The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

6 November 2013

Transmutation #22 - Electric elephants: exploring the narrative qualities of exhibitions

Ariane Karbe's research focuses on Hollywood Movies, and how they can allow us to create innovative and moving exhibitions. I'm intrigued about the collections of small plastic animals presented on the front table...

For Ariane, it was a revelation to learn that at the beginning to film history, films were not used to tell stories, but to show attractions: the electricution of an elephant who had killed a guard provides the workshop with its title. This form of film echoes the way in which modern exhibitions show events. But this form of film is not inherent in its medium. Similarly, Ariane asks, how far is it possible to bend the form of the exhibition to create interesting and moving stories?

She begins with the story of a curator, who was so proud of his objects and his knowledge that he just wanted to share it all. Then semioticians arrived in the museum, and the disjunct between the word and the object arose. The curator wondered if objects could be considered representations, like words - limited, but communicative. Then politics entred the museum, and the curator had to admit that he had only shown his own perspective. When educators arived, he learned that he had to accept the multiplicity of audiences and the value of their own opinions. Then designers engaged the curator with emotion and stories. But, thought the curator, what is a story?

What turns a story into a story? What turns a film, a book, a radio play into a 'story'? What is it's essence? Is it the thing that makes you go 'woah'? Something that you can relate to on a personal level? A journey? Something with a beginning, a middle, and an end? A thing which tells something new? Reflective and reflexive? A device by which different episodes are cohered into a narrative arc? A situation in which an inciting incident changes the circumstances, and the situation is altered by the end? Something that you, as reader, you cannot participate? Something to trigger your imagination? For me, a story is a set of strategies, linguistic or otherwise, deployed to represent some aspect or aspects of reality and imagination. It is made powerful, says Ariane, by the links, established through narratological or other literary devices, between two or more units of information.

Today, each group is asked to curate an exhibition using the animals on the table and the materials we have been given. The idea is to base the exhibition on a story made up of three to five events. One person in the group, takes the viewpoint of the visitor, evaluating the exhibition as it is in the process of creation. Another person needs to note down the process and questions which arise in the production of the exhibition. We'll see what happens...

Eureka Henrich takes on the role of notetaker for our table. We have selected a cow, a fox, a parrot and a giraffe, a river and some snow. We are puzzled, at first, by the scale of the animals in comparison to each other, and we discuss multiple options for how these animals come together. We talk about their domains, their behaviors, but it takes us some time to actually create a story. And we have to think about happy endings? What kind of consequences should our story contain? And should it contain a moral message?

We told to leave our exhibitions and notes on the table, and are asked to talk about the challenges we faced in creating our exhibition. One of the most interesting challenges is how people dealt with the possibilities this exercise offered for dealing with taboo subjects - sexuality, for instance.

The exercise throws up many problems - the structure of story, its physical realisation, visitor perception, political and theoretical issues. Sometimes, Ariane says, you can't narrate an exhibition as you can a film or a book, and perhaps it isn't useful to think of exhibitions as stories in the same way.

The idea of narrative is, for me, a very interesting one. In museum studies, I think the idea of narrative is not always fully understood or exploited. Used incorrectly, it can be limiting. Used well, and more extensively understood, the ideas of narratology and literature can be a tool for critiquing existing modes of museological being, and making these institutions anew.

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