The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Narrative Space Day Two - Post One

Good morning everyone. I'm earlier this morning! Not being techie today, so hopefully I'll get enough presented. But given that we're off to Nottingham this afternoon, and I don't know if there will be internet access, you might have to wait until later for my report from there!

'Narrative and Perception'

'Artefacts: Narrative Transformations' Stephen Wischer Assistant Professor in Architecture at North Dakota State University.

Beginning with the story of the Minotaur, he discusses how the artifact produced the space of the Labyrinth. The artifact has an ability to provoke imagination, which is directly connected to the architecture, which must allow them to continue to tell these stories. Culture has survived precisely because of this ability to continue to relate stories. Churches were built to tell a story, a temporal, mythopoetic cycle. They were not merely practical.

But the products of our postcosmological, objectivist era has reduced the poetics of perception. Linear time, homogenous positivist space has, over the last two centuries, undermined the labyrinthine structure of perception. Our bodies have been removed from the space, and thought and experience have been separated. No longer do we experience space and time - we think about them.

But perhaps this is changing. We must learn to engage with that knowledge which is subjective and lived. 'Daedalon' artifacts are poetic, always removed from discipline, familiar yet bringing something entirely new. To immerse the locale, the life, the history, and the artefacts is a way to bring space alive, to bring in the poetic meaning. But artefacts, such as models, also allow design to be developed over time, through experience and a sensory understanding which helps thought to advance.

We cannot use objectivity alone. Our ideas become divorced and fleeting, and we cannot come to the multiplicity of understanding which our architectures and artifacts will come to engender. Both orientation and disorientation are important, and it is something which cannot be conceptualised. It cannot be prescribed, but only fully experienced. Reopening the cora, the primal space of communication, the place where thought and body are intertwined, a space of ritual, we can come to a lived response, the 'thick moment' of lived space, time and depth.

'Incomplete Stories' Annabel Fraser and Hannah Coulson

They are interested in the intangible, third space between narrator and viewer, the place where imaginative translations occur. These spaces of unending, fluid stories, are becoming more prevalent in our hyperlinked world.

Museums hold objects which we may not be familiar with in some way, and it is thus that they can engage with this third space. But they cannot do it alone; Eco writes that there is 'always a reader'. You need all to generate meanings. But they are all built in unpredictable, intimate moments, and the question becomes how we generate these moments in as much depth and with as much impact as possible.

Sometimes the simplest words are the best. They generate a large space in which to built that third encounter and free our responses to it. And yet voices which are ideosyncratic and characterful are also compelling; museums which integrate multiple voices, such as the Museum of Everything in London, can encourage these multiplicities and acknowledge that we are all subjective. What, too, is the role of graphic writing itself in this; how is the typed label different from the handwritten? What would it mean for narratives in museums to use particular voices, styles and genres.

So there are many 'silent cacophanies' around the museum, but these are influenced by each other. And sometimes, not knowing is fine. Curiosity is sparked in uncertainty, and by drawing the unknown into museums we can encourage increasing agency and experience for the audience. By leaving a story open ended, we give stories room to be misunderstood - but I wonder if this is, really, a problem?

The narrative approach as used in museums has objectified the space. Does the very act of museums in forming stories distort them? We can never experience the whole story. Perhaps fragmentation, which takes part in that untidy experience which is life, and engages with the third space, is the way forward. We may still tell stories, because they are a way to understand our place within the world, and because not to would engender a risk of confusion and loss. We need to balance the space between audience and curator, recognise that stories are multiple and open ended. More uncertainty has the potential to encourage more discussion and attention, more constructive self-building of understanding. And it might help us to build more sustainable, long-lived exhibitions.

'Early Museums, the Exhibition of Architecture and the Experimental Production of Knowledge'
Dr. Florian Kossak


The academic architect, he says, is a bricoluer, building in elements of history, sociology, and art amongst others. By returning to the strategies of early museums, he argues that it might be possible to enrich our creation and interpretation of museums.

Between the 15th and 18th century, prior to Bennett's 'exhibitionary complex' the term museion was ambiguous, embodied in artifacts, architectural spaces and intangible concepts. Thus early museums had a capability for fluidity and experimentation. They lacked historical time and linear narrative, scientific taxonomies, valued amatuerism and the developing strategies of display. They were, then, exhibited in multliple ways which may be used to inform what Dr. Kossak terms 'productive museums'.

The Renaissance Studiolo, although it was one of the earliest places of display, experimentation and study, was still a private space, and open therefore to a huge gamut of meanings. Two slightly different forms, princely studiolo in which the prince could gain knowledge and power over the world through its microcosm, and other forms where experimentation and study were the main goal. In these spaces, object displays were temporary, constantly changing with the agenda and needs of the study, and this, too engendered multiple narratives of objects.

When the hidden collection became public, in the kunst and wunderkammers of the 16th century, buildings whose sole purpose was to house collections began to be built, and the study function was subsumed by that of display, of the public manifestation of power and aesthetic wonder. They built a new relationship between the collector, collected and the invited visitor. They built a world which legitimated every question, all levels of curiosity, the inquiring and the amateur.

In the cabinets of curiosity, the recreation of a cosmos was replaced with the idea of display in order to represent to a visitor the borgeouis self and encourage specific social practices. He is not really interested in the class-based issues, but in the huge number of these cabinets which existed. Historically, they were aristocratic and socially competitive, but the artists' cabinet followed a different aesthetic; by intertwining their own are with the collections, the collections as their own work, they were created to build harmonious wholes of aesthetic pleasure. The exhibition was a work of art in its own right.

He turns, now, specifically to museums of architecture. These had been introduced at the end of the 18th century. Often these were temporary, or in private hands, perhaps exhibited for specific projects and purposes. These include that of Sir John Soane's, but the hybrid nature of this as public space and private home, it's picaresque and diverse nature, made it very different to many others. It was not purely architectural, still embodied in this integrated sense of architecture and art. Thus it retains its relation with the cabinets and the studiolo.

Productive exhibitions engage with these relations of history, space, audience perception and narrator. They are transhistorical practices which relate to many times and spaces. They provide a testing ground for architectural research, experimentation of the as yet unrealised, incorporating uncertainty and critique. It would understand architecture as physical, intellectual and social object, and its continued development would be a part of this.


Today we've heard a lot about specificality and personality, the importance of voices which are both concordant and dissonant, about the relational spaces which exist within museums. Those spaces of relation, the intertextual webs in which meaning is generated. It is true that we cannot any longer (nor could we ever), separate spaces from things. In order to make our meanings, we need to understand these 'third places', and that all is built within a virtual web, interlinked in an ever-changing, cloudy, pre-real space.

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