Skip to main content
Biomedicine in museums

Is there a narrative in this exhibition?

By December 3, 0001No Comments

In an earlier post, I suggested that the current enthusiasm for narrativity in exhibitions risks blocking for a more sophisticated understanding of how other modes of exhibition making (based on expository, descriptive and argumentatative rhetorical modes) can mobilised in a frutiful way.

But there are also other problems involved with the current fashion for narrativity, having to do with the way narration is actually entering the exhibition experience.

It is pretty difficult to turn label and wall texts into narratives. Also, single exhibition rooms cannot easily be made in narrative form, if if you would like to. In fact, the only way you can usually introduce a narrative dimension in a three-dimensional space during the build-up of the exhibition is to lay out a row of rooms in a narrative sequence so that visitors are forced to walk the gallery as if it were a story, with a beginning and an end.

However, where narrative can really become part of the exhibition experience (as our Swedish Exhibition Agency and Te Papa colleagues want it to) is when the visitor meets the exhbit. Here’s where the Stanly Fish pun comes in. The narrative moment might be brought into picture together with the visitor – when the non-narrative exhibition is presented to the public in forms of guided tours, either with a human guide or through some smartphone application. They may help the public to ‘read’ narratives into the exhibition.

And that’s a strong factor. Our student guides love it. They seem to be born story-tellers. And I understand why. When you stand with an audience of 5-15 people (and it doesn’t matter whether the audience is school children or seasoned academics like you), you almost by default go into a narrative mode of presentation. I’m no exception, as you will see in a few minutes. I easily transmogrify into a teller of anecdotes in a split of a second.

This sounds fun, and it is. It’s a lot of fun to tell stories and anecdotes. You really get the visitors’ attention – both to the story and (as a nice sideeffect) to yourself. You beam in the limelight of the narrative. You’re a master of a universe of stories for a while.

Now, the downside to bringing attention to the story and the story-teller is that the stuff gets no attention. The stuff becoms invisible. A narrative ‘reading’ of exhibitions blocks the attention to what, in my view, is the differentia specifica of museums and the exhibitions – the images and the material things.

In other words, the downside is that the images and things turn into props and occasions for stories. And then we loose sight of them. That, in my view, is the major problem with narrativity in exhibitions – when you introduce a narrative dimension in the way you present the exhibition, you almost automatically draw attention away from the material things.

Now, why is that a bad thing? What’s so great about material things in museums? Why shouldn’t they be reduced to props for stories?

Now comes the moment in my talk when I’m running out of time. But in the article that will hopefully grow out of this paper, I will underpin the argument against narrativity in exhibitions with reference to three theoretical frames:

1) One frame reference is to the now pretty famous argument against narrativity made by Galen Strawson some five years ago – shortly made that the focus of narrativity eclipses a focus on what he calls episodicity.

2) The other reference is to Sepp Gumbrecht and his distinction between presence and meaning.

3) And the third is the moral argument made by the late British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, particularly in The Sovereignty of Good that the road to epistemic virtue is not to focus on yourself, but to focus on the real world outside you – whether this real world is constituted of material things or the grammar of a difficult foreign language.


Now, I want to use the rest of my allotted time here to demonstrate for you how some of these exhibition modes in practice.

We will do a tour through selected parts of our exhibition area and we will start here on the first floor – in the reception room, and then we’ll take a look at our latest gallery, called Balance and Metabolism, and then we’re going downstair to take a look at the installations.

Please be observant, look around, and ask yourself – what modes of discourse can you see in these galleries and installations?


Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

More posts by Thomas Söderqvist