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.
It’s nice to fill in the gaps yourself sometimes.
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.