Julia Pitts | Central Saint Martins / Science Museum, London, UK

Re-evaluating the role of narrative in today’s museum exhibitions

Current practice, as exemplified by the Science Museum in London, discounts narrative as a significant tool for engagement in exhibitions, and in particular as an organizing structure for the visitor experience. It does this because of perceived conflicts between the principles of narrative and the Museum’s constructivist approach to informal learning. Narrative is viewed as a quintessentially linear experience and one that prioritises a single authorial perspective. In contrast, the Museum rejects linearity in favour of ‘visitor-centred’ ‘choice and control’ and has an increasing aspiration to ‘co-curate’ with the visitor.  The spatial and social nature of the exhibition experience, in which visitors are encouraged to enter and leave at multiple points, whilst negotiating complex social interactions, provides further grounds for the current rejection of narrative’s perceived prescriptive and sequential route.

My research argues that the prevailing museological view of narrative is over-simplistic and counterproductive. By exploring the relationship of narrative to linearity, authorship, space and the presentation of the social self, through a review of selected concepts and theories, it seeks to re-evaluate narrative’s role in the museum exhibition. This research is fuelled by a desire to understand narrative beyond the simplicity of an over-arching message or the rigidity of the traditional, literary model and to begin to identify what narrative might mean in the medium of the museum.

This paper reviews the context in which the current attitude to narrative has evolved. It examines the established discourse in museum studies which links the historical development of museum interpretation strategies directly to wider changing attitudes to knowledge, power and learning. It shows that this discourse can be extended to understand changing attitudes to narrative, both over time and today.

It demonstrates how the current attitude manifests itself in contemporary practice through the key documents used in Science Museum exhibition development, and via structured interviews with practitioners who use them. It also reveals the tension between prevailing museological position and practice, where narrative is nonetheless adopted under certain conditions.

It closes with an introduction to a range of alternative forms of narrative, from the experimental novel through the work of BS Johnson (Mitchell, Aarseth); hypertext fiction (Landow, Clement, Bolter, M Joyce, Moulthrop, Rosenberg); to transmedia narrative (Stackelberg, Ryan) and interactive experiences (Cameron, Aarseth).