A narrative is a narrative is a narrative

Recently I visited the state library. I inserted a coin in a locker and was still busy arranging my things on a small table nearby, when a man stopped suddenly in front of the lockers and groaned loudly. I thought he wanted to occupy the locker beside mine and was disturbed by the still opened door. I offered to close the door but he called: ‘No! You occupied the 1009! The first documented mention of Lithuania!’ Frustrated he pushed off.

I was too astonished to say something but later I wondered how the everyday life of such a person looks like. Does he ride by bus ‘End of the War’ (number ‘45) through Berlin? Meet his ‘Middle ages’ girl friend aged 40? Hate to call his friends who had a meaningless telephone number?

Dealing with narratives for my PhD and my curatorial work, I am amazed again and again, how deeply we all believe in the world we construct for ourselves based on our experiences, principles and knowledge. One of the most enlightening insights so far while doing my PhD research was that considering exhibitions as narratives – is in itself a narrative, a perspective, a truth to be challenged by new times and paradigm shifts.

Some weeks after my extraordinary experience in the library, I hold a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Scientific University Collections in Hamburg. The ceremonial address was given at the State and University Library and when I walked through the entrance area I saw that the lockers were marked not with numbers but with fictional characters. My first thought was: what a great idea! My second: what a lousy day if only ‘Dracula’ is vacant, what a happy one, if I could put my things into ‘Jane Eyre’. Ha!


Photograph: © Jörg Amonat


Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

Like stories, exhibitions unfold – beyond the dramaturgic conceptual work – their own life. Exactly as a text writes itself to a certain degree in a way difficult to rationalise, new connections and unexpected layers of meaning come to exist during the making of an exhibition. Right in the middle a fantastic idea is born and directs the line of argumentation in a different direction. Suddenly a context becomes visible that was hidden at the beginning. And it is the objects that are responsible for this. Because of their sensual quality and multifaceted character it is hard to force them into a corset of meanings. Besides, often astonishing effects are created during the growing of the exhibition into the space, effects that were not predictable during the planning phase. To accept this and not to deny it because of rational reasons, allows to unfold this magic fully for the visitors. Interesting, appealing exhibitions live from this in-between, this added something, this certain extra hard to explain. And therefore, apart from all achievement for clarity, magic is always at the heart of the matter.


Picture from The New York Public Library

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. (1905 – 1920). Brush the mystic: the Hindu basket Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/b5cfbf49-a5ae-7548-e040-e00a18060aef


Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

Stories always contain an attitude regarding the topic. I want to express this as clearly as possible. To hold a clear position means to make myself vulnerable and attackable. This does not mean I become visible as a person, as Ariane Karbe. But I do get involved in my role as exhibition dramaturge and I do not hide behind the museum. The means to achieve this are various and depend from content to content. Thus, I don’t deny my enthusiasm for an issue but use it as an engine to attract the audience’s attention. There is nothing wrong with a strong handwriting – as long as you say clearly that it is your handwriting and not a truth produced by the museum. It depends on each project if one or several perspectives are discussed. By making my approach transparent, I enable the visitors to positon themselves and to pass criticism. Thus I take the audience serious.

Next time: Magic!


Picture from The New York Public Library

Science, Industry and Business Library: General Collection , The New York Public Library. (1859). Fantasmagorie page 383 Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/1de62bf0-27ce-0132-48df-58d385a7bbd0


Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

My work as exhibition dramaturge is to compose the information units into comprehensible stories that also attract emotions. I develop the stories based on scientific research but understand myself first and foremost as communicator. Emotions are productive in order to motivate the museum visitors to engage with the topics. I try to use dramaturgic devices as consciously as possible in order to create specific effects. Do I intend to puzzle, surprise or unsettle the visitors? Do I want to overwhelm them or to make them laugh? This may sound manipulative, but: it is impossible not to produce any effects. If you don’t want to create them intentionally, you run the risk of producing disappointment and boredom. People want entertainment, and that is an important aspect for my work. To find out how to satisfy this need by telling certain exhibition stories, without simplifying, is a thrilling challenge. An exhibition that resembles a Hollywood film, a soap opera, a poem – why not? While doing this, it is important to explore the borders between facts and fiction carefully. Every exhibition narrative, as objective as it may seem, contains a forming und deforming of the content. It is the aim of my research to explore the creative potential comprised in that – and my passion.

Next time: Attitude!


Photograph from The New York Public Library

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. Josie’s Legacy (cinema 1914) Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-02d4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99


Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

A worked through storyline is the backbone of every exhibition – this is my conviction. But to realise exhibition projects is a complex challenge. It is necessary to research objects and topics, to write texts, to apply for funding and to look for sponsors. And time is always scare. Often you forget the crucial point. Which story to tell? What is the central topic of the exhibition? Are all hypotheses well explained? In order to keep the essence of this multi-layered production process in mind it is helpful to focus on the structure. I understand exhibitions as arrangements of information units, they may be objects, texts or multi media stations. As an exhibition dramaturge I am responsible to select these units and to place them in the room. The arrangement of the units is essential to create suspense, for instance. At this point my work overlaps with the designers‘ work: they work out how to support the storyline visually and to translate it into the space. The more conscious I am as exhibition dramaturge about what to tell, the more successful this cooperation can be.

