A conversation has been zig-zagging through the office, dying down when we’ve all been busy, and starting up again when we have some time on our hands.  It concerns the scale of the stories that museums tell and who should choose them?

It begins when the office decamps to the old Post Office building near Paddington to experience the latest Punchdrunk show, which – in case you haven’t heard of it – fractures its story into about twenty incomplete fragments and then allows you, the visitor, to wander through a series of ruined spaces, picking up fragments of the story in any order that you happen upon them, and reconstructing the story like a jigsaw puzzle.

After the show opinions are divided. Some of us like reconstructing stories.  Others think that a story should be more than a puzzle, that it should have feeling and meaning, and how can you get that from fragments?

This conversation dies down but starts up again in a different guise when some of us visit Riverside, Glasgow’s new Transport Museum, which tells its story through dozens of small and very personal vignettes, many chosen by the community, whilst avoiding a big narrative altogether.  Which makes some of us (okay, mainly me) wonder how you can make any sense of Glasgow without knowing the big story – the growth of cities, the rise and fall of manufacturing and shipbuilding, the two world wars, the coming of globalisation and all the rest.  If you don’t give your visitors the big story surely you are cheating them of any understanding of why their lives are what they are?

But with its emphasis on the personal and on small narratives the new Riverside has a Punchdrunk feeling.

By now you will have seen which way this post is going – that it is about the rise of a particular form of storytelling, which we can call post-modernism because it has no third-person, authorial voice – and what happens when that kind of storytelling meets museums.

This, I think, is the timeline that lies behind post-modernism and museum storytelling.  Back in the 70’s and 80’s post-modernism began to question the classic story form, to undermine the author’s voice and to question the big story. But back then it was largely confined to academia.  Then in the 1990’s post-modernism met the new technologies which were fueling the rise of self-created content – at which point the professional storyteller found himself increasingly unemployed as readers vanished and everyone became a storyteller.  And then finally, more recently, has come the rise of community museums, with a fashion for small, personal and very local stories. Which brings us back to Riverside and to Punchdrunk.

Small, personal stories are lovely but they are also safe. Big narratives are contentious, sometimes political, often debatable and difficult.  Small stories can be made to have a universal significance – in which case they are wonderful – but it takes a great deal of storytelling skill to give them that significance. I think it would be a pity to tell only small, personal stories and to abandon the big ones.

When we started making museums it seemed revolutionary enough to say that museums are storytelling places. But now the bigger questions are, ‘Yes, but who is going to choose those stories?  And how are we going to tell them?’  And since museums are one of the ways in which we remember the past and pass it on into the future, all this matters a lot.

So who do you think should choose the museum’s stories?  And who should do the telling?

Incidentally, if you are in search of a post-modern and immersive take on storytelling, rather than Punchdrunk I prefer Philip Pullman’s Grimms Fairy Tales, currently on at Shoreditch Town Hall in east London.  Like Punchdrunk the story is spread through the ruined spaces of an old building, but unlike Punchdrunk, each fragment, being a fairytale, is complete in itself.  And although each story is different each circles round and alights on a similar set of themes – which means that each story is more powerful than the last.

The stories go back before the rise of publishing and the spread of reading in the 18th century.  They may even go back before the invention of printing in the 15th century, back to a world when memory was everything and only stories of a startling simplicity and truthfulness were likely to be remembered and survive. When you listen to them you can feel them come alive – because the spoken word is their true medium.  On the page they lie down and die but when spoken they get up and walk.  In the Museum of Stories they would be prime exhibits.

More debate amongst the Museum of Marco Polo staff on the role of stories in museum-making;  and specifically, what happens when we try to take the over-arching narrative out of the museum.  So, two after-thoughts.

The first is that if we group objects together visitors automatically assume that they are connected and accordingly will invent a narrative that links them together.  It’s the same process that makes film a story-telling medium:  when a number of images unfold, one after another, the viewer assumes they are telling one story. This happens regardless of the musem-makers’ intentions.  Visitors, it seems, want a big story.

