Narrative Space – An international conference exploring the interpretive potential of museum architecture and design





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 Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design

‘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 Science Museum London

’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.


Dr Jem Fraser JWF Consultants

’Museum Space As a Framework For Ritual‘

This paper explores the meaning that visitors to museums make in response to the stories which are told in the museum displays in the physical space of the museum.

My hypothesis, based on research into a number of museums, analyses these meanings by using drama as a metaphor for the visitor experience. I contend that museum architecture and the displays are designed to nurture social and aesthetic ritual performances in which visitors draw on their repertoire of cultural frames to transact, negotiate and make meaning which may create a memorable experience. My paper will focus on the development of the visitors’ self-narrative as they engage in social and aesthetic rituals within the dramatic space. At its best, the museum drama can engage visitors’ emotions and imagination and enable them to experience intellectual, psychological, emotional and perhaps spiritual growth. At its worst, visitors’ negative experiences alienate them not just from the museum but from trying such experiences again in the future. In my model, authority, power and the task of creating the experience are shared between visitors and museum professionals. I contend that the task of museums is to open up a range of discourses and give visitors an opportunity to use their boundaries as bridges across which they may explore new understanding and tolerances. If the museum embraces this epistemological shift, and recognises the complex transactions of ritual, drama and power, it could enable visitors to experience not just learning but growth, and greatly increase the educational and cultural value of museums. I will show how this can be done by citing examples of museums which use rituals and performance successfully and in my own work in the Royal Museum Edinburgh which will be opened in 2011.


Mark Irving

’Mediating Culture: Story, Not Storey‘

This paper discusses the nature, traditions and possibilities of story and storytelling, and the role story (can) play(s) in mediating culture within both interpretive and corporate contexts. ‘Story’ here is problematised – viewed as a means of negotiating or owning experience as well as clarifying purpose or framing systems of power. Story’s relationship to (but difference from) history is questioned. However, the notion of ‘mediating culture’ itself acknowledges that culture is produced, a form of refracted life. What place does story have in negotiating culture and shaping experience? What distinguishes story from narrative, history and other ‘relating’ vehicles? I question the use of storey (new architecture or increased bureaucratic hierarchy as ‘default solutions’) and assess instead what an organisation’s attitude to story reveals about its internal culture. Story is far more powerful than ‘mere’ interpretation.

Drawing on ancient traditions of sacred invocation, oral history, communal celebration, it is both a process of collective mapping and a form of magic. Story space – the imaginative ‘capture’ of the listener and the space where this is enacted or performed – is primarily an emotional condition with shamanic antecedents. What relevance might this have to learning and memory and the spatialisation of knowledge? Drawing on Tony Bennett’s proposition about the exhibitionary complex, my paper explores the problems of the authorial (sometimes authoritative) voice within (key word: notion of containment) interpretive spaces such as museums and galleries, assessing the controlling mechanisms in place that shape the reception of stories. I test the political, ethical and social privilege accorded the documentary mode, and investigate the usefulness of emotions (including sentimentality and empathy) in mediating culture and communicating experience. What role do narrative ethics play in the telling of stories? What room is there for informality and what happens when you dispense with story entirely?





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