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The authors of What is Exhibition Design? state:

“The primary role of an exhibition designer is to tell a story… all exhibitions have one thing in common; they all tell a story. Storytelling is the central craft of the exhibition designer…”

I question this insistence on narrative as the fundamental building block of exhibition design. Two initial points:

  1. Is storytelling a necessary component of experience and exhibition design? Is narrative a specifically human construct or do all entities in some way tell stories? What is storytelling? If it’s an account of causality, then narrative is potentially inherent in all objects. Humans unwittingly create narratives out of everything; does an exhibition designer really need to intervene? Too often objects are used in the service of narrative; mere props in the human comedy. The story should serve the object, not the other way around. Not only does exhibition design qua narrative undermine the objects on display, it undermines the viewing subjects as well by controlling their approach to, and perspective on, the objects. If control is the goal, then narrative is the way to go. But, if we take the history of the formation of museums into consideration, we understand that it is high-time to move beyond the conception of the exhibition as a means for educating and civilizing the unruly masses.

  2. Objects are too complex for narrative. No exhibition can adequately display an object, a collection of objects, or a history of objects in all its complexity. According to the Wikipedia entry on narrative fallacy, we have a “ human propensity to simplify data through a predilection for compact stories over complex data sets. It is easier for the human mind to remember and make decisions on the basis of stories with meaning than to remember strings of data.” The richness of an object used in an exhibition is at risk of being delimited by its subordination to an overarching narrative structure. How does one design an exhibition that will be memorable for humans yet doesn’t undermine the objects on display?

Without narrative, where does the exhibition designer begin? With the objects, naturally.

— Jared Nielsen

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