A Different Story – a powerful and simple way to regenerate exhibitions
The stories we tell are often dictated by the museum’s collection, but are there any simple ways to regenerate the permanent exhibition? “Inviting a reference group is one good way of letting the world in” says Clara Åhlvik, who held a workshop called “A Different Story” at the Museums’ Spring Meeting.
The workshop A Different Story at the Museum Spring Meeting in Sigtuna on 17 April presented simple methods for showing a permanent exhibition from a different perspective. “The idea of A Different Story is to create a new exhibition within the exhibition,” says workshop leader Clara Åhlvik. With a past as the managing director of Svensk form and a curator at Jönköping County Museum, she has produced acclaimed exhibitions such as Take Action for the Museum of World Culture, and Craftwerk for the Jönköping County Museum.
The workshop began with a lecture, where Clara Åhlvik described an exhibition at the Göteborgs naturhistoriska museum in 2011. Over a year, a few students from Gothenburg University studied three of Gothenburg’s major museums to find new perspectives on their existing collections. This resulted in Gender matters where one of the projects consisted of dressing the large, stuffed elephant in the Natural History Museum in a pink tutu. This initially aroused criticism from museum staff, who felt the students were ridiculing the exhibition, and the students had to explain why they had put the tutu on the elephant. The answer was that the elephant kingdom is a matriarchy, where all the males are subordinate. Symbolically, this skirt would give more power to a male and improve his status in the flock.
This was the students’ way of demonstrating that there is never merely one truth but many. The tutu also shows how we have a tendency to attribute gender to objects. After the students had delivered their explanation, the museum staff saw their exhibition with new eyes and allowed it to remain for a limited period.
Similarly, external reference groups are a simple way for museums to access new perspectives on their existing exhibitions. A Different Story proposes a method development based on the assumption that the objects in a museum harbour many more stories than those shown in the museum. The objective is to highlight an alternative perspective, and thus to increase understanding of, and curiosity about, the multitude of stories buried in the museum collections. The project proposes many potential ways to build partnerships between museums and is intended to encourage museum staff from different disciplines to collaborate and share their expertise, and perhaps even challenge each other’s knowledge. These new networks can lead museums to create new stories that go beyond the “usual” interpretation of their objects. “It is essential that this is not about criticising or redoing an exhibition, but about adding a different, parallel story,” Clara Åhlvik explains.
One hundred objects were selected from the collections and shown from a new angle. Visitors could also add their own stories. In a collaboration with the BBC a radio programme was also made about each object.
During the workshop at Sigtuna Museum participants were invited to see the Museum’s new exhibition Trä, tiden är ingenting (“Wood, Time is Nothing”) to choose a part of the exhibition and tell a different story based on the featured objects.
One group focused on power, and on relating how the power status of the objects had changed over time. The other group chose to use the objects in the collection to show how the need for crafts had changed over the past millennium.
In the second part of the workshop, participants were asked to consider how they could pursue this project in their own institutions.
A few of the ideas that were brought up were that the concept could be shared via a campaign with its own stamped logotype for A Different Story. Museum hack, an independent company that organises its own guided tours of some museums in New York, was mentioned as a successful example of one way of talking about a museum’s collections from a different point of view.
The purpose of the project is to develop a method that would make it easier for museum to regenerate and discuss their internal discourse and their prevailing narrative techniques. A Different Story offers great potential to generate partnerships and networks between museums. These new networks can, says Clara Åhlvik, encourage museums to create new stories and venture beyond the “usual” interpretation of the objects.
“The meta exhibition itself can be either big or small, it can be made permanent, or last for a day, a week, or a month. The actual process of challenging and updating our own exhibition discourse is just as important as the result,” says Clara Åhlvik.