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Sophisticated Exhibition-Making: When is a story not a story?

Cathy Ross on how story-telling is now a meaningful concept in museums. From the Director to the press officer, staff talk about galleries telling stories, rather than presenting collections or imparting information. We want to engage visitors’ hearts as well as minds. Our exhibition-making is becoming ever-more sophisticated and we know the techniques we should be using: set the scene, show don’t tell, use drama, vary the pace, don’t wander off into boring byways, keep the focus, make sure there is some kind of link between the beginning and the end; take people on a journey.

All of these things are relatively straightforward for a story-teller using words on a page. But what about museum folk: how do we take all the above into account in a three-dimensional walk-through experience with multiple authors, multiple agendas to meet, shifting budgets and a professional anxiety which makes us evaluate everything before committing to anything?

The Museum of London’s experience of creating the Galleries of Modern London was an exercise in story-telling in that the overt aim was ‘to tell the story of London from the Great Fire in 1666 to the 21st Century’. The galleries opened in May 2010 and whether what we have ended up with can be accurately described as a ‘story’ is open to debate. In truth, the new galleries are something rather more fragmented: a website or perhaps an anthology – a collection of stories large and small, social and human, within a chronological framework. Nevertheless, story-telling is a useful short-hand for what we were trying to do and the galleries can be said to have the look and feel of a story-experience, as far as the visitor is concerned. There is also no doubt that story-telling informed the way the content development was approached, and it is this that I want to discuss here.

Overall, the content development took the best part of five years and was a ‘learning experience’ for everyone involved. Right from the beginning story-telling was a factor in defining and positioning the task of the people working up the content. Making the mission story-telling, meant that it was not dominated by any one particular museum agenda. We were not primarily about providing access to collections or creating new learning resources; neither were we about arguing a historical viewpoint or indeed creating a forum for debate – although all these things came into it. The belief that we were telling stories gave us a fundamental ’intellectual look and feel’, perhaps even a set of values: stories imply an audience and also a story-teller – which in a way gave legitimacy to our own role as drivers of the content, albeit letting other voices speak, as the best story-tellers do.

The story-telling concept was also important in establishing common ground between the three internal constituencies of interest that made up the content development teams: curators, learning staff and designers. One of the principles adopted at the project’s outset was that the content should be developed through the creative synergy of these three types of museum staff working closely together. The traditional planning progression of curator writing the storyline; learning staff tagging on the national curriculum needs and finally designer, starting from cold, realising it all in 3D was thus merged into a much more organic and ‘fuzzy’ process. This was a new approach for us and something of a leap of faith, particularly the decision to use an in-house design team on such a big and complex project. However, as we argued in our HLF bid, we felt we had the right people in place to make such a leap, and we saw the creation of a partnership of equals between ‘the design voice’, ‘the learning voice’ and the curatorial voice’ as absolutely key to what we wanted to do.

Extracts from the Stage One bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (2004):

‘The project is designed to retain the Museum’s ownership of its key delivery processes. Whilst recognising the need for external project management and specialist advice, we feel strongly that the core creative processes will be more fruitful and relevant if realised through the skills, ideas and values of Museum staff.

‘This is a project about content and, in particular, the synergies between learning, collections, ideas and spatial design. In all these areas of expertise the Museum has staff who have the right mix of skills and who work to the world-class standards that this project needs.

‘The in-house design team will have an advantage over external designers in that they can have regular contact with all members of the project team, in particular those responsible for the content and learning. By dispensing with the designer/client relationship the designers will become a core part of the team. The design will more accurately represent the core vision and values of the Museum.’

Story-telling thus provided a neutral way of describing the collective endeavour of the content teams, a description that acknowledged the need for different sets of museum skills.
The scope of our story-telling task was immense: 350 years of one of the world’s greatest cities, drama in abundance, all human life, and over a million relevant items in the Museum’s collection. As a consequence, content development for the Galleries of Modern London was very much an exercise in what to leave out, rather than what to put in. This perhaps makes the Museum of London’s experience slightly different to other museum situations, where the task might be more about building stories up from smaller collections, or subjects with more defined boundaries. Nevertheless, it may be useful to reflect on some of the points that came to shape the content in the new galleries.

