What makes you want to look more closely at a museum exhibit? Is it its beauty, familiarity or strangeness? Perhaps you want to figure out why it is there and how it connects with the objects around it. Or perhaps the label simply piques your curiosity.
Museum curators and educators seem increasingly concerned about how visitors regard museum collections. Curators are often defensive about the idea that museums are either boring or little more than visitor attractions, and they have looked for new ways to make sure more people understand the importance of their collections. The most popular is the idea of ‘telling stories’ about the objects on display.
Narrative itself is not new to museums. Displays are shaped by curators, who make decisions about the significance and connectedness of a collection of objects. The narrative is not always clear – visitors have to work out for themselves what holds the display together. In the British Museum, for example, the collections of monumental objects from ancient civilisations show the distinctive achievements of each civilisation. Sometimes curators impose more obvious narrative structures on displays, placing objects in a historical, chronological or thematic context in order to show how a sphere of human creativity and productivity has developed, through the interaction of ideas, emerging technologies and changing tastes.
An excellent example of this approach is the ceramics gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A long gallery stretching the full length of the V&A’s top floor, it provides a swift canter through the history of ceramics, from their early development up to the modern day. It shows the similarities and differences in pottery-making around the world, and how the craft’s development reflects growing global influences and technical and artistic developments. Then, after you have covered the history, there are some wonderful examples of how modern artists and designers have developed the form.
Some objects are simply beautiful and need no other reason for being in a museum. They can stand alone, representing the best that humanity has created. But when presented as part of a history that has been carefully researched by curators, archivists and academics, they help us to understand how people have lived in the world and made it their own. Through focusing on one object or a connected group of objects, museum curators can show what makes a collection significant – not simply beautiful or unique. In the V&A ceramics gallery, the narrative provides a global-historical overview of the development of ceramics, as well as a sense of its huge versatility and variety as a form, often blurring the boundaries between art, craft, utility and beauty.