Do you know the difference between a crocodile and an alligator? I was in the Natural History Museum in London at the weekend with some friends, and this was one of the many new things that i learnt. Museum education is an interesting field, one that i worked in for a number of years, and it walks a fine line between exploration and storytelling.
On the one hand, objects are presented as works of art, forty ‘things’ in a case, each one pinned down with a small card giving it’s name and a short description of key features. In the natural history museum, these ‘things’ tend to be fossils, stuffed fish or a model of a blue whale. In an art gallery, it’s a Rembrandt or Banksy or obscure Impressionist. In either case, displays are curated: you’re not seeing a random scatter of objects (although it can feel like that), but rather a representative or coherent collection. Coherent to who is another matter, but the idea is that the objects, together, are representative of something: modern art, natural history, the punk movement etc.
Whilst curated collections of this sort have some kind of story, it’s often one that you need to half excavate yourself. Objects may fall within a specific category, but are presented as artefacts or relics in their own right.
Some exhibitions are more actively interpreted, with a more explicit story. The Story of Punk may be an example of this, where there is a clear narrative, illustrated along the way with specific objects, such as a record sleeve, a concert ticket, a safety pin and a mannequin dressed in appropriate clothing. There may be a soundtrack and relevant lighting. Interpretation becomes more theatrical, a performance, with a clear start, middle and end.
The advantage of such ‘narrative’ interpretation is that it’s more popular, more easily understandable and often more familiar to an audience. The disadvantage is that it’s my story, not yours. It rarely encourages discussion or supports widely differing views. It’s a traditional pedagogic view, with the curator as teacher and the rest of us as willing and passive learners.
There are parallels with how we teach and train things in the wider world, although in business we tend to use far more of the narrative approach. It’s rare to find ourselves training something and leaving the learner to ‘build their own story’. Partly this is because business training seeks greater consistency, probably more of it is because we either don’t trust learners to build the right story, or think it will take a long time to let them do it.
Stories are powerful things, and differences of understanding are very powerful. Take the bible for example. But just because we can’t control stories doesn’t meant that we can’t tie into their power.
In my mind, a good exhibition, or a good training session, with have a combination of things within it. There should be some things that you can marvel at and explore, things that stimulate intellectual curiosity and a desire to find out more, and there should be other elements that are more linking pieces, the story that pulls all the threads together. We should be unafraid to engage more fully with learners, to trust to our native ability to connect with and interpret stories in meaningful ways. If we don’t do this, we run the risk of just showing off all the best things in the collection, but without really allowing people to develop an understanding and framework to use that knowledge.