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Constructing stories

Andrea Schiattarella’s book, about the interrelations between museums, museography and museum architecture, is not a manual for exhibition or museum design but an insightful reflection on what could be understood as the essence of the contemporary museum, whether it is an art museum, a science centre or a museum dedicated to a particular theme or subject.

The value of the book is that it proposes a praxis in between designing and curating. This makes it meaningful for architects and for curators and museum professionals. It deals with the museum as a communicative tool, as a spatial medium, in which one can discern at least three agents: narratives, artefacts, visitors. Drawing on literary models, with references to Jorges Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, Andrea Schiattarella pleads for models that are more complex and open, and hence richer than the traditional models of fixed taxonomies and  linear, one-directional sequences. Schiattarella does not claim that the traditional models of narration are outdated and obsolete (some of the most successful literature and museums are still based on them). But in an elegant prose he opens perspectives to appreciate more complex narrative modes of presentation and representation.

The book is a manifesto for a poly-interpretable and open-ended approach in museum and exhibition design, which is mirrored in the structure of the text, which doubles the argument: it is inconclusive, and leaves the possibility of different readings and different outcomes. This is not so much the result of  an absence of a strong conviction quite the contrary. Schiattarella’s is clearly and definitively in favour of this open-endedness and inconclusiveness.

Much more than a fixed method this book suggests something that could be described as a pragmatic intellectual approach (it seems no coincidence the great American pragmatist John Dewey is among the very few philosophers quoted or mentioned in this book). It is intellectual because of the proposition of complex narratives that allow for equally complex readings: it is pragmatic because the argument does not float away in the direction of the unbearable übertheoretical discourses that have been contaminating much of the writing about museums, curating and exhibitions, especially when it comes to contemporary art.

Just as his plea, the arguments of Schiattarella lends itself for more than one reading. One of my readings is this. The power of writers like Borges, Calvino and Perec is that they are great storytellers and brilliant constructors of narratives at the same time. One can immerse oneself in the stories of Borges, Calvino and Perec without bothering about how they are constructed and which games are played with the text and reader.  Converserly, these authors manage to give meaning to the presumedly ordinary (and in Perec’s case the extra-ordinary) and to apparently insignificant details of reality in such a way that the secret stories behind it come to the surface. In this respect, a complex, non-linear, poly-linear or hypertextual exhibition could be appreciated on different levels, both in its full complexity, but ideally also as an easily digestable narrative.

In addition to this it might also be possible to understand the majority of all those conventional displays, whether they are chronological or thematical, in a non-conventional way, making use of strategies like for instance the horse jump from the chess game, which was used by Perec in La Vie mode d’emploi, to cross a museum or exhibit, to explore different interpretations.

Read this way, the book has an additional value, not only for architects and curators, but also for the conscious museum visitors that allow them to dissect the fixed narratives of conventional displays and exhibitions and replace them by alternative storylines, plots and characters.

Hans Ibelings, Preface to A. Schiattarella, Narrative Structures for Museum Design, Ilios Book, 2015


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