What Writers Can Teach Museum Curators

‘Nothing!’ cries an enraged legion of museum curators, their spectacles quivering with righteous fury. ‘Nothing at all, you idle coffee-addicted scribblers of words that nobody wants to read! Adverbs, in particular.’

But hear me out.

In a way, we’re both in the same business. We’re both story tellers. We’re both trying to get ‘ordinary people’ (sic) interested in the lives and experiences of others, or in a particular culture or moment in time, or in a lost way of doing things, or in the history of a special place, or in a combination of all of those. If I’m right about this, then surely it means there should be a certain crossover in the way that we go about our business: in a nutshell, a good book and a good museum should have a great deal in common. But that’s plainly not always the case, and it certainly isn’t the case with the new Vikings exhibition at the British Museum, which we visited last Friday (its second day of public opening).

Vikings.

That single word tells us the British Museum should be onto a sure-fire winner, with an absolutely knockout story to tell. But it blows the opportunity spectacularly, principally because it ignores the basic rules that should underpin the telling of any story; basics which every writer worth his or her salt will, or should, take for granted in their own work, but which, for some reason, some museum curators seem to ignore entirely in theirs.

Politically incorrect

Politically incorrect

1/ Start with a bang. Or, to put it another way, ‘impact, impact, impact’. Every writer reading this blog will know the importance of a strong opening – a powerful first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first chapter – either because it’s something your creative writing tutor /agent/ editor/ publisher has drummed into you, or because it was an instinctive part of your writing to begin with. Grip your audience. Convince them from the very start that this is a fascinating story which they really want to follow. Note to the British Museum: Having the very first display case containing precisely one brooch is not ‘starting with a bang’. Recorded voices speaking in old Norse on a continuous loop do not constitute ‘impact’.

2/ Keep your audience’s attention and sympathy. Absolutely vital for all writers. You want your readers to find the story gripping, the characters sympathetic (or interesting, at the very least). You want them to decide that this is a journey they want to lap up every part of; that they want to keep going to the very end. Note to the British Museum: You do not get your audience’s sympathy by immediately funnelling everybody into a narrow, dark, dog-leg gallery, with effectively only one bank of exhibits. As a result, people’s first impressions of the exhibition are of a vast logjam, with a huge queue shuffling slowly forward, and with very little to look at for ages – partly because there’s relatively little in the first few display cases, partly because most of them contain beads. Nice beads, admittedly, but still beads. OK, yes, we know you’re on a mission to convince people that the Vikings were cuddly bunnies who liked trade and were skilled craftsmen, and not blood-crazed maniacs in horned helmets, but would it really have hurt to have just one sword near the beginning…just one helmet (even without horns)…just one atrocity story? And just a bit more space, perhaps, with a more flexible layout, so that everybody wouldn’t effectively need to stay in one stationary line, several deep?  As a result, several people in our hearing were asking the staff on duty about how they could complain formally when they were barely 10 feet into the exhibition space. Many others were bypassing the first half of the exhibition entirely, once word got out that there was more space – not to mention swords and helmets – later on.

Wrong

Wrong

3/ Drive the story forward. Keep the narrative moving. Build up to dramatic climaxes that leave the readers wanting to turn over to the next page, or move on to the next chapter. Note to the British Museum: Driving the story forward means you have a story to begin with. I know it’s very cutting-edge to reject narrative and go for a thematic approach instead; there’s nothing innately wrong with that, and, indeed, I’ve often done it myself in my non-fiction work. But leaving all of what I suspect most people will consider to be the best bits to the very end (see below) is neither cutting-edge nor clever – especially when that pesky queue still isn’t moving, people are still complaining, and absolutely nothing at all, least of all the audience, is being driven forward in any shape or form. 

