Philip Pullman is a masterful storyteller. I love his books for many reasons, but it boils down to how wonderfully he pulls me into his story.
In Dæmon Voices, Pullman explores the act of storytelling. And while I picked this book up for my own pleasure (and my own curiosity and geekiness), I found myself thinking of museums and how we tell the stories we tell. (If you are a curator or educator who spends time crafting stories for audiences, you should absolutely pick this book up and read it. I whole-heartedly recommend Pullman's brilliant novels as well.)
Recently, Andrea Jones sent out this Tweet, to which I had an initial response:
The next day, I read Pullman's essay "Let's Write It In Red," and I immediately began reflecting on Andrea's Tweet and that response of mine. Why do audiences generally dislike disrupted chronology?
In this particular essay, Pullman discusses stories versus technique. That is, is the story you are telling compelling, or are you trying to jazz up a dud story in some fancy way? He likens it to cinematography, considering a normal perspective versus an unusual angle. Or drawing a figure from the top of the head versus straight-on. When you come at a story from an unusual angle, it can hide myriad sins within the story itself, which Pullman explains this way:
In my response to Andrea, I didn't say not to tell history in a non-chronological format, but I did warn that audiences tend to dislike the unusual angles and approaches. There are reasons for that:
Thus, there are risks to sharing history in a non-chronological way, and the biggest risk is losing our audience's attention and willingness to engage.
Before I shared this essay on The Curated Bookshelf, I decided to share it with Andrea. Unsurprisingly, she had some interesting comments that I thought needed to be shared … here's our back-and-forth discussion.
Now that doesn't mean Andrea shouldn't try to disrupt chronological time. Andrea is a gifted storyteller, and if I wanted my museum to try the non-chronological approach with history, she's who I would go to. I think she should try, because if she succeeded, that would likely help us engage more people with history.
But Andrea is also a very thoughtful interpreter who wants to understand how audiences respond to not only content but interpretive approaches. Knowing my concerns based on audience research, she's the type to think them through, and then make sure the story (and the audience) benefits from the unusual approach … and not mask a weak story.
Or, as Pullman would say, Andrea would stick to the path the story needs … and history deserves.
Full citation: Pullman, Philip. Dæmon Voices: Essays on Storytelling. Oxford: David Fickling Books, 2017.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
11/19/2019 02:21:56 pm
This is fascinating and is exactly what we are trying to tackle at Ford's, as we embark on a re-imagined visitor experience. You might find it interesting to take a look at the history storytelling my amazing colleague David McKenzie has constructed at https://www.fords.org/lincolns-assassination/ and https://www.fords.org/lincolns-assassination/investigating-the-assassination/. It focuses on a single event and then follows the pathways both forwards and backwards from that event, with a strong emphasis on first-person accounts. We're working hard to figure out how this story-telling will be reflected in our on-site exhibitions.
11/21/2019 10:56:37 am
Oh, interesting. I think that would make sense to audiences because it is easy to ask we are here now, but how did we get here? So backwards and forwards both work.
Alyssa Shirley Morein
11/20/2019 06:59:45 am
Interesting post, thanks! I've always leaned toward the chronological approach in that it allows a view of the evolution of the subject at hand--the catalysts, the causes-and-effects, and the whys behind how things came to be. But I don't think telling a story chronologically requires slogging through every detail, encyclopedia-fashion; I think it's the challenge of museums to highlight the important and/or overlooked moments, and tell the story in a nuanced but clear way--maybe a chronological approach serves that at times, but not always.
11/21/2019 10:58:12 am
Exactly. It shouldn't be every detail (that's what monographs are for!). If a non-chronological approach serves the story best, then it should be told that way.
11/21/2019 06:33:26 am
Is there any data you can refer me to that substantiates the claim that visitors do not like non-chronological exhibits?
11/21/2019 11:00:56 am
Great question, Jane! This is coming from extensive qualitative panel work on behalf of history organizations over the past few years. Typically from asking what they like or dislike about history museums, and how they engage with history. Respondents (both history museum-goers and non-visitors) want cause-and-effect (which they discuss linearly) and beg for timelines in exhibitions. And they voice frustration when history is presented differently.
11/25/2019 09:22:41 am
Two points ..... I agree that non-linear approaches can sometimes disorient visitors, but occasionally disorientation/disruption is an effective Interpretive tool .... as long as the exhibit design and overall visitor experience supports users. Second, chronological history (sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentionally) implies linear progression, manifest destiny, grand master narratives, etc. all of which have a tendency to mask or remove the role of individual agency in history.
Comments are closed.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Duwamish people, whose ancestors have lived here for generations. I thank them for their ongoing care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.