30 Aug

Truth and Tales in Museums

On August 14, 2003, I found myself standing at the Great Lakes Science Center chatting with a Chinese master printmaker stanchioned within the exhibition when the overhead lights flickered and went black before the emergency lights went on. I was supposed to be ducking out of work to attend a family wedding with my soon to be in-laws, and so I walked with certainty, wooden high heels clicking on the exhibition floor, to the door without looking back.

Many Americans living in the Northeast could write their own story about the Great Blackout of 2003. I am sure you know someone who could tell you their story. I am also fairly sure that they have a different story than mine. Both of our stories are the truth; it’s just our own separate, related truths.

History Is:
History is crafted from the available data. There are curatorial fields working with so little data that they are left with interpretation crocheted out of archeological conjecture, strong suppositions, and admonishments against the assumption. You know what I mean. These are the essay articles that include multiple equivalent phrases along the lines of “supposed”, “purported”, “suspected”, and various other literary forms of soft-pedaling. Other fields have a deluge of data. Frankly, anyone working in contemporary art and/ or history is basically drawing the internet and the related data explosion through a sieve.
Whatever level of data available, writing about history is looking at the possible evidence and attempting to develop a story. You are basically creating something that verges on truth, itself a multivalent and sometimes inscrutable state. The more stories that are written, the closer we as a culture move towards the truth. Herein lies the challenge, history is often one small sliver of what happened.

As I said above, some of this omission is due to the lack of evidence/ data. But, more often, there is something more at work. More often than not, certain stories are nominated as the truth, privileged at the expense of other stories. This is true in history in general, as the old saying as, partly because the losers don’t do the telling.

Reconciling Truth and Museum:
History is a collective concept composed of memories, writing, artifacts, artworks, and monuments. Every element can be described in infinite ways, memorialized by some, and contested by others. Proponents and detractors alike, whether in Ancient Greece or contemporary America, might claim that they are telling history. But, in fact, they are just sharing their slice. Their rendering is but a story.

The role of personal inflection is a particularly germane issue when considering museums. Everyone person writing labels has a personal bias. (Every human has biases). Every time you write anything, you leave something out. There was plenty about my 2003 Blackout story that I left out (funny stuff, actually). You often make these choices due to a commitment to a message or word count. You sometimes just can’t get the text to work in the way that you would like, and so you cut them.

But, in cutting items, you are not just losing words. You might also be losing ideas. Some of the ideas might be lost because they aren’t interesting. (I mean do need to know how long it took me to get out of a near dark exhibition hall). But others are lost because it might be too hard to explain in 140 words, like why was I speaking with a Chinese artisan working in an exhibition in Cleveland.

Museums often back off when it is hard. You can’t completely blame them. Most people back off when things are hard to express. But, museums aren’t people. They are institutions with our history in their trust. With such an important role, it is imperative that museums work as hard as they can to push the limits to get as close to the truth as possible.

Truth in Advertising
I used to think that I have a bad habit of being truthful. As I got older, I realized that the truth was not the problem, it was my delivery. In many ways, museums might be in the same boat. They tell the truth, or a part of it, and yet the delivery isn’t working. So, why is this? Well, first, and foremost, they are not sharing enough truths, as mentioned above. But, also, and concurrently, they aren’t sharing truths in ways that people want to hear them. Truth is a thing (or a series of things) that must be shared in ways, like storytelling.
A narrative is one of the most powerful ways that humans share. Oral history maintained cultural heritage for eons. If you think about memories, how many of them come through stories? As a child, the Ramayana was probably my favorite bit of history; I can still feel the injustice of Sita’s capture.

That said, I am reticent to suggest that storytelling is the only way to share our cultural truths. With big data, visualizations catch people for whom words are not enough. The detail-oriented love straight descriptions. Some people like a timeline. Just as there are many truths that make up our history, there are as many ways to share those truths.

Museum professionals need to be thoughtful in their planning of exhibitions. They need to think holistically about the truth. They can’t get the whole curve of any history. But, when they make the choices, they need to be thoughtful.  They need to decide where a less common story, say the story of the “loser” will make a huge impact on their visitors. They even need to decide when something other than a story makes more sense.

Why? Museums are different than any other historical deployment. Museums are taking actual objects, imbued with truths, and not only share the message, they also share the code. They tell the truth and then help visitors find other truths. And, herein is why the storytelling in inherently important in museum truth-telling. To go back to my introduction, how many of you read that story, and immediately filled in one of your own, either about that blackout or another? It’s human to meet a story with another. When museums share their collections through stories, they are setting up a generative system. They are inviting people to connect to history.  Objects, activated by the stories, become conduits for not just one truth but the locus of truths that make up any one moment in history.

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