Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The J. M. Barrie Model for Museum Voice

What does Peter Pan make you think of? A ticking crocodile? Julie Andrews? Johnny Depp? For me, it's the beginning of chapter 8, in which J. M. Barrie gives lovely instructions on how to close your eyes, squeeze tight, and conjure the Mermaid's Lagoon. It's a delicious opportunity in which the author actually says to the reader, "here's how you can physically enter the world of this story," made even more delightful by the odd debate that precedes it at the end of chapter 7:
"To describe them [the adventures] all would require a book as large as an English—Latin, Latin—English Dictionary, and the most we can do is to give one as a specimen of an average hour on the island. The difficulty is which one to choose. ...
[several paragraphs describe different adventures]
...Which of these adventures shall we choose? The best way will be to toss for it.

I have tossed, and the lagoon has won. This almost makes one wish that the gulch or the cake or Tink's leaf had won. Of course I could do it again, and make it best out of three; however, perhaps fairest to stick to the lagoon."
[full text]

We only get the lagoon and the mermaids by chance, by whim. We could have missed it--but we didn't. Which makes it feel special and tenuous and right-nowish, even though the book is bound and its author dead.

The story of Peter Pan is well-known, but it's just as unique for its tone as its content. Over and over, Mr. Barrie addresses "my dear reader" from the pulpit of the pages. William Goldman does something similar with The Princess Bride, commenting about dreadfully dull chapters he has omitted for the reader's sanity.

Can designers pull this off with physical spaces? I think fondly of the handwritten arrows and shortcut signs to bathrooms when there's construction going on. But it's not so easy to integrate into larger-scale museum writing. Both Barrie and Goldman are able to pull off charming, but it would be easy for a less accomplished writer to fall into gimmicky. And if you try to write this way without sincerity, it will sound as flat as other text. The key is not to write the story/label/instructions. You have to tell it.

Have you ever walked someone, a non-museum professional, through an exhibition you have or are working on? Chances are, the stories you'll tell your friend are not the text of the labels, even though you probably spent painstaking hours crafting that text. If the labels are perfect, why not repeat them? Because they are written, not told. You want to tell the off-label story, about how hard it was to find the thing, how the collector was a weirdo, how he told you a story about when it was supposedly used in a decidedly unsavory way by its creator. Granted, maybe all of those stories aren't fit for the label, but that urge to share, to tell the stories that matter, NEEDS to get communicated.

Imagine an interactive exhibit that, along with the perfectly crafted instructional label, has labels in which designers or testers tell the funny stories that happened when they tried it for the first time. Or a small note on an ancient coin mentioning that the museum has thousands of similar ones in storage--or none. One of the nice things about the Barrie model is that it decidely isn't 2.0--it's lodged in a sealed, dead book--and yet it still pulls you in as an active participant in his content. Storytelling is a dying craft worth revitalizing. I'd love to see label writers going to storytelling conferences and getting a jolt from the folks who see the text as abse line upon which to layer a shared experience.

It's one of the fun challenges of a blog. I'm always tossing coins, trying, thinking of you.

1 comments, add yours!:

Paul Orselli said...

Hi Nina,

Perhaps if more museum labels were written as if they were a conversation (or story) between contemporaries, rather than authority/visitor, they wouldn't be so boring!

A good example of "storyish" labels (both in form and content) are those found at The Children's Zoo in Central Park.