Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Into the Deep End: What's Keeping Museums from Telling Meaty, In-Depth Stories?

I just finished listening to This American Life's incredible two-part series about gun violence at Harper High School in Chicago. It does everything a great documentary story can do: it takes you into another world, introduces you to unforgettable people, defies expectations, and delivers tough realities instead of fairy tales.
I've been consuming a lot of documentary stories recently, primarily through, my new favorite go-to nighttime reading source. Longform curates superlative non-fiction from a variety of sites and magazines. It has introduced me to corrupt university fundraisers, the true history of Tom Dooley, and the world's oldest marathon runner... and that's just in the last week.

All this delightful non-fiction makes me wonder: why aren't museums great at telling these same kinds of deep, intense stories? Why are exhibitions, which have huge potential as immersive, multi-platform narrative devices, so rarely used to that effect?

Yes, I know that every platform is different, and that the captive attention we afford to radio, TV, and written material doesn't map perfectly to a free-choice wander through an exhibition. But exhibitions have the potential to use all those narrative tools PLUS objects, immersive design, and interactive experiences to tell stories.

Strangely, exhibitions have become incredibly successful at creating immersive environments that tell broad conceptual stories--but not so good at telling tight, focused stories. I've experienced many excellent thematic exhibitions that gave me an overall sense of a story, but few that really dove into a particular object or incident. This seems strange given that museums are organized around objects. Think about how common it is to see an exhibition on a time period, an artistic genre, or a broad scientific discipline that uses a variety of objects and narrative devices as guideposts along a diffuse journey, and how rare it is to see an in-depth experience around just one object or set of objects, as in Peter Greenaway's extraordinary (and fictionalized) delving into Rembrandt's Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, or Anne Frank's intimate attic hideout.

Too often we pull our punches by using the weakest storytelling techniques--broad generalizations on 50 word labels, an immersive wading pool of narrative bits. We avoid the incredible power that comes from a deep dive into one object, one story, one moment. Social object theory tells us that the most compelling stories exist around individual objects, but we weaken those stories by throwing too much in the same pot. We justify the tradeoff by arguing that we have to tell the broader story, offer more context, integrate more objects.

But tight doesn't have to mean limited. When we experience intense depth, as in the Minnesota History Center's Open House, which explores the stories of residents of one St. Paul home over time, or the Boston Museum of Science's beautiful theater experience about Nikola Tesla, or an incredible single artist show, it stands out. It's unforgettable. The individuals, the nuance, the specificity--the story tattoos itself on your memory in a way that a generalized exhibition cannot. It leads to more interesting conclusions and motivates further exploration. While the story is tighter, the impact is less prescribed, and more powerful.

One of the most surprising versions of this I have ever experienced was in a very small museum in Texas, the Brazos Valley African American Museum. They had a very simple exhibit of single-page laminated stories, transcribed from oral interviews with elders in the community. I was captivated by these first-person accounts because of their clarity and specificity. They led me to places I never would have gone otherwise. The narrative device was almost nil, and yet the content experience was better than I've had in most exhibitions.

Specificity trumps generality when it comes to creating a powerful documentary story. It's easy to imagine a hard-hitting exhibition on teens and gun violence that might tell a "broader story" than that on This American Life--more statistics, more diverse images and voices from throughout the country, more opportunities to reflect and connect. And yet it wouldn't be as powerful as an exhibition on just one story of one high school. It wouldn't be as deep. It wouldn't be as real. And ultimately (and ironically), it wouldn't have the power to expose the bigger issues in the nuanced way that a tight focus can.

When have you experienced this kind of deep dive in an exhibition? What do you think makes it possible, and what do you think makes it so rare?
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