Secondly, there is a quote from ‘The Rehearsal’ by Jean Anouilh, the 20th century French dramatist, which goes as follows –

‘Life is very nice but it has no shape.  The purpose of art is to give it some.’   (Jean Anouilh)

I thought it said it all.


For lovers of history there is nothing quite like an historical novel.  Hitching a ride to someone else’s imagination has to be the fastest way to travel back in time.  And the better the imagination the more amazing is the ride.

The genre seems to bring out the best in novelists.  Watching an historical novelist at work is like watching a tightrope walker.  ‘Look,’ says the novelist, teetering out ahead, ‘in my hands you can imagine anything.  Trust me and I’ll take you’ and at that – because historical novelists are nothing if not show-offs – she will throw in a few moves, like taking you to the guillotine with the hero, or startling you into falling in love with a murderer.

The past is a great playground for writers.  It is in fact good for daydreamers of all kinds – because it gives you room to imagine.  Writers go where they have most freedom.  In Marco Polo’s day that was probably to the ends of the earth.  Now it is more likely to be back in time. Because the more our own world feels familiar and predictable the more the past feels wonderfully and refreshingly peculiar.  Nor over time will it ever get less peculiar.  Because the past is a continent that for each new generation feels miraculously fresh and unexplored all over again.

And where writers go readers follow.

The current king of the genre is, without doubt, Hilary Mantel.  But over the years there have been others who have been, in their different ways, as good.  Ask an ancient historian what got them into history and quite a few will mention Mary Renault.  She wrote about ancient Greece with a trance-like, truth-telling conviction, as if she had somehow managed to time-travel and then had simply recorded the events that unfolded before her eyes.  I first read her at fourteen and was so mesmerised that I went out and bought a book on ancient Greece and – being an intense and geeky teenager – tried to teach myself how to read it.  What I liked about her books was that she never pretended that her characters were anything like us – her heros think that slavery is fine and women are lesser beings – why would they think anything else?   Reading her feels like falling into very cold water.

Another novelist that historians sometimes mention is Rosemary Sutcliffe who lived through the second world war and wrote in the 1950’s.  She so convincingly captured the grief and the chaos at the end of the Roman Empire that I find it very difficult to believe any other version of events.  There is surely a connection between the times she lived in and the novels that she wrote.  There is nothing like living through war and social collapse to make you feel a bitter, poignant sense of history.

But my own favourite historical novel is Wallace Bream’s ‘The Eagle in the Snow’ – a book that is bafflingly out of print although you can still get it second hand.  Like Rosemary Sutcliffe Bream lived through the second world war and also like her wrote best about the ends of empires.  When he was still at school he got it into his head that he was going to fight for the British Empire in India but by the time he was twenty Partition had come and the Empire was ending.  After many adventures he became a librarian and from the safety of his desk he wrote a great novel.

The hero of his book is the soldier Maximus who, with a handful of other old men, has been ordered to guard the frontiers of the Empire where the barbarians are massing, Maximus on one side of the Rhine and the barbarians on the other.  Summer passes into winter and back into summer again and still Maximus holds the line until a winter comes that they’ve been dreading – a winter so cold that the Rhine freezes over and the barbarians need only walk across to take the Empire.  The book is suffused with a sense of hopeless, helpless heroism – again and again Maximus is given a way out but doesn’t take it – and weeks after you have finished it you will find its melancholy tones are creeping into your everyday life and colouring your everyday existence.

Which brings us to another question, not about writers but about readers – the connection between the times we live in and the novels that make the most impression on us?  I am just back from Taiwan and Singapore where society is buzzing and the economies are flying along. Back home in the West  it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bream’s novel is so powerful because, what with the rise of the East and the decline of the West, we too fear that we are living through End of Empire times.   By Rachel Morris


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.