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.
If you make this gesture, you’re cocking a snook. I can’t remember the last time someone literally cocked a snook in my direction, though I’d welcome it. It’s such a cheerily childish gesture – the equivalent of telling someone to get lost.
Google cock a snook (I did). There’s no definitive answer to what a snook is and why we might feel like cocking it.
But I’m adding it to the small collection of lovely English words and phrases I’m curating. The collection includes fine fettle, mithering and fretting, mardy and warming the cockles of your heart. Working themes are anxiety, insults and good cheer.
Watching my dog (a field spaniel) very effectively spring birds from their hiding places with no training at all, it occurred to me how important fitness for purpose is. Ray is very efficient at running very fast at birds in fields in the country. He’s not so hot on hanging around in urban parks without upsetting small children who don’t like exuberant hounds.
It’s the same in heritage and cultural projects. Think hard about the purpose of an element of your project before you work out how to achieve that. A film might be the best way of telling a story. Some software might. An art installation might say a thousand times more than a graphic panel. When the media meets the message head on, you’ll say something really well.
David Byrne’s Playing the Building exhibition does one thing and it does it LOUD.
In the absence of a simple, five word sentence to help my family and friends out, here’s a good working definition. I expect they’ll stop reading at around paragraph two.
Interpretation is not simply writing or communication. It’s making a good story out of all the possible facts, themes and ideas and all of the available objects. This means editing; not having to talk about everything or be comprehensive. And it means looking for interesting stories, which are quite often personal, subjective, and particular to a particular site. It might not mean producing some exhibition text, though if it does it should be well written with short simple sentences, only one idea per sentence and clear themes.
How do you know where to start with looking for these stories? Freeman Tilden wrote the first book on interpretation and he defined it as ‘the work of revealing something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie beneath what the visitor can with his senses perceive’.
That is, if we think something is special, we want other people to see why we think its special; we want to convey our enthusiasm. It’s similar to explaining to someone why you love a book or a piece of music. You wouldn’t tell them absolutely every fact about it. Instead, you’d think of the things you particularly liked and choose from these some things that you think they would like too, and you’d tell them in a way that you’d hope would interest them and inspire enthusiasm.
This means that writing is a form interpretation can take, not what it is. For instance, a sculpture could help convey the beauty of a landscape, or a film could help convey something of the reality of a political situation that might be difficult to get across in words.
I know I’ve used the book metaphor before but I think that it can be hard for museums, especially smaller museums, to find an identity and voice that’s neither encyclopaedia nor text book.
Encyclopaedic is hard to do if you’re not the British Museum. Without a certain amount of epic sweep behind you, you can’t really carry it off. Little child friendly museums can do text book beautifully. The Grant Museum is one of my favourite places and I’ve spent some very enjoyable hours there with nephews and nieces. But it’s a look that requires a few stuffed monkeys and exciting skeletons to work.
Anyway, grown ups don’t want text books and not all museums are for kids and families. So what else can a smaller museum aspire to?
I think a visit to a smaller museum should feel like picking up a good book; engaging, engrossing and hard to put down. Not all these books are fiction. How about creating a museum modeled on W G Sebald’s approach; weaving facts with stories and evidence to create something fascinating, poetic and memorable?
Yesterday someone told me that there’s a Japanese word for the space between things. I looked it up and it’s ‘ma’.
It reminded me of my friend Paul’s idea for a photographic project about the space between objects in a museum.
And it reminded me of a conversation with my friend Annabel about allowing space for people to use their imagination in a museum. As a writer and interpretation developer, I suppose my ideal museum should be crammed with words and explicit meaning, but I think something is lost when you push a museum too hard to say everything out loud.
Not even children want everything explained to them. They can wander happily through museums making things up. Or, as my eldest niece did at the age of four, pointing at a large stuffed gorilla and saying ‘Papa’ with a dead straight face.
You go into a museum, you think, ‘yes, as I expected, lots of old stuff.’ It feels like it’s nothing to do with you. You mooch around for a bit, look for something to grab your attention; maybe something weird, maybe something pretty. You wonder how many minutes count as an acceptable visit and mean that you’re clever and interested and not an idiot. You go to the cafe and then you go shopping.
You are what’s wrong with museums.
Museum visits could feel like a trip into another time. They hardly ever do.
A visit to Dennis Severs house feels like you’ve been taken back in time and allowed to be nosy. You can imagine what it felt like to live in London in another period; waking up in bed, eating breakfast, getting dressed.
Museums put a lot of thought into different learning styles but I think the one they often miss out is imagination. Some people get interested, and maybe learn something as a result, by making leaps of imagination and picturing themselves in someone else’s shoes. And that’s not a challenge that can only be answered by providing fancy dress for children.
The National Trust has just announced that it’s inviting people to get closer to its properties ; to play the piano, pick up the telephone, have a game of pool. Is this the future for museums or does it turn going to a stately home into a slightly more glamorous version of going to see your mum for the weekend?
I like the theory of being able to get up close to things in museums and touch them. It’s something we’re thinking about as part of the Ditchling Museum redevelopment. In this case, with some good reason. A lot of the objects in the museum were made by a community of craftspeople and were made to be touched, used, washed up, put away and played with. Intimacy and domesticity suits them.
Where you gain intimacy, you lose a bit of drama though. In National Trust properties, I think the very excitement of being let loose in them and allowed to touch things that creates its own thrill. But they need to inject a bit of storytelling into it. Who’s on the other end of the phone when it rings?
Good museum writing is concise and interesting (like all good writing). It’s also layered like a newspaper article – headline, key points, more in depth information. In theory, there should be simple, conversational language, line breaks that reflect natural pauses and a single idea per line of text. The last two can be hard to achieve and maintain good flow, but used intelligently, they definitely help legibility.
But – what if it can work a bit harder than that?
I’m working on a project at the moment where we’re developing a range of different writing styles. There’s a lot of text to read in a museum sometimes. It doesn’t all have to take the kindly teacher’s tone of voice. Some layers of text could be poetic, conversational or even funny.
It’s not rocket science but it’s worth having a go at making it a good, varied and enriching read.