Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Who should choose the Museum’s stories?

23rd April 2014

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.