Narrative Space conference puts spotlight on storytelling

As part of a drive to encourage ’design thinking’ in museum studies, the University of Leicester is holding an international conference at the end of April to develop and theorise the trend towards storytelling in exhibition design.

The three-day Narrative Space conference, from 20-22 April, will feature a broad range of speakers, including academics specialising in museum, film and animation studies; representatives from museums; and designers and artists, including film-maker Peter Greenaway.

Discussing the trend towards narrative, Suzanne MacLeod, deputy head of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, says, ’This strand of thinking has been developing for the past ten or 15 years, but there’s now a shared language, so it does feel like a new way of museum-making.’

MacLeod attributes the shift to improved funding, largely from the National Lottery. She says, ’There has been a lot of investment in the capital infrastructure of museums, which has meant that the traditional approach of using in-house design teams has been replaced with working with architects and external design groups alongside an in-house team.’

The Science Museum deputy director Heather Mayfield says, ’We often work in a “black box” situation, as many of our exhibits are not that eloquent. We look for a human story in a way we never would have done 20 years ago.’

Museums are also moving away from authoritative narratives to imaginative methods, says Metaphor director for content and learning Rachel Morris. When designing the British Museum’s 2007 exhibition The First Emperor, Metaphor initially laid the content on the floor as a storyboard. An imaginative response to the material was then developed by transforming the museum’s dome into a tomb ceiling, controlling lighting and highlighting ’thresholds between life and death’. Morris says, ’Visitors want to time-travel and so the environment has to be totally immersive.’

Further opportunities for designers to develop immersive worlds will evolve when technology comes off the computer screen and on to the walls, floors and table spaces, says Morris. ’When is stays on the screen, it’s not part of the experience,’ she says.

But an emphasis on narrative highlights the need for effective yet subtle communication, says Land Design Studio designer Jona Piehl. She says, ’Exhibitions can’t just look exciting,but not communicate properly. Graphics need to be used so that you don’t notice the graphics, but see the story.’

Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins has been running three-day workshops at Leicester University to encourage a new generation of curators to become ’master puppeteers’ who understand how to procure design and write effective briefs. At the conference he will be discussing new potential models, such as ’distributed museums’ -where visitor experience is reinvented and extended through the Internet or by pop-up museums spread over several sites in a city.

Metaphor founder Stephen Greenberg will go further by speculating whether the principles of exhibition design, which he likens to sampling in music, could be transferred to urban planning and architecture. He says, ’Design can often focus on the container more than the content, but the more time you spend in exhibition design the more you realise that it’s about the opera rather than the opera house.’

Speakers at Narrative Space

  • Keynote speaker film-maker Peter Greenaway was chosen because of ’his ability to engage with the observer and take them on a journey’ in both his feature films and gallery installations, says Suzanne MacLeod
  • Rachel Morris will be discussing how imaginary museums from fiction can inspire those in the real world, and Jona Piehl will talk about the role of graphics in museum design
  • Other speakers include education and interpretation expert Jem Fraser; Maurice Davies, head of policy and communication at the Museums Association; and, Tom Duncan, founder of architecture and digital media studio Duncan McCauley

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