narrative space

Narrative Space draws together museum and heritage professionals, exhibition designers, architects and artists with academics from a range of disciplines including museum studies, film studies, theatre studies, architecture, design, animation and history, to explore theory and practice at the cutting-edge of exhibition and experience making.

Over recent decades, many museums, galleries and historic sites around the world have enjoyed large-scale investment in their capital infrastructure; in building refurbishments and new gallery displays. The period has also seen the creation of a series of new purpose-built museums and galleries. This massive investment has received significant media coverage, including the often sensational reporting of occasional high-profile failures. It has however, overwhelmingly, been a period of much-needed and often very successfully utilised investment which has changed the face of culture, drastically improving the standards of museum and gallery facilities, the quality and variety of displays and media in museums and, in very successful cases, driving positive organisational change. Most would agree that above all the investment has had a significant impact on the ability of many museums and galleries to offer up engaging, meaningful and memorable experiences to a broader range of visitors.

This period of investment has also been a period of fundamental reinvention in the design and shaping of museums. Fascinating examples of ‘the new museum making’ include high profile and highly interpretive buildings, evocative landscapes convincingly interpreted with energy and imagination, highly sophisticated and emotive exhibitions and, sometimes, small and quirkily interpretive interventions in existing spaces and places. What unites many of these interpretive approaches is the attempt to create what might be called ‘narrative environments’; experiences which integrate objects and spaces – and stories of people and places – as part of a process of storytelling that speaks of the experience of the everyday, as well as the special and the unique. Driven by the availability of significant funding but also by astonishing advances in digital technologies and a shared awareness of the role of the museum maker as telling the world, the field of museum design has become a varied, media rich and highly interpretive landscape. In the current economic climate – as the availability of funding diminishes in many parts of the world and as cultural institutions think more cautiously about smaller-scale, less capital intensive and increasingly sustainable solutions to the maintenance, production and regeneration of museum space – it seems relevant to ask what we have learned from this period of re-making and re-telling. Narrative Space takes an approach to the experience and interpretation of sites, buildings, places, objects and people which recognises the inherently spatial character of narrative and storytelling and their potential to connect with human perception and imagination. Through this uniting theme the conference will explore the power of stories as structured experiences unfolding in space and time, and critically assess the potential of museums, galleries and exhibition spaces to act as integrated narrative environments. It will also encourage a critical engagement with the potential limitations or multiple manifestations of narrative. It will chart the emergence of a new range of interpretive approaches to experience making which cut across architecture, film, theatre, design, digital media, interior and graphic design, literature and art and will address notions of visitor experience, questions of authorship and the role of theatre and performance in the making and experiencing of museum space. At the heart of Narrative Space is a vision of the museum as theatre, as dramatic ritual, as a telling of the world in miniature and as a site where space and place making connect with human perception, imagination and memory.

Tuesday 21st April
Narrativity: Concepts, Strategies, Approaches, Session 1

Tricia Austin Scales of Narrativity Narrativity, a term that describes the degree of “storyness” of a text, can also be applied to exhibition design, architectural practice, urban and landscape design to provide a useful analytical framework and creative methodologies for collaboration among theorists, content developers, architects and designers. Narrativity can be used to set out an incremental scale of “storyness” inviting discussion of the definition of narrative environments. All spaces can be made to tell a story. For example, sand dunes can tell a story of natural forces, in the forms shaped by wind and sea power, high-rise tower blocks can tell a story of socio-political forces, in the forms shaped by urban concentration, favelas tell a different story of urban development, shaped by dispossession, exhibitions tell stories of peoples’ material cultures, natural and social histories, scientific discoveries, and so on. From these examples, it can be seen that some environments are more deliberately narrative than others. When does an environment become a narrative environment? A narrativity scale progresses by identifying the narrative features from which powerful story experiences in space can be developed. Thinking of spaces as stories highlights the quality of audience or user experience, the message or content, and the degree of authorship and intentionality in the environment. The telling of the story develops from dramatic tension and its unfolding over space and time is interpreted through visual, audio, olfactory, haptic and tactile senses. Perfomativity, sequencing of events, framing, revealing and concealing, suspense, mimesis, diegesis, closure, focalisation, human and non-human agency all become explicit strategies or devices available to the creative practitioner. The narrativity scale is shown as a diagram and examples, shown through images and video, are mapped onto the diagram.

Julia Pitts Story Design and the Museum: Enriching Exhibition Narrative

Whilst many narrative forms – for example graphic novels, theatre, television, film and the web – invite audiences to negotiate text, graphics, still and moving image, objects, audio, new media and even other people, exhibitions demand that audiences also drive themselves physically through space. Current exhibition practice appears to conclude that, because of this three-dimensional setting, only simple narratives can be effective – for example using chapters, timelines or debates as content structures. Given that narrative is considered to be fundamental to the way in which humans make sense of the world, is it possible that narrative has more to offer than we currently imagine? Drawing on the early stages of a research degree, this paper will attempt to map out the extent to which narrative is currently used in exhibitions. Taking a permanent gallery from the Science Museum as a case study, this paper will present a ‘narrative audit’ – both from the perspective of its development and the resulting gallery. In so doing it will aim to highlight how a development team really uses narrative structures and devices and how effective they are for meaningful audience engagement. It is hoped that as a result we might have a shared understanding of ‘narrative’, and create a brief key or taxonomy of current usage.

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