The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum offers an annual award for newly published research or thinking that has been recognized to be outstanding by members of The Inclusive Museum Research Network.
Narrative is universal. Studies show that narrative is key to the functioning of the human brain. And yet, within the museum, confusion remains over what “narrative” means and what its role should be. Using Abbott’s distinction between “story,” a series of events that unfolds chronologically, and “narrative,” the specific representation of such events, I argue that while many museums tell stories, few embrace narratives. To do so would mean abandoning a “neutral,” “factual” voice in favor of a point of view. But visitors see through this supposed neutrality to the unspoken issues (colonialism, racism, sexism, etc.) that inform our histories, collections, and staffing decisions. How do we grapple with these topics as authentically as possible? I begin with the premise that museums (and their founders, donors, and employees) are fundamentally unreliable, implicated in their own histories, and I submit this as a potential opportunity, not a liability. Using well-known examples, like Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” I posit the ways in which acknowledging unreliability could help museums craft authentic narratives. The unreliable narrator forces readers to discover their own meaning based on what they understand to be true or false in the account. This powerful method of engagement relinquishes power to the reader. Why not share that power with museum audiences as well?
What visitors expect from a twenty-first century museum is changing. The old models—positing the museum as an encyclopedic treasure palace or objective disseminator of knowledge—are giving way to an emergent understanding of both our institutions’ implication in histories of colonialism, racism, and sexism and the diverse wants and needs of museumgoers beyond the purely didactic. As an interpretive specialist it is my job to work collaboratively with colleagues across my institution to make our exhibitions and collections more accessible, welcoming, and relevant to audiences of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. This paper grew out of a desire to explore other modes of communicating with visitors—ones that had the potential to open up space for more authentic and multidirectional channels of communication. By focusing on the universal role narratives play in our lives and, specifically, on how different types of narrators influence our understandings of the tales they tell, I’ve tried to show how moving away from a traditional, “neutral,” “museum voice” toward a style of communication that embraces the complicated, unclear, and incomplete in our histories could reveal new opportunities for connection and meaning-making. In encouraging institutions to embrace their unreliability, I am suggesting that we share authority with visitors and open up space for their own perspectives, insights, and truths.
Shih-Yu Chen, The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp.13–22
Andrew Howe, The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp.1–6