In the beginning
A lot of time was spent at the start of the process discussing the big fundamentals. What sort of story were we telling? Was this a temporary exhibition writ large or something with different qualities: was this a short story or a novel? I have always felt this to be a useful analogy for the difference between temporary exhibitions and permanent galleries: temporary exhibitions being best suited to a tightly-controlled argument where a single narrative strand is explored in a linear way. Permanent galleries, on the other hand, can sprawl and be more discursive: the museum-equivalent of a blockbuster novel. In fact the metaphor we took for the new galleries was not a novel, but a Hollywood film.

‘The galleries could be seen as having two guiding metaphors – Hollywood film and treasure trove.

‘As a film, they have to present the drama of history. They have to convey a sense of people being caught up in the big events that have shaped London over the past 300 years, struggling against the odds or triumphing over adversity, experiencing both success and failure. The emphasis here will be on storytelling, human interest and theatricality. London must be more than just a backdrop, but an active agent in the story, its character affecting people’s behaviour and outlooks. At this level the galleries must engage visitors emotionally.

‘As a treasure trove, the galleries will have to enable the visitor to step out of the story, stop off and delve for things that they are interested in themselves. The galleries have to make it easy for the visitor to find out more (eg through text, new media, programmes, contact with staff, resources in the information zone) and communicate to them that the Museum is eager to help.’
(Extracts from ‘Galleries of Modern London Design Brief’)

The purplish prose reflects the enthusiasm with which we set about the task. But the point expressed was a key one for us, the idea that the gallery was not a single narrative; that it was a multi-layered thing in which different exhibits faced different ways, conceptually speaking. This of course chimes well with current thinking about the way visitors behave and learn in galleries: ‘flitters’, ‘followers’ and ‘searchers’ all have to be catered for. Perhaps the most crucial point for us, and one which became more dominant as we got deeper into content development, was the notion that the detailed information about objects (the ‘treasure trove’ content) was best placed outside the gallery completely. Running parallel with the gallery development was a digitisation project, Collections Online, which was conceived as a sort of appendix to the galleries but became ever more important in its own right as the place where the Museum discharges its duty to share information with the public.

Collections Online had a physical presence in the galleries, as a bank of computer terminals adjacent to the new displays. However its significance to the content development was more fundamental in that it freed up the exhibition to take a more theatrical and experiential approach to presentation. The displays we have ended up with are extremely text-light: minimal panel texts, short captions, and many objects captioned by group, rather than individually. However, the light text in the galleries is made up for online, where everything is captioned individually and visitors can indeed find out more. Sometimes this online information consists of more traditional type of object information – pattern numbers and makers marks, for example. But more often than not it is the human stories behind the object: details about the life stories of the objects’ owners or donors, for example. In many ways Collections Online, rather than the gallery text, is where much of the human context for our objects can be found: which is of course ironic given that the galleries aim to be thoroughly people-centred. Nevertheless a ‘less is more‘ rule for text was probably a good maxim for galleries that aspired to sweep their visitors along in a Hollywood film. Evaluation will tell us whether visitors would have preferred richer detail along the way.

A long journey
Content development was not a quick process, nor a particularly efficient one. The content team, with its three constituencies of interest, spent much of its time analysing and discussing everything, from the conceptual framework to the ambient sound; to the despair of the professional project managers who nevertheless learnt to live with this ‘organic process’. Hundreds of meetings were held; hundreds of documents were produced. We created elaborate gallery message charts cross-referenced to types of exhibit; cross-referenced to learning outcomes. We made diagrams of main themes, sub themes, sections exhibit types and key objects. We evaluated the key messages, changed our minds, about the ’must-haves’, found some new ideas, demoted others then reinstated them. Overall, the process sometimes felt unstructured, but it actually ensured that most if not every choice about the content was scrutinised and questioned: nothing was taken for granted. By 2006 we had got up to 18 key messages, which were then reduced down to five; and finally, when we actually wrote the text in 2009, further condensed to two. Curiously enough, these were more or less the two that back in 2005 we had asked our designers to pay particular attention to, as set out in the original Design Brief.

