The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
The rise of live storytelling in recent years is remarkable, both for its bottom-up, scrappy scene (headquartered in Brooklyn, of course) and its rehabilitation of a historical form of entertainment and conviviality. A few storytelling events are held at museums, but that’s not the same as museums telling stories in their own exhibitions or programs. A new hiking memoir, of all things, just reminded me what the recipe has always been.
Having been laid up sick for a few days with the book, Wild, for company, I can tell you that its author, Cheryl Strayed, deserves the praise that critics have been showering on her. The book, which is about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone in order to put her reckless, splintered life back together, is heartfelt, honest, gripping, funny and, for me at least, deeply moving.
Those are critical clichés, I know. But there’s one kind of cultural narrative they’re almost never used to describe: museum exhibitions. Museum people often speak of exhibitions as “telling the story” of so-and-so, or collections as “telling the stories” of a particular time and place. But compared to the real storytelling that’s going on these days, from The Moth (pictured) to This American Life to books like Strayed’s, museums’ use of the word “story” feels like a mere metaphor, an approximation.
You’ve seen plenty of exhibitions with a historical shape, and a beginning, middle, and an end. But when’s the last time you came out of an exhibition feeling like somebody had told you a story?
When’s the last time you’d have described an exhibition — or a symphony concert or dance program, for that matter — as heartfelt, gripping, honest, or moving? The individual artworks, historical artifacts, or performances, sure. But the exhibition — the evening — the program created by the cultural institution itself?
Strayed’s book got me thinking about the difference between a narrative (that slightly precious, academic word) and a story. Her book, like all good stories, moves in two directions, which we might call horizontal and vertical (see diagram, below). The horizontal direction is the unfolding of the plot: where the story is taking us, and how we’re going to get from here to there. It’s the dimension of surprises, twists, and the pleasure of wondering (or fearing or wishing) what’s going to happen next. When we say something is gripping or suspenseful, we’re praising the horizontal dimension.
Exhibitions, for all their traditional emphasis on chronological and other kinds of narratives, aren’t particularly good at this. As I’ve asked here before, when do museum visitors ever feel suspense about what the next gallery will tell them, or how it’s going to end? ...
The vertical direction is a different kind of unfolding: our descent into the mind of the storyteller, our deepening connection with her (and with the other characters in the tale). It’s a fundamentally social — that is, human to human — phenomenon, an act of cooperation and mutual empathy. We’re not just beholding a story objectively, learning what happened out there, to someone. We’re connecting to a specific, present fellow human in an inescapably subjective way. This is the dimension of responses like "heartfelt," "honest," "funny," and the pleasure of slipping into someone else's head and heart for a few minutes.
We could say that exhibitions are even worse at that this vertical dimension. Or we could say they’re simply not interested in going there. After all, there’s often no discernible “storyteller”; the voice behind the exhibition is a group, not an individual, and it’s a group that doesn’t seem to want to be present in the tale it’s telling. Objectivity is the rule, in more than one sense: visitors are invited to connect to the objects on display or the “stories” they illustrate, not to the humans who chose to put them there.
It’s a little bit like the musicians at a classical concert who don’t make eye contact with members of the audience, even during intermission when those people milling near the lip of the stage, looking at the musicians.
At the risk of oversimplifying, what Strayed’s book helped me realize is that storytelling is first person, not always literally but on some level. Museum exhibitions are third person, or on rare occasions second person plural (the editorial “we”). The difference is that vertical dimension. Without its power and pleasure, we’re not in a story.
One way to see this is to imagine Strayed’s book as an exhibition. Think of it in two different ways: first, as a “typical” museum installation, with lots of objects (her painfully tight boots; her too-heavy pack, nicknamed “Monster”; her tattered trail guide) accompanied by information-packed wall texts and labels written in an objective, third-person voice.
And second, as an exhibition with the same objects but with her voice, perhaps recorded and floating through your ears, perhaps on video, or maybe just on the walls. Not just a narrative, but a sensibility, a person, someone who has turned her own experience into a different kind of experience as a gift for us.
What if curators and exhibit developers thought of their jobs that way?
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