Culture and communication
Bringing museums to life through storytelling
From creating a Mona Lisa selfie station to organising a feline life-drawing class, there’s certainly never a dull day when it comes to my work.
My research focuses on how to make museums and exhibitions more engaging, and these are just some of the tools we’ve used in the past few years.
On the face of it, as an art historian with a particular interest in the Renaissance period, I am someone who researches really old stuff, from hundreds of years ago, in a period very remote from our own. But it’s my mission to showcase just how relevant lessons from the past actually are to our modern society.
It may appear as though the Renaissance was just the age of a bunch of old white guys who printed books, and painted one-off pieces of art, steeped in religion and superstition. But are their experiences really so remote from ours? What was the Renaissance if not an unprecedented age of recovery from a devastating global pandemic (aka the 1349 Black Death) that for many people, led to very deep spiritual crises and self-reflection?
The Black Death, a global bubonic plague pandemic which kept recurring in Europe over hundreds of years, first struck in 1349 and is estimated to have wiped out up to two thirds of Europe’s population. It struck regardless of culture, age, and religion. It disrespected every border and boundary held dear by people in the past. Sometimes the old lived and the young perished, and it seemed all a bit random. Recognise the parallels?
I feel privileged as a Renaissance art historian to be able to reflect on the very real and valuable lessons this period can teach us about recovery, resilience and rebuilding - which have never seemed more relevant. Objects and ‘stuff’ surviving from that past are our visible, tangible links with that history and museums are the ‘sites of memory’ where the objects remind us of these stories.
These tangible links with the past are why I feel passionately about ensuring museums, and the exhibitions within them, fulfil their true storytelling potential, giving us all a chance to learn about the stories behind the objects contained within them. They should not just serve as mere repositories of content but should engage and stimulate, incorporating a range of non-traditional methods. As museum audiences keep changing with regards to their expectations about the role of heritage sites, so these sites need to evolve their audience engagement activities. And this is where academic research and museum interests converge!
"It’s the stories that bring [museums] alive, it’s the stories that can connect us to the past."
My research celebrates the diversity