Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Museums And The Brave New World

7th December 2014

It’s all a little like living in the 16th century when they discovered the Americas.

Little by little museums are colonising the virtual world.  Up until now most of the attention has been on how to reach it – ipads, iphones, Google Glass? – but now the attention is turning to ‘But what do we want to say when we get there? What stories do we want to tell in this Brave New World?’ – and that’s where it gets interesting. Because whereas in the old, analogue world of things and paper your word counts were limited by the size of the label, in the brave new digital world where space is infinite you can, in theory, tell as many stories as you want at whatever length you choose.

So just as I am thinking this, the Museum’s Researcher puts me on to ‘Serial’, the latest podcast from This American Life – and an internet sensation.  (And when I say ‘puts me on to’, I mean as in ‘What? You’ve really never heard of it?’)  Serial is old-fashioned storytelling in a personal style – a long, short story, divided into episodes, linear, compelling, infinitely listenable-to, and currently achieving more than 5 million downloads – which are startling visitor numbers.  It is also storytelling that works perfectly in the digital world.

And so – because the best way to think of the character of a museum is as a collection of short stories – I have been looking to see what short story writers can tell us about how to write a short story and how to compile a collection of them.  If we are setting off as storytellers into the infinite space of the virtual world we might as well learn from the best.

I have been looking at my favourite short-story writers – Borges, Angela Carter, D H Lawrence – (here fill in whomever you like best) – to discover how much carries across?  Quite a lot, I think.

  • Don’t use words to close a subject down (though that’s often how we’re taught to write a label); use them to prompt the listeners to carry on floating upwards on their imagination.  It’s the magic of short-story telling, that the best of them imply truths that feel bigger than their own short form, and make the edges of the story feel as if it’s expanding.  You can test the power of a story by how long it lingers in the mind.
  • Don’t assume that your audience is only interested in stories about people like them.  If that were true I would only read books about people like me (I don’t) and fantasy would have died at birth.
  • Start to think about how to orchestrate a collection of stories – whether at the scale of an app or of all the stories the museum is telling.  A collection needs its own moods and colours.  Weather, colour words, viewpoints – all these things create atmosphere and feelings. The analogy here is with weaving, where many different shades come together to create a single effect.
  • Ask yourself, Do we need to stick to the tradition of museums as third-person, impersonal tellers of truths?  It’s a way of doing things that grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries, but before that, when museums were Cabinets of Curiosities, it was the owner who took you around and who told you his, inevitably, personal stories.  The objective, third person voice made sense when space was limited to a graphic panel or a label, but now we’ve got room to expand why can’t we have many different voices telling many different truths?
  • In fact, come to think of it, why can’t we get professional short-story writers in, to tell our stories?  Not to make things up – thought that  might be quite interesting? – but to use their story-telling skills to make our museum stories interesting.

I’m just putting it out there, as the kids would say.

In the end museums are likely to become broadcasters – ie, places that broadcast stories and set them floating on the infinite web.  Storytelling is going to become more important than ever.

And whilst we are on this subject, I saw two more ways of storytelling at the weekend – in the physical world, not the virtual world, but beautiful nonetheless. They both came from the Musee de la Chasse in Paris.  The first abandoned graphic panels and told the story of each room in fragments (both words and things) spread through the drawers of a wooden cabinet.  You open up the drawers to find each fragment and fit the story together. The second replaces a label with a hand-drawn animation.  Charm doesn’t begin to describe it.