4/ Raise your audience’s expectations, and then fulfil them. Your audience comes to your work with certain expectations. They know the genre. They have an idea of what to expect, perhaps from the cover blurb, perhaps from reading your previous work, perhaps because they want to discover something fresh and different. It’s vital that you fulfil your audience’s expectations, rather than creating something self-indulgent and overly introspective. Note to the British Museum: Swords. Helmets. Atrocities. OK, you might want to disprove that myth – but surely the best way of doing so is to confront the myth head on, at the beginning of the exhibition, and not ignore it entirely, relying instead on the smug assumption that you know much better than your audience? Of course, I’m just one lone voice, and can thus be easily disregarded. But I’ve spent the last 30+ years dispelling myths about 17th century naval history, so I think I’ve developed a reasonable idea of how to tackle that sort of mission effectively…and as for being a lone voice, I see that both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph are taking pretty much the same line as me. (‘Like watching The Killing in Stansted Airport’ – genius, Mark Hudson of the Telegraph, sheer genius.) And let’s face it, if those two are on the same side, things really must be pretty serious.  

No. Just no. (Horned helmets? Myth, not to mention a health and safety issue.)

No. Just no.
(Horned helmets? Myth, not to mention a health and safety issue.)

5/ Move from the general to the specific. This is one of the guiding principles of writing non-fiction, although it doesn’t necessarily hold true in every single case. Even so, the principle of setting the scene, giving the audience a clear sense of the context, and then moving into detail – say, into such themes as religion, warfare and home life (yes, even beads) – is a sound one, especially as it also applies in the profession that provided my ‘day job’ for thirty years, namely teaching. And if you don’t buy my comparison between writing and museum curating, I hope you’ll at least accept that the latter has a great deal in common with teaching, especially as museums are often major teaching resources in their own right. Note to the British Museum:  Starting with a few domestic items and some Old Norse voices certainly doesn’t constitute moving from the general to the specific. Yes, you have some pieces of explanatory text around, but these are ridiculously brief – and, worse, they tend to be either very high up on the walls or very low down, and thus often completely inaccessible because of the crush. This isn’t trendy minimalism; ignoring such a basic requirement as providing straightforward lines of sight to important information is simply crass, and something that the greenest student on his or her first teaching practice would be able to sort out much more competently. (Or are you assuming that everyone will have one of those neat little interactive handsets your staff are so keen to give out? The same handsets that contribute further to the logjam by ensuring that the people with them all stop dead in exactly the same places to listen to the commentary? Those handsets?)

Now that's what I call a Viking ship! (Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Shetland, January 2013)

Now that’s what I call a Viking ship!
(Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Shetland, January 2013)

6/ End with a bang. Self-explanatory, really, and the one and only point on which the Vikings exhibition scores. Finally, you emerge from the logjammed dog-leg into a huge hall containing swords and helmets galore, not to mention stunning religious artefacts and a few examples of some of my favourite artefacts of any sort, the delightful Lewis Chessmen. The centrepiece, though, is the enormous steel skeleton containing the surviving timbers of ‘Roskilde 6’, the biggest Viking ship ever discovered. Even this is not quite as impressive as the curators probably hoped, though: at the end of the day, there’s much more steel frame than there is timber. Dare one suggest that bringing in a rather smaller hull, but a more complete one, would actually have had a greater impact?

All in all, then, a missed opportunity by the British Museum, and arguably the latest in a series of seriously misconceived decisions at that institution (witness its cavalier treatment for a decade or more of what should be one of its greatest assets and attractions, the Round Reading Room). If its curatorial team want an example of how to stage an exhibition that at once challenges audience preconceptions, presents radical new revisionist interpretations of supposedly familiar subject matter, and yet succeeds triumphantly in fulfilling all six of the basics I’ve set out above, then perhaps they should catch one of the fast boats down to Greenwich and take a look at the new Nelson, Navy and Nation gallery at the National Maritime Museum. But somehow, I doubt if they will.

3 Comments

  1. Rob says:

    Good stuff. I will unashamedly plagiarise this when making suggestions about the proposed museum to mark the Battle of Cambrai and the British tank Deborah D51!

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  2. tobias philbin says:

    No kidding. Its just that Museum curators probably come from the most politically correct of all disciplines–pick one. In any case good literature and pedagogy demand precisely what you are talking about. Museums should be about both. Cheers Toby Philbin, inveterate museum hanger on.

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