Paul Bowers is Head of Exhibitions at Australia’s Museum Victoria.
During this week’s Museums Galleries Australia conference, Paul took time out to write a few words about the term “narrative”, currently in vogue among cultural institutions.
Paul argues that narrative can be a dangerous label for cultural institutions to bandy about.
“Narrative is singular, but the museum experience (stories, facts, things, people, audiences) is diverse”, he writes. He points out that few people experience a museum or exhibition as a defined story with a beginning, middle, and end. He reminds us that the museum is “conceptualised in law, policy, and culture as a never-ending entity”, unlike stories which come to a conclusion.
Paul starts to imagine “post-narrative exhibitions”, more open-ended experiences that break the constraints of linear narrative and which also step out of the “genres” within which culture professionals often see themselves:
We are often in a heroic genre – questing against ignorance. We have a lot of scientist-as-hero, in which they use effort, brains and a ‘magical agent’ (such as a DNA machine) to defeat ignorance. […] We should think about our character – are we Aragorn, Frodo, or Gandalf? The kingly hero, the ‘nobody’ with a heart of pure courage, or the wise one who initiates others into their knowledge? A museum could be all or any of these, but we usually default to being Gandalf without it being thought through.
Paul also talks about “shared universes” and trans media properties like the world that has sprouted from Marvel comics:
In a storyworld, the makers, the characters, the audience, are all together in enacting a story. They all believe. So I see that we need to place ourselves within a storyworld as well, not as simply the abstract producers of the product people come to see. If I use Dr Who as an example, when i read the comics, watch the TV show, buy the products or indeed do all three, I am having a consistency of engagement with the storyworld. Dr Who is always clever and kind. But I am not shut out of the TV show if I don’t read the comics. How do we achieve that – how can all our audiences feel part of one consistent ‘Museum world’ whether they attend everything we do or just visit the website now and again? And how does the storyworld idea promote continued and deepening engagement? I might watch a show on Netflix just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I liked the Iron Man films. That’s very different from promoting a show to me, and I think it’s deeper than ‘brand loyalty’ – I’m not being loyal to the brand, I’m being loyal to a storyworld.
Paul suggest we look beyond the world of essays and prose fiction to poetry, for a less structured experience, one which grants more power to the reader:
Literature is an interesting metaphor. We try to think like novelists, or the great essay writers. But I think exhibitions are closer to poetry. Individual moments, brief and rich in meaning, clustered together in suite and bound together as one entity: exhibits as poems, an exhibition as a volume of poetry, and the museum as a body of work of a range of poets.
But I’d point to another form, too: the short story. Deceptively similar to longer prose forms, the short story at its best manages to fold great swathes of experience and vision into a tiny textual construct. It is not a path from beginning to end, but a space which you can explore in different directions.
The great Alice Munro – my beloved Alice Munro – put it best, in the introduction to one of her story collections:
A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.
Alice Munro imagines a story as a building to be explored, containing multitudes. And maybe museums, galleries, and libraries – all those cultural institutions which exist for their users to explore – could be like her stories too: not fixed paths leading us helplessly from beginning to end, but spaces at once familiar and surprising, ever enticing, comfortable enough to welcome us but challenging enough to merit repeat visits.