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Julia Pitts

Published date
19 Jun 2018

Story Design and the Museum: Re-evaluating the Role of Narrative in the Exhibition Experience

Central Saint Martins

A theory-based project to consider how non-linear narrative might be used by exhibition development teams to support the active visitor/learner in the spatial and social context of a museum exhibition.

This research is a response to an observation, made as a multi-disciplinary exhibition practitioner at the Science Museum London, that current practice discounts narrative as a significant tool for engagement in exhibitions.  Case studies and a review of museum studies (Foucault, Hoeper-Greenhill) have revealed two reasons for this position, both relating to the current misconception within the field that narrative is fundamentally a linear form of communication. The Museum’s constructivist approach to informal learning rejects linearity in favour of visitor-centred choice and control (Hein), whilst as a spatial experience it is widely accepted that visitors do not follow a prescribed route ((Neilsen, in Falk 1982).

This research argues for the re-evaluation of narrative’s role in the museum exhibition by exploring concepts from non-linear narrative theory, spatial theory, and performance theory. A review of non-linear narrative identifies principles from literature (Borges, BS Johnson, Perec) and new media, focussing on hypertext (Manovich, Landow).  It includes aspects of literary narrative theory, concerned with the active role of the reader, focusing on narrative dynamics (Barthes; Richardson, D; Brooks; Genette). Recognising the significance of the spatial context of the exhibition, phenomenology is reviewed for insights into how space is experienced and what it means to 'be' in an exhibition (Merleau-Ponty; Richardson, M). Goffman’s writings are examined for concepts of the self, performance and framing, relating to the complex nature of the visitor experience.

Concepts are identified according to their potential to challenge current practice by introducing narrative, whilst supporting the underlying theories of informal learning. A toolkit is constructed and trialled via workshops with development teams in the Museum. Findings suggest a new model, applying non-linear narrative in a spatial context, to exploit narrative’s potential for engaging visitors in meaningful museum experiences.


Patricia Austin

Graham White