Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

More on the Storytellers’ Complaint

20th July 2013

July 20th 2013:  Responding to Rachel’s post (‘The Storytellers’ Complaint’) about the fashion for avoiding any grand narratives in museum-making – the case can be made that this trend is a major cop-out. I am with the historian Tristram Hunt on this. He argues that ‘the place of the progressive past in contemporary debate has now been abandoned. So much of the left has mired itself in the discursive dead ends of postmodernism’. What is actually going on, he argues, is ‘the left’s flight from social history as a political project, that seeks to lay out all the tensions and conflict that really lie behind our island story.’

Without the big narrative museums don’t need to place the stories in an overall structure or time-line. They don’t have to take a line or grapple with history. They lose the ‘Once Upon a Time’ beginning. And they don’t discover how people know they are trapped or caught by the sweep of big history, the impending sweep of major events destroying the lives of individuals and communities – the impact of wars, the closing of the shipyards or the mines. Presenting the Holocaust without the ‘top-down’ narrative arc and just the compelling personal testimony and stories – in other words without the driving motive – you would lose the layered, composed and edited structure.

There are plenty of examples from TV drama series of how the ‘intimate’ and the ‘epic’ can work together. The Sopranos and the Wire are mostly intimate dialogue, but you are always aware of the bigger context – from their masterful title sequences (1min 36 sec), if nothing else. Just the title sequences alone give a structure and a meta-narrative. In fact the stronger the big, narrative frame the more intimate stories you can put in – because you don’t get lost. Focusing only on the intimate throws away the contextual and the causal.

But my biggest reservation is that we are creating an unchallenging template that takes away from a museum’s power as a communicative medium – so that all the talents that make an HBO box set, a film, an opera, or a play – the script-writer, director, editor – are diminished. It means that you don’t need an auteur or a creative director. It’s just easier to ‘test the coherence of the individual story displays and their interpretive approach’, as stated by one museum that has rejected historical narratives, and then sprinkle these stories anyhow in displays. This is playing with content.

I think the ‘Harry Potter World’ (in Watford, north London) gives the lie to this approach – because it has a great story behind it and great artefacts, albeit all fictional. It is planned expertly and moves between parts that are structured and parts where the visitor can wander at will, from a great Welcome to Dumbledore’s study (a cabinet of curiosities) to a massive props store, to a ‘Huntarian’ museum of weird creatures, to the animatronics of a science centre. It is a masterful piece of museum-making in a cheap shed on an industrial park but made with the content professionals who made the films. And it looks after all the visitor cohorts stunningly – as validated by Trip Advisor.