Museum Storytelling: Collecting Stories, Inventing Narratives
This international conference is part of the MuséaLitté project — a multi-year research project on the relationship between the museum and the literary (ComUE Paris Lumières).
In The System of Objects (1968), Jean Beaudrillard argues that the serial organization of objects in a collection creates an ambiguous space where “the functional unravels increasingly in the subjective,” and where “the everyday prose of objects becomes poetry, subconscious and triumphant speech.” Museums and, before them, cabinets of curiosity and private collections, have always functioned as spaces for the invention and visual staging of discourse: the history of their own genesis, of the research and acquisition of objects; the formulation or popularization of knowledge; the display of the political, financial, or symbolic power of their owner, be it an individual or an institution; the media coverage, or even the promotion, of the beliefs, tastes, or values that are the source of the fascination exerted by the exhibited objects. If the “exhibition is […] fundamentally a piece of writing” (Davallon 233) in space, a scenography, what does it write? What is its registration area? Who is writing, and for whom?
Museography or expography are increasingly thought of in terms of narrative, storytelling, and even self-narrative. While exhibitions and museums seem to want to address the affect and the senses as much as the intellect of the visitors, to whom they wish to not only transmit knowledge as well as propose a visit experience, the stories proposed and the spaces where they are inscribed are changing under the influence of the “narrative turn” as observed since the 1990s (see Padiglione), as well the “visual turn” and the “affective turn,” which for the last two decades have been jointly influencing the humanities. The diversity and power of these subjects of discourse, most ostensibly narrative and affective, even personal, are multiplied tenfold by the exposition of digital and online communication.
In keeping with Leslie Bedford’s assertion in The Curator. The Museum Journal that “telling stories” is “the real work of museums” (2001), this international symposium proposes to map the new expositional practices of museums — collecting, archiving, scenography, website, communication on social media, production of texts — and the types of narratives that they revive, reinvent, or bring out. It aims to establish an interdisciplinary dialogue between literature, museology, arts, sociology, human and social sciences, computer science, etc.
Non-Exhaustive List of Approaches:
Where We Exhibit
How do different exhibition spaces — fine arts or science and technology museums, history or ethnography museums, natural history museums or museum houses, national libraries or media libraries, cultural spaces abroad (such as the Korean Cultural Center or the Latin American House in Paris) or public spaces (think of the photographic exhibitions offered by the Senate on the gates of the Luxembourg Gardens) — rethink and transform their space to make visible narratives according to the storytelling regime? What devices do they put in place to generate and collect narratives? Are these narratives made by the museums then exhibited, or archived according to specific modalities?
What role do new kinds of technology play in creating these stories? When they were no longer able to welcome the public, many museums launched calls for testimonies, such as “Stockpiling Stories” by the Dacorum Heritage Trust, or “Collecting Covid” by the Hackney Museum, “Stories of the Pandemic” at the Durham Museum, or “The Covid Letters” at the Foundling Museum in London. Contributors may chose to focus on the stories that museums offer on their sites, podcasts, or the spaces that they dedicate to the collection of stories or virtual tours, whether it is a pre-scripted route or a route chosen by each Internet user. In 2019, the National Gallery in London organized a tour with the aim of showing Artemisia Gentileschi’s self-portrait in new places (a school a prison, a doctor’s office), thus generating new exchanges with the public. Contributors may study the institution or alternative spaces through which visitors extend their visit: social networks or virtual museums, as well as individual museographic initiatives.
What Is Exhibited
Is a story put on display in the same way as an object? What new interactions are invented between objects and narratives? Is expography an iconotext, a sequential graphic narrative based on a dynamic interaction between text and image, in the same way as children’s books, graphic novels, or comic books?
The Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris (Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris) included in its exhibition “Flames, the Age of the Ceramic” (Les Flammes, l’âge de la céramique) (October 15th, 2021 – February 6th, 2022) a display case in which any visitor was invited to add a personal ceramic object while an e-reader scrolled through the groups of this collaborative (and ever-changing) exhibition, indicating, under the name and description labels of all the elements on display, the presentational text provided by the lender, often in the form of the story, detailing its creation, its discovery, or its sentimental value. What stories do museums choose to collect? How are they assembled into a collection? How to exhibit the ordinary, the fragmentary, the ephemeral, the intimate — collected in the form of stories of nothing, or small papers, or short audio and video recordings? How can these texts be combined with objects? What are the stakes of this approach at the crossroads of sociology, expography, and fictiography? Does an accumulation of individual memories constitute a collective archive?
It may be of interest to delve into the meta-narrative dimension of the fictional-graphic practices of museums: how is the museum as a factory of narratives integrated into the expositional design — how can the process of collection, sorting, and then assembly be shown?
What Is Said
A study conducted by the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University during the COVID-19 pandemic museum closure revealed that visitors found solace and psychological support in museums’ ability to tell stories. Although museums were keen to accommodate the diversity of their audiences, they did not suspect that an appetite for storytelling was the primary motivation for their visitors. In a highly competitive environment where museums wish to broaden their regular visitors base, what kinds of stories or narrative projects do they offer to attract different audiences who more and more conceive of their visiting experience as a life experience and want to extend what they have seen by putting it into practice? And what is the subject or object of this? What are the narrative genres that the exhibition incorporates? Is it inspired by pre-existing narrative structures or does it bring out new narrative genres, or even invent new formats?
Noting that the lack of structure in the narratives collected from visitors to the art museum in Portland, Oregon as part of the “Object Stories” project (2010–2019), in which visitors were invited to talk about an object that was particularly dear to them, that left them unable to express themselves, both verbally and physically, Christina Olsen put forward a questionnaire containing five speech triggers and then edited each recording. What does this type of editorial preparation behind making expositions reveal? What makes a “personal object storytelling” (Olsen) worthy of entering the museum or the archive? How are these new narratives structured? How do we structure them without formatting them?
What is the interaction between museography, fictiography — this continuum that shifts the narrative from autobiography to autobiofiction, to the creation of a fictional self — and listening to the Other, the Elsewhere? How does this narrative help to bring the past to the present, or, in stride with curator Nina Simon who founded the blog Museum 2, advocating for a more inclusive museum, “relevant” (The Art of Relevance, 2016)? In what ways does this accompaniment — or even the substitution — of narratives for objects on display help them to speak to us in the present moment of our visit? What meaning, what knowledge, what feeling do these narrative expographies convey?
What types of expographic and editorial texts do these new museographic dynamics generate? In addition to labels and descriptive texts, do they develop new forms of publications, brochures, catalogues, narrativized texts?
Contributors may choose to focus on the ways fiction and literature reflect these museographic explorations.
This question can be approached from the point of view of the museum-goers, the visit experience, or the audiences and impact on the collective. The fictiographic museum is constructed simultaneously with the Participatory Museum (Simon), as well as with the common and the community. In a context where uniqueness of the story is perceived as a form of ideological and cultural domination, how do museum spaces manage to script a multiplicity of voices, types of discourse, and narratives? Is there a limit to this plurality?
We welcome submissions in English and French.
Contributors are invited to submit abstracts for 20mn presentations (500 words max with a short biographical note).
Proposal deadline: June 14th
Notification of acceptance: June 20th
Proposals should be sent jointly to
Baudrillard, Jean, Le Système des objets, Gallimard, 1968.
Bedford, Leslie, “Storytelling: The Real Work of Museums”, Curator: The Museum Journal 44|1 (Jan. 2001).
Davallon, Jean, « Écriture de l’exposition : expographie, muséographie, scénographie », Culture et musées 16, 2010.
Olsen, Christina, “How do You Capture Compelling Visitor Stories? Interview with Christina Olsen”, Museumtwo, Tuesday, May 03, 2011.
Padiglione, Vincenzo, « ‘Let the Silent History Be Told’: Museums Turn to Naratives”, Fractal: Revista de Psicologia, 28|2, 2016.
Simon, Nina, The Participatory Museum, Museum 2.0, 2010.
___, The Art of Relevance, Museum 2.0, 2016.