The two headline messages that should resonate in the design are:

London as a global city
The galleries must emphasise London in its international context, a place which has always derived its power from elsewhere, whether through goods or people. We want to promote a more complex picture of London’s past as the capital of a nation inextricably linked with places overseas. The content will also compare London with other capital cities.

London as a people’s city
The galleries must present London as a city of ‘bottom up’ pushing, rather than ‘top down’ pulling. It is not a city which has developed through strong state or royal direction. It is a city of stubborn individualism, diversity and distrust of authority, teetering on the edge of being ungovernable.

(Extract from ‘Galleries of Modern London Design Brief’, 2005)

So were the three years of ‘organic’ content development a complete waste of time? Absolutely not. Other content-creation tasks were happening alongside, of course, and the long gestation period brought some rich benefits. It played a part in bringing the different types of museum staff together in productive common endeavour – an essential success-factor. Everyone on the team learnt to think about gallery content from a new point of view, and everyone, I believe, developed personally.

It also meant we made better decisions, particularly at the end of the process. By the time that we got to the delivery and value- engineering phases, where we faced new choices about what to leave out, the team as a whole knew the content inside out. These final choices were of course critical to the final product, as was also the relationship with the audio-visual subcontractors, who came in at this relatively late stage, and hence at a point where we had very precise views about what we needed each digital exhibit to do. Far from inhibiting the creativity that the AV people brought to the project, I believe this made the relationship an exceptionally productive one, a true exercise in joint enterprise which ensured that the digital exhibits were thoroughly integrated into the main story, often working with original objects to create idiosyncratic but imaginative juxtapositions of old and new.

And finally
The content development process was certainly organic but it was also relatively controlled. This is not to say that we didn’t consult externally: a programme of formal evaluation ran alongside the discussions and we were supported by a group of academics and other advisors. However, it is to say that every decision was essentially a rational one: every object and every piece of text was analysed and assessed against other possibilities so that we could be sure that it would earn its keep.

However, there was a point, where rational analysis had to fall away, in favour of story-telling, which meant a change in tone for the text and a recognition that the final choices about what to leave out were determined by more subjective things: the look and feel of the space, for example. I would even go so far as to say that the look and feel of the space may be the single most critical factor in a museum’s story-telling success: if the space doesn‘t communicate, the words can’t either. In our case, our designers pulled the whole thing together to give a final effect that felt like the galleries were indeed a journey through the story of London; maybe not quite a Hollywood film but an experience with a coherent look and feel, a sense of dynamic change and a distinctive mood. Looking back at the 2005 design brief, I’m struck by how closely the final design stuck to the original starting point. Back in 2005 we said we wanted the spaces to have an ‘urban mood’:

‘Overall, the galleries should feel complex, creative, dynamic and diverse – like a city itself. They must be crammed with stimulating and interesting things – whether objects, films, images or things to do. They must be object-rich (‘objects’ to include film and images) but objects should be used theatrically and imaginatively and not only as passive specimens: objects should be thoroughly integrated with interactive exhibits. Within the overall density, there should be changes in mood/atmosphere and pace. There can be small areas of calm or contemplation, centred round any particularly moving exhibits.

(Extract from ‘Galleries of Modern London Design Brief’, 2005)

This mood was delivered very handsomely in the new galleries, and my gut feeling is that it is this sensory richness, this seductive physicality, that visitors receive and understand as delivering ‘ the story of London’.
So when is a story not a story? Perhaps, when it’s the product of a long chain of decision making and team-based collective effort held together by some atmospheric design. But for the Museum’s visitors, hopefully, it’s just a story.

Dr Cathy Ross

(past Director of Collections and Learning, Museum of London)

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