Next time: Emotion!


Picture from The New York Public Library

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. (1773). Cette planche représente la derniere couche des muscles…. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-e94d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Art of Exhibition Telling

I remember standing in the schoolyard trying to tell a joke to my sister and her friend. It was winter and we shivered with cold in our anoraks and pink-coloured mittens. I knew the joke by heart, I had practised it well, I loved the payoff – and to this day I have strong memories of their faces full of expectation. But I confused the plot hopelessly, and even before I battled my way to the end, the two of them took each other by the hand and hopped laughingly away.

Inspired by the Museumsakademie Museion21, I recently wrote my leadership values statement. My idea was to formulate as clearly as possible how I aim at influencing – thus I understand leadership – the museum world. However, what was meant as a reflection about my beliefs and principles turned out to be a formula, my formula for exhibition stories. I should not have been so surprised. Storytelling is the core of my motivation for my work – it is the heart. So the formula which I will present here bit by bit over the next days, is a lot about stories, a lot more about exhibitions and a good deal about me.


Exhibition stories = Structure + Emotion + Attitude + Magic

This formula explains my understanding of exhibitions and therefore my self-understanding as exhibition dramaturge. Like stories, exhibitions should not only consists of information but also emotions, otherwise they resemble prosaic reports. The concept of an exhibition can, like the concept of a story, be planned up to a certain point (important!) but cannot be controlled from this point on (magic!). The audience is no factor of its own in my formula because as addressees of the stories they are contained in every aspect, they are the most important entity. The most significant challenge of my work and my central responsibility is to make the stories so comprehensible and attractive that the audience can easily and willingly grasp them.

Next time: Structure!

Truth is Concrete

Some weeks ago I was in Italy for my exhibition project. I am responsible for the development of the permanent exhibition in the historical house museum of the Foundation Navarini-Ugarte. The museum is located in a villa built in 1909 in Merano, it is in the process of being founded. Walking along the beautiful spa promenade I mused about the question how to design the walls of the villa in the exhibition rooms. Should we leave them untouched, covered with shabby wallpapers probably put on after WW II, visualising thus different time layers? Or should we bare the underlying decoration, which would be consistent with the general selected time period for the exhibition covering the years from 1921 to 1941? Another possibility was to paint the walls with a ‘neutral’ colouring, underlining thus the exhibition character of the interiors.

Private collector Franz Fromm in his study in the 1930ies

Private collector Franz Fromm in his study in the 1930ies


Probably the collector's daughter decorated the room with this wallpaper in the 1940ies

The collector’s daughter decorated the room with this wallpaper probably in the 1940ies

Contemplating about these different options I realised that what was still a question would be soon a decision necessary to be taken. Being situated in this interspace typical for this project phase, the difference between theory and practice came to my mind. Would I have to write a paper about the wall design in historical house museums, I could discuss the different points in detail, favouring perhaps one of the options, but I would not have been urged to give a definite answer. Of course, I had been aware of this discrepancy before but only working as a curator and writing at the same time my PhD thesis in museum studies, have generated full awareness of this fact.

Suddenly, in a kind of flashback, I saw the quote before me, I had noted on my pinboard during my first big exhibition project. It read: ‘Truth is concrete’. It originates from Lenin and hung in Brecht’s study during his Danish exile. Both had understood it definitely in a different sense, but I had found this an utterly helpful motto for the curating process in which you have to consider so many factors but are finally forced to do the job properly. In texts you can maintain a certain vagueness but in exhibitions you have to place things. In texts you can qualify statements easily but exhibitions are in general spaces free from footnotes.

I want to recycle this powerful motto herewith by reporting in future in loose succession about pivotal decision processes accompanying the realisation of the museum project in Merano. My aim is, by giving such an insight, to close somewhat the gap between theory and practice and to publish the struggles and contradictions typical for curating but difficult to make visible in the exhibitions themselves. The truth may be concrete, but this concreteness should not be mistaken for unambiguity or simplicity. The opposite is true.

Photographs: © Foundation Navarini-Ugarte

Wake up!

The Book

Daniel Tyradellis‘ ‚Tired Museums‘ [Müde Museen] is one of those books I begin to read ready to highlight remarkable insights. But after the second page I put the pen away because I could underline every passage. I fully agree with Tyradellis’ main thesis that museums are (still) too often boring because it is not understood profoundly enough that exhibitions should be, from the bottom of their heart, communication. What makes the reading so exciting and what bears such a potential for change, is the philosopher’s understanding of ‘communication’ [Vermittlung]. According to Tyradellis, curating should not pursue the purpose to explain things but to enable visitors to THINK. By thinking he does not mean to ponder about the exhibits but to comprehend that knowledge is not self-evident but can be questioned – that different viewpoints are thinkable. To screen self-evidences is ‘the key to communication’ in exhibitions, according to Tyradellis (page 158). He writes:

The evidences of humans are the joint for the range of communication as genuine form of cultural work in exhibitions. At every time and in every society there are things and contexts which make sense and remain widely unquestioned. The thinking and feeling is in that case so immediate that no thought emerges at all that the contexts could be different ones. Things seem to be definitely the way they simply seem – evident. This holds not only true for the immediacy as such but also on a deeper level. Evidence is also a word for the point where you begin to stop asking. (Tyradellis: 152, my translation)

The author explains that such a ‘thinking in space’ is difficult for museums for historical, psychological and structural reasons. To me the latter seems to be of special interest. Many expert scientists – according to Tyradellis – aim at exhibiting ‘professional evidences’ and ‘heaving’ the visitor onto the correspondent level (page 149). Communication is delegated to designers and educators. Tyradellis is not the first to complain about these circumstances. But embedded in his argumentation this point gains explosive power because he sees that specialisation hinders a ‘dissociation of evidences’ (page 155). But it is the museum, as a ‘third place’, a place ‘in-between’, that could be an ideal place for forcing open entrenched ways of seeing:

Actually, there is none other social place and no institution which would have the ability to do this. This is down to the fact that the medium exhibition is potentially not only interdisciplinary and thus brings together different expertise; exhibitions are also intermedia, and it can belong to the curatorial tasks to force the games of truth of the particular knowledge to leave its own specific mediality. Due to this inevitable translation and exposition, evidences and specifications change their obviousness. The own thinking then represents itself differently.
(Tyradellis: 240, my translation)

But how can we curators question evidences? In order to find an answer to this crucial question I visited the exhibition ‘The Ties of Friendship’ Tyradellis curated at the Deutsche Hygiene-Museum Dresden. In his book Tyradellis only frames an aspiration, of course, and of course, it’s difficult to realise theoretical concepts and ideals with the highly complex medium exhibition.


The Exhibition

To anticipate the result: if I had not read the curator’s book I would have simply thought the exhibition appealing and well done. Especially the idea to offer different versions of the (excellent) exhibition texts depending on the questionnaire about friendship every visitor is invited to fill in at the beginning, is fantastic. Perhaps even more important for my positive response would have been the fact that many interesting and inspiring aspects were touched. But this is exactly why Tyradellis, in my opinion, did not succeed in unsettling evidences. A variety of perspectives on friendship is deployed, but the multitude neutralizes their explosive power. Or, to put it another way: some questions have the potential to comprehend one’s own point of view as one among many, but even though some are posed explicitly, the questions are raised too gently. No emotional impetus unfolds. And emotions could help the question to eat through one’s consciousness in a painful or, in the best sense, unsettling way.

Two examples: An impressive monument shows a dog. The question is: is it possible to befriend an animal? This is a really interesting question that challenges the whole concept of friendship! The monument is huge – but it is only one among many that show more types of friendship: friendship among colleagues, comrades, team members and even with God. Among all of them the peculiarity of the problem disappears. What is more, the monument says there are people who consider animals their friends, but the opposite (people who don’t accept animals as friends) is not shown on the same (visual) level. My conclusion: a more effective way to debunk evidences would be to let contrasts clash.

Animals as friends?

Animals as friends?

Friendship with colleagues...

Friendship with colleagues…

... team members...

… team members…

... or even God?

… or even God?










Another interesting issue in the exhibition is the border between friendship and love. Again: this is really challenging! In a time where ‘friends with benefits’ have become popular, sex as a unique feature of love is radically put into question. Notions and connotations about different (are they different?) types of relationships are shown on a map which I really enjoyed to study. But again, because of the variety of terms the questions were only touched upon not ruptured. I think a deeper immersion into one of the aspects and a bolder display of emotions would have been more promising.

To conclude: the exhibition presents evidences and states of knowledge and raises questions. The questions are potential starting points for challenging these evidences. But because neither the questions nor possible, different and controversial answers are shown in depth, the thinking wanders, even if in some cases with a stumble, over the aspects, but it does not pause long enough for getting aware of itself.

Is it perhaps time to curate more radically?


Daniel Tyradellis: Müde Museen. Oder: Wie Ausstellungen unser Denken verändern könnten. Hamburg: edition Körber-Stiftung, 2014

‘The Ties of Friendship’, curated by Daniel Tyradellis, Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, 18/04/2015 – 01/11/2015

Photographs: © Ariane Karbe, published by kind permission of Deutsches Hygiene-Museums Dresden