David Francis | University College London, London, UK

Discourse and narrative exhibitions at the British Museum

The exhibition The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army was a landmark exhibition for the British Museum. It attracted over 800,000 visitors – the largest attendance figures since the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition of 1972. It also represented a shift in approach, as the British Museum sought to to assert the contemporary relevance of its collections by exploring key questions of global politics and international relations through the filter of history (MacGregor 2006). Since 2007 the British Museum’s exhibition programme has focussed on areas of current conflict, including Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan; and explored the Christian and Muslim faiths and their relationship to material cultures through the exhibitions Treasures from Heaven (2011) and Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam (2012).

As well as a shift in subject matter, the British Museum exhibitions of this period also changed their interpretative strategy. The nine exhibitions in the Round Reading Room series adopted narrative techniques in order to tell a compelling story (Dubin 2006, 487). This narrative approach is opposed to the encyclopaedic approach, in which objects are arranged and viewed for their own importance (Lohman 2011). These narrative techniques included organising exhibitions around a linear structure with a distinct beginning, middle and end; a clear text hierarchy; the incorporation of digital media, and the use of gateway objects to introduce key sections (Francis et al. 2011). This paper will explore how these exhibit elements combine to create what Barthes (1977) calls the codes of enigmas and answers that create suspense and pull the reader, or museum visitor, on in the search for the revelation of meaning.

Drawing on Bakhtin’s (1984) concept of Heteroglossia this paper will aim to identify the different discourses that form the British Museum exhibition narratives and examine the coexistences and conflicts that occur between the exhibition development team’s intentions and the visitors’ expectations. Although often seen as the product of a single curator these exhibitions are created by a vast number of individuals from different disciplines. Furthermore, front-end and formative evaluation with museum visitors plays an important role in shaping the exhibition storylines. The summative evaluation explores and captures visitor responses to the exhibitions but also forms the first component of the front-end evaluation for the next exhibition. Looking at the nine Round Reading Room exhibitions from 2007 to the present as whole, they can be seen as in dialogue with each other; as the British Museum, through its exhibition programme, explores its relationship with its visitors and its purpose as a global collection.