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The Whole Story

This is a very patchy summary of a talk I gave at the British Museum on narrative in museum and gallery education. It misses out whole chunks, explanations and examples of projects. Not the whole story but you get the gist.

The museum as a story or as a random container of things?
The museum is a cabinet of curiosities, a container that encloses things from disparate environments. It’s always boxed or enclosed like a story, but never complete as a collection – it’s a neverending story or a collection of story ingredients.
The definition of an archive as a beginning or origin, that is always open to new additions.

How do I define my field/our field?
I used a diagram, because I think in systems (sectors, connections, overlaps…) to show how my field of work encompasses:
· Collections/subjects: museums, galleries, archives & libraries, participatory arts
· People: interpretation, education, interdisciplinary arts, user experience

What is narrative? What is it for?
Philip Pullman described how poetry is what gets lost in translation whereas myth is the story that survives any narrating or poetic translation.

At root of my talk was about whether story helps you conceptualise, what kind of story helps you conceptualise, and how much is story separate from more systematic learning.
I think that museums, especially art & culture museums, contain a deep tension between:
- a taxonomical presentation of knowledge through artefacts as parts of a whole story, a scientific distance from the past
- and the artefact seen as a symbolic or metaphoric wonder, as a whole containing many possibilities, and a nostalgic preservation of a past mythical way of knowing

Also education (in the West since mass education begun) has a deep tension between:
- creating rationalists, trained for systematic work, trained out of childhood
- nurturing whole people, not losing the qualities of the child

What are some ways of doing narrative in cultural interpretation?
- A grand narrative with a mix of iconic (art) and illustrative objects
- Communicating a complex idea with several stories. Abstract concepts aided by the particular virtues of stories that make ideas real or personalised. (e.g. science museums)
- Telling the stories that originate in cultures. The myths of past & other cultures both as ‘museum artefacts’ to be preserved, and as context for understanding the artefacts they relate to (e.g. audioguides & interactives in anthropology museums)
- A story making a loose framework for experience. The artefacts are central, the narrative is simply a linking or shaping device. Often there are several narrative threads
- Providing several stories to explain discrete objects e.g. captions in permanent displays
- Providing tools for visitors to add stories about artefacts e.g. Every Object Tells a Story
- Collecting people’s stories as artefacts e.g. oral history
- A grand narrative made from people’s stories & voices e.g. Imperial War Museum North
- Storytellers & theatre companies making & performing stories in loose relation to artefacts and museum spaces
An example of this, Unfolding Andersen by theatre rites at the British Library summer 2005

This was a very contemporary reading. Rather than telling Andersen’s life story or one of his stories, the team created a story about two visitors to the exhibition who began by exploring books and ended up making origami shapes, puppets & entire sets from them, which enabled the characters to ‘tell’ the stories of the Tin Soldier mixed with the Ugly Duckling. It was a perfect example of breaking apart the text to interpret it, making a creative reinterpretation at the same time.

What are some ways to do narrative in cultural education?
By education, I mean structured engagements with learning groups as opposed to presenting objects in spaces with information. I don’t mean to imply didacticism by the word education.

•‘Jumping off’: Not attempting an interpretation, but using artefacts (or only elements within them) as a springboard for ‘tangential’, personal or contemporary storymaking or storytelling
•‘Reading out’: Interpreting an artefact through a careful examination of what is communicated by it, and finding out about its context to uncover what isn’t communicated.

A desirable mix of the two:
• ‘Reading in’: Interpreting an artefact by bringing your personal stories and contemporary knowledge to bear on your exploration of its mysteries.

An example of this was the British Library project with Yorkshire museums, libraries & schools, Inside Story, about the Ramayana, Shahnama and Haggadah

For a full account of the project http://www.bl.uk/learning/cult/inside/story.html
This raised debates for us about:
how much context the children needed in order to really understand the stories, what were the key concepts needed
how definable these stories were in terms of their originating context or how much they are universal
how important or not it was for the teachers to be familiar with the stories
· how much they learned about the historical, geographical and contemporary cultural context through the stories themselves or how much they needed to do extra investigating
how much of the long & multilayered stories they could embrace, yet how much they could actually gain from the fragments and iconic characters they did focus on
how much the ancient books we had, and the digitised fragments they saw, were actually able to convey the stories or how much they needed mediating,
how meaningful it was for the children to make new stories and new art works from the iconic characters and key ideas they were introduced to

What about digital storytelling?

We are starting to see an enormous impact of multimedia & the web in terms of visitors being more in control of making new narratives and inserting their own, both within and beyond museum spaces. The digital realm enables meetings between an individual perspective & the complexity of global heritage because of its systems for both taxonomy and spectacle. Three examples are:
http://www.whatwashere.com/ – a map-based tool to enable capturing of everything interesting that ever happened. It enables heritage organisations to post photos & sounds, as well as information, about the history of places. But mostly it’s for ordinary people, working through partnerships with libraries & learning settings.
http://www.movinghere.org.uk/ – new developments are to be launched in Spring, including education resources and more audio & video clips resulting from intensive projects with diverse community groups & museum & archive partners around the UK.
(Through my new company Flow Associates I’m helping with marketing & planning strategies for both these examples.)

Is it possible to conclude?

Richard Kearney in ‘On Stories’ says that a story humanises time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.
We can apply this to our field by considering how cultural artefacts are the lasting moments, the objects that remain from past times, the remnants of particular narratives, that we are compelled to organise into patterns, plots or myths. We have huge opportunities to humanise and allow people to make sense of our real & virtual spaces.

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