At the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Dharam, Saudi Arabia, I worked on a landmark new natural history gallery. This high-tech space was designed to appeal to teenagers and families with little museum experience, and to bring together science and human stories.
The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture is the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia – a public meeting place with a cinema, performance spaces, cafes and galleries created to an international museological standard.
Arabian Journeys is a natural history gallery, curated by the Natural History Museum in London. Over a three-year period we created an interpretive strategy for audiences that were very tech savvy but had little experience of museums. A key audience was teenagers and young families, and the content had to be detailed and educational, but fun and easy to digest at the same time.
Much of the content was digital and we also devised a series of games to make the journey through the content experiential and enjoyable. Visitors would feel as though they were exploring this unique and fascinating landscape themselves.
We wrote scripts for the Gallery and devised a Style Guide and Text Strategy, which the client applied across the entire Center.
Scriptwriting for exhibition panels and interactives
Following a competitive pitch, I worked on the scriptwriting for the Little Company of Mary Heritage Centre in Nottingham, design by Event. The centre tells the story of the founder of the Little Company of Mary order of Sisters, and the impact of the order on the world today. I approached the scriptwriting as a storytelling exercise, developing the characters and creating a sense of narrative anticipation.
Mary Potter was a remarkable woman who founded an Order of Sisters in Nottingham, inspired by a series of visions she’d had in her mother’s rather ordinary Victorian living room.
The Heritage Centre represents the spirituality of the Little Company of Mary, today and through history. Sisters devote a lifetime to this spirituality and its many levels of meaning. It was a challenge to do it justice in a Heritage Centre, where audiences include the very young and some who have no knowledge of Catholicism at all.
Working with Event Communication’s design, the scriptwriting explained Mary Potter’s life using the structure of a story with character arcs and cliffhangers. Complex concepts were explained authentically but simply so that everyone would come away understanding this important story.
With the transformation of Merthyr Tydfil’s Old Town Hall into a new Arts Centre, the client was looking for an exhibition for the building’s public spaces that would tell the story of the town’s industrial history, grab attention and feel inclusive, as well as working well within a late nineteenth century building. We looked for a narrative that was unique to Redhouse, and that conveyed the hope and spirit of the town through its rising and falling fortunes.
Extensive consultation with local experts and local community groups was undertaken so that the narrative and content for the exhibition would be inclusive and responsive to local opinions and interests. We created a conversational story – one that encompassed different opinions and voices. Difficult stories and conflicting viewpoints were not avoided, but added to the richness of the narrative. The story is told across the public spaces of the Old Town Hall, using sound and grouped standalone stories to appeal to visitors using the café, theatre or on-site college facilities.
Ditchling Museum in Sussex asked me to write their interpretation plan and report for their stage 2 HLF funding application. The contract was extended to include extensive consultation in focus groups, online surveys and exit polls and the HLF application Audience Development Plan & Activity Plan. The exhibition had to work across the original building and a planned modern extension.
The work focused on drawing out the unique and fascinating stories the content had to tell and organising them in a clear, engaging way that deeply embedded community work and local stories into a story of broader interest. The application was successful and the museum reopened in September 2013.
An interesting article in the Guardian about fragmented storytelling in the age of the twitter attention span. (That’s twit-span to you.) I’m interested in the idea of how storytelling evolves and how we can tell stories well in more fragmented ways, or even while moving across big spaces. (Though donning a surgical mask to hear vignettes about social drudgery? Christ. And it’s so comfy at home.) But something about breaking your story up into pieces and asking the audience to chose their path through it reminds me of those fantasy adventure books we had as kids. Fight the wizard? Turn to page 10. Steal his goblet? Turn to page 25. Isn’t the joy of stories surrendering yourself to what happens next? If you lose the authority of the storyteller, I think you’re losing too much.
What’s interesting is keeping the fragmentation – which is inevitable for anyone telling brand stories across all kinds of media or dividing a story up into themes to tell across an exhibition – and keeping the storytelling authority too. Instead of offering the audience control of the direction the story takes, offer it in tempting morsels and invite them to use their brains to piece it together. Instead of playing user feedback at the same volume as your own voice, invite it in in ways that gives layers and texture in useful places – control it and edit it. Sometimes it’s nice to hear a snatch of what the whole world thinks, but only in places where the roar of the audience helps tell the story.
Who needs museums anyway? As he says, an old pot is just an old pot (when it’s not a broken old pot) and, honestly, can that ever be interesting? Museums are under pressure to keep on keeping the old pots for posterity, but at the same time prove that they’re engaging new audiences. Is the solution just to drag people through the old pots with the promise of dinosaurs and coffee?
Just as anyone’s interesting if you ask them the right questions and listen properly to their answers, I think anything’s interesting if you pay it enough attention. And so it follows that you can make anything interesting if you approach it in the right way. Partly that’s what museums are already doing – helping us to learn by enabling different learning styles. But more than that, museums need to accept that they are no longer just classrooms. If I want to learn something, I’ll look it up on the internet (or, at a push, buy a book about it). If I go to a museum, I want a break from ordinary life. I’d like to see something surprisingly beautiful that cheers me up. (Or see something ordinary in a surprisingly beautiful way.) I’d like to get little nuggets of knowledge that I can pass on to people I know and show off a bit. And maybe I’d like to hear a good story, especially if it’s told by a storyteller not a teacher. Museums may have to be text books, but they should also be short stories, poems and gossip mags.
Cliches aren’t a bad thing, they’re actually quite reassuring. Everyone enjoys the satisfying clunk of a plot fitting into the shape we expect.
It’s the same with writing – sometimes using the first phrase that springs to mind allows writing to read smoothly and invisibly. It’s kinder on the reader than a relentless attack of originality in every word and sentence construction. What we want is soothing predictability wrapped in something that feels real – an honest, authentic voice offering us ever so slightly new ideas in the familiar shape of a platitude.
Witless mixing of bad metaphors will always be annoying though, but that’s as much because it’s jarring as because it’s unoriginal.