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.
What is it that makes some museums so exhausting? Me and my sister took her children to the Science Museum recently and we were so tired that we were begging the children to leave within an hour. Once we’d left, we felt fine – if a bit guilty about refusing to let them learn anything else.
My sister wisely identified the problem by listing things that were happening: buttons flashing, announcements sounding, text moving, films starting, guides talking. If you’re in the East Hall you can see through to at least three other exhibitions while you’re looking round the one you’re in. It’s like being inside a film, a website, three books and two theatres all at once. With hundreds of shouting children milling between them in different directions, like panicking bees.
I’m feeling tired again.
According to learning theory, we need sensory stimulation to learn but I’m not convinced that the maximalist approach to this works. If someone’s wafting a smell under your nose, talking to you, playing you music, showing you a film and flashing lights under your eyes all at the same time, you don’t feel stimulated, you feel cross and confused.
I’m working on some scriptwriting for a museum about a religious order. It’s really interesting. Reading about a fairly ordinary Victorian woman who started having visions in her mum’s house and felt that God was talking to her is fascinating. I think it’s because something so out of the ordinary was happening in such an everyday setting.
You suddenly see the small moments of beauty in it and you can almost imagine what it felt like. She feels sure that something extraordinary and meaningful is happening to her and feels that she should do something with her life, but she’s not sure what or how, and right to the end of her life still wonders exactly what it all meant. There’s an interesting story in it about fighting for what you believe, and she did have to fight to set her order up, but in a way it’s living an ordinary life with drops of something completely out of the ordinary and beautiful and terrifying in it that’s so fascinating.
Anyway, my point was jargon. You can’t use jargon in a museum (or any kind of writing) because it alienates anyone who’s not an insider. The trick is doing this without alienating the insiders. And at the same time, sticking to the incredibly low word counts without explaining every term, and without cutting out so many words it stops making sense. The result in museums is often patronising and dry – everything is explained simply and carefully to the lowest common demoninator. I think that that’s failing. Poetry explains things concisely and well without being dumb or text book. It’s possible to quickly outline something without using all your word count up on explaining one idea. And it’s worth putting them in a personal story to make them come alive and make sense.
I think you need a little concisely and invisibly explained jargon so that your visitors leave feeling like insiders even if they arrived as outsiders. You can take an easy and confiding tone and teach people what they need to know without them realising it. We learn all kinds of things when we read a good novel, we just don’t realise we’re doing it.