance than any other. The stories at the level of the people are wonderful but the book appears to avoid a bigger story. If you are wondering how to lay out an exhibition and puzzling over the relationship between the over-arching narrative and the smaller ones, then Perec – you might think – has given you an answer.
But then look again and you may see something different. Because at the heart of the book are two characters, Bartlebooth and the painter Valene, each of whom – in his way – is in search of the bigger story. Bartlebooth has made it his life’s work to paint landscapes, unpick them into jigsaw pieces, and then reassemble the jigsaws. Valene also wants to create a big story, in his case, a painting of the entire block of flats and everyone inside it, including himself (a classic case of the storyteller wanting to be inside the story as well as outside it). Bartlebooth is also a collector of maps – another example of the big picture; and although it is true that he tries to destroy his reconstituted landscapes it is also true that there is always another character that tries to stop him. In fact I think the entire book is about precisely this – what is the shape or the pattern that lies behind the surface clutter of life? – and who is the person that creates that shape? And it is not at all clear that Perec comes down on the no-big-story side. The book doesn’t feel like a random collection of short stories; on the contrary, it feels strongly framed, by the outer walls of the apartment block, by the covers of the book and by the author’s intentions.
All of which is by way of saying that if you are looking for a way to take the god-like storyteller out of a museum, then Perec’s not your man.
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