A museum is a story is a house and a home – @paulrbowers

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.

Read Paul Bowers’ “On Misusing ‘Narrative’ In Exhibitions” here.

Library Island: The Professional Benefit of Play

What is the professional benefit of play? When is it better to impose an objective, and when should we learn through experimentation and happy accident? How can we “fail better” without wasting valuable resources?

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In this month’s Library Life magazine, I explore these questions through an account of the Library Island project I’ve been developing during my time at the State Library of Queensland.

Could it be that our next innovation challenge is to break down the walls between fact and fiction? Could story-based, open-ended play be as valuable for professionals as for children? Could it be physical, low-tech, and improvisational as well as digital?

You can read Library Life April 2017 here as a PDF download – my piece starts on page 12.

Perpetual Stage: The Value of Pretend Play

I just binge-watched a TV show; rare for me, these days. I love TV but it’s so time-consuming. Your evenings and weekends just seep away in front of the screen.

But I felt I had to watch FX’s Legion, the show about a troubled young man who may be mentally ill and may have psychic powers. It’s a gorgeously shot and well acted eight-part show from Noah Hawley, who was also responsible for Fargo.

I saw people online complain about the show being too whimsical and indulgent; I’ve seen it called pretentious and precious.

I’m not convinced. Yes, a lot of goofy stuff happens in the series – but I found it easy to forgive, because it felt like the adult version of kids playing with action figures.

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Did you do that as a kid? I couldn’t get enough of it. Transformers. Action Force. Manta Force, even. I played Star Wars, too – I didn’t even like Star Wars films much, but I loved the toys. When I went to hospital when I was about 10 years old, I found He-Man figures in the children’s ward. I’d never played He-Man before, but it didn’t stop me.

Read more

Visions from Bundaberg

Last weekend I was the guest artist at “Dispatches from Bundy”, a writing workshop in the Queensland town of Bundaberg.

Working with staff from Creative Regions and Queensland University of Technology, our team took a group of local writers and storytellers through a two-day session aimed at engaging with stories from the past, exploring visions of the future, and nurturing regional literature.

One of our activities saw participants creating science fiction stories and postcards from future worlds. We stitched these stories into a timeline of future history stretching a thousand years hence.

Check out the result via YouTube, incorporating images by Peter Miller aka Scribbletronics and music from Disasteradio.

Marvellous, Electrical: Consider the Ravens

“Take only what you need…share what you have. The idea is not that radical. We teach sharing to our kids but it gets lost somewhere along the way.”

In this week’s Marvellous, Electrical, Brisbane activist Andy Paine tells of a life spent striving to live without money.

Consider the ravens over at Marvellous, Electrical.

Write Here: The Worst Song I Ever Loved

In Library Journal this month, Henrietta Verma discusses writers’ groups and gives a shout-out to The Worst Song I Ever Loved, a writing project I ran for the Parkes Shire Library in New South Wales.

Library Journal calls me an “Australian librarian”; I’m neither of those things, but will let them off as the project was devised for a creative residency in public libraries Down Under.

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The Worst Song I Ever Loved was based on a university task created by Daniel Nester.

You can find out more about the project here at The Signal In Transition.

Brisbane Writers Festival

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I’m appearing twice at the Brisbane Writers Festival this September.

The program is out today in papers across the city and you can see it online at the website of organisers UPLIT.

On Saturday 10th September from 4-5pm, I’ll be at Queensland Art Gallery speaking on “The Rules of Engagement“, a panel with Kate Pullinger and Caroline Keins exploring the changing ways that artists, institutions, and communities interact.

Then on Sunday 11th September, I’ll help a panel of scientists and science-fiction writers to explore science, imagination, and identity. Join Dr Maggie Hardy, Prof Tamara Davis, Ellen van Neerven, and Dr Maree Kimberley for “Science and Belonging“, which I’ll be moderating from 11.30am-12.30pm at The Parlour in the State Library of Queensland.

Find out more at the UPLIT / Brisbane Writers Festival website.

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: Move

The people who made me came to England from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and other places besides. My parents met in Spain, a country where I would work in my early twenties. From my first year of life, Germany and Spain were as important to our sense of family as the green fields of England.

I was born in London, that great world city, and I moved straight back there from the country when I turned eighteen. I was a student and a barista at the Soho YMCA. The people around me were from Finland, Austria, Colombia, Ireland, Brazil. I kept studying: my doctorate looked at refugees, exiles, and émigrés who came to Britain fleeing the Nazis, and from that I went on to work with asylum-seeking children.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to travel and work overseas.  I’ve been made welcome in communities thousands of miles from where I was born, found new family, found new friends; I hope I’ve done that, in turn, for people who have come to live and work alongside me.

It wasn’t so much a choice as a vocation. Everything in my life has involved crossing seas, crossing borders. So much of who I am is founded on a sense that our lives and identities are about routes more than origins; time more than territory. That freedom of movement is vital.

This week’s Marvellous, Electrical finds hope and horror and secret identities in an ordinary-looking Queensland cafe.