Having spent the last 15 years making museums and exhibitions I can tell you that there are few things that stir up as much trouble in a meeting as the question of Story – as in the question, asked usually by me – ‘So what’s the Story this exhibition is telling?’ (Because it is remarkably difficult to create an engaging display unless you know what proposition you are putting forward – in other words, what is the story?)
The arguments that greet this question tend to gather around two fault lines. First of all do museums tell stories at all? And here the world divides between museums that look baffled and say, ‘But museums are about things, what is this talk about stories?’ and those that say, ‘Of course we are telling stories, implicitly or explicitly, whether we like it or not – about empires, beauty, identity, possession, the desire to collect – how could it be otherwise?’
The second fault line – even more bitterly fought over (though sometimes it is disguised as the first) – focuses on whose story is it? Because museums are curious places to which a great many people passionately lay claim. The museum feels that it is theirs, but so do each and every one of the visitors, not to mention the Friends of the Museum and the special interest groups.
But personally I think there is a third issue, more interesting than the other two. Not Is it a Story? or Whose Story is it? but What makes a good story and how can we tell it better? Because some of the resistance to Story is actually – though this is not always clear – a resistance to bad story-telling. Which is to say, to clunky, over-obvious, forced, shapeless, un-engaging or simply untrue story-telling.
For my part I believe that museums are a language, a three-dimensional language of things (plus films, illustrations, photographs, text and much more), which are driven by ideas and sometimes add up to a story – more specifically, to a novel or an autobiography or a collection of themed short stories. I also think that at their best they can be as good as any great film or novel. But not everyone reads a museum confidently. It takes a while to learn to decode a museum and to extract its meanings.
That being so, there are two basic conceptual shapes that weave their way through the language of the Museum. The first is a Story and the second is a List. A story is simply a way of shaping experience and it has been around a long time – for thousands of years to our knowledge and probably longer. (The Iliad is a story; so also is the Epic of Gilgamesh.) The story-shape bends round upon itself and in its classic form has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending may only be implied, it may feel open, or it may end only to begin again in another way, but in some form or other the ending is there. The Story form lends itself to describing a human life – which may be why it feels so natural to us. The Story form says this happened and it led to that. The Story makes connections between things and so it is a way of thinking, of making sense of the world.
When it comes to museums I would say that the John Soane Museum is a story, or to be more precise, an autobiographyy – a portrait in three dimensions of his soul and an expression (particularly downstairs in the basement) of his bitter, ageing grief.
The List on the other hand is the opposite of a Story. The List is a series of items and by definition it has no shape. It has a beginning but it has no middle and if it has an ending it is one that feels arbitrary, as if the List has simply stopped. Sometimes the list implies that it could go on and on, that it is in fact an infinite procession. The List may also vary in its degrees of randomness. It may feel as random and disordered as the contents of an attic. It may on the other hand be organised alphabetically. But organising by alphabet is not storytelling and does not give the List a story-shape.
Like the Story, the List has also been around for thousands of years. Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ is essentially a list of the cities that he visited – although no less magical for that. Lists can be hypnotically beautiful. And like the Story the List also has something to say about the universe. In particular it tries to capture the wonder of its swarming, teeming, infinite nature. ‘I must tell you,’ Marco Polo keeps on saying, ‘You may rest assured that this is no more than the truth’ – and then he lists for us the dazzling strangenesses of this other world that he has stumbled upon. It is its teeming quantities that so enchant him – its infinite number of cities, the miles of battlemented city walls, the fishes and groves and exquisite gardens – out of which he creates a shimmering, dazzling procession to bewitch us.
Lists in museums are to do with wonder and amazement at the sheer plenitude of the universe. At the end of the 18th century two Dutchmen, a father and son called Jan and Andrew Rymsdyk, created the Museum Britannicum, a catalogue of the objects inside the British Museum. It is characterised by a blizzard of Capital Letters and a dazzling poetry. Lists can sometimes be astonishingly beautiful. And because they imply that the universe is infinite, that it has no bounds and that there is no list that can express its hugeness, they can also impart to a museum the feeling that it contains within its four walls – but only just – the infinity of the universe.
So the interesting question is, how do Lists and Stories work together in museums?
The conventional answer is that each thing has a story attached to it – and this is true, up to a point. But a better answer is more complicated.
Because it all depends on the level you are at. At their topmost level – or do I mean their deepest level? – all museums have an idea behind them, an idea you can describe, and sometimes – often – these ideas have a story-shape, with a beginning, a middle and an ending, and so they feel like a story. On the other hand a museum is also a list. And as you, the visitor, descend into the detail of the Museum (from the front door to the door to each gallery and on to the showcase) what you are doing is passing, continuously, from the sense of a Story to the sense of a List, until you come to each individual object, to which – if you are lucky – a story has been attached. So that you end with both an object and a story.