Museums: give us artefacts, not yarns
Using museum exhibitions to ‘tell a story’ patronises the public.
What makes you want to look more closely at a museum exhibit? Is it its beauty, familiarity or strangeness? Perhaps you want to figure out why it is there and how it connects with the objects around it. Or perhaps the label simply piques your curiosity.
Museum curators and educators seem increasingly concerned about how visitors regard museum collections. Curators are often defensive about the idea that museums are either boring or little more than visitor attractions, and they have looked for new ways to make sure more people understand the importance of their collections. The most popular is the idea of ‘telling stories’ about the objects on display.
Narrative itself is not new to museums. Displays are shaped by curators, who make decisions about the significance and connectedness of a collection of objects. The narrative is not always clear – visitors have to work out for themselves what holds the display together. In the British Museum, for example, the collections of monumental objects from ancient civilisations show the distinctive achievements of each civilisation. Sometimes curators impose more obvious narrative structures on displays, placing objects in a historical, chronological or thematic context in order to show how a sphere of human creativity and productivity has developed, through the interaction of ideas, emerging technologies and changing tastes.
An excellent example of this approach is the ceramics gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A long gallery stretching the full length of the V&A’s top floor, it provides a swift canter through the history of ceramics, from their early development up to the modern day. It shows the similarities and differences in pottery-making around the world, and how the craft’s development reflects growing global influences and technical and artistic developments. Then, after you have covered the history, there are some wonderful examples of how modern artists and designers have developed the form.
Some objects are simply beautiful and need no other reason for being in a museum. They can stand alone, representing the best that humanity has created. But when presented as part of a history that has been carefully researched by curators, archivists and academics, they help us to understand how people have lived in the world and made it their own. Through focusing on one object or a connected group of objects, museum curators can show what makes a collection significant – not simply beautiful or unique. In the V&A ceramics gallery, the narrative provides a global-historical overview of the development of ceramics, as well as a sense of its huge versatility and variety as a form, often blurring the boundaries between art, craft, utility and beauty.
Nevertheless, the imposition of narratives on museum displays is not unproblematic. Objects can be interpreted in a number of different ways; situating them in a narrative risks closing down alternative interpretations. In the past, most museums preferred to let objects ‘speak for themselves’ and allow visitors to work out what they may signify or represent based on minimal labelling and their own background knowledge.
While the story form may be a good way of getting young children to look more carefully at a painting or an object, storytelling can be a patronising way of addressing young people and adults. As any schoolchild knows, stories can be fact or fiction, trivial or significant; there is no expectation of them to tell the truth, to represent an objective, well-researched perspective. Stories can be complete fantasy, entirely personal and individual. If museum curators become storytellers, how do we know that they are not just spinning a yarn?
Behind the expansion of storytelling in museums is the belief that the form is completely democratic: anyone can understand and tell a story. As one insider has put it: ‘As museums continue to adapt to become more relevant in the twenty-first century, they have also been struggling with whose stories to tell, whose voices can participate in that telling, and how much power can or should be handed over to our communities to tell and share their own stories.’
This perspective underpins several recent initiatives by museums around the world to bring storytelling into exhibitions. I was alerted to one of the first projects in the UK, Every Object Tells A Story, while undertaking research on museums a few years ago. It was a costly (and ultimately unsustainable) educational and public-outreach project developed by the V&A. The project allowed anyone to upload an object for display on the museum’s website and tell their story about it. The project developers thought they were making a stand for the democratisation of museums and affirming the visitors’ sense of self-worth. To remove ‘unnecessary’ barriers between curators and the public, they elevated individual stories of personal possessions to equal status with curators’ expertise on objects with historic significance. Since then, there have been many similar projects in the UK, US and Australia.
These initiatives are clearly well-meaning in their desire to attract new audiences, engage with communities, and even expose alternative perspectives on museum collections. However, they negate the museum’s role as a source of knowledge and the curator’s role as judge of what objects are significant enough to be put on public display. If museums become storytellers, they risk losing their status as research institutions and arbiters of historical and artistic value. Instead of providing us with access to authoritative information and insights about other parts of the world, they offer us journeys of self-discovery. In the name of democratisation and personalisation, museum objects become therapeutic tools for self-affirmation and self-indulgence.
Many museum professionals think the democratisation of the curatorial process is a good thing, but perhaps they don’t realise the damage this is doing to their institutions. The very thing that makes museums such important institutions in society, their unique collections and the depth of knowledge their researchers and curators hold, is being undermined by a loss of professional nerve. Underlying this is a profound arrogance towards the public, a belief that without layers of intermediaries – learning officers, storytellers and the like – trying to equate unique collections with everyday paraphernalia, the public will be unable to grasp what museums have to offer.
Wendy Earle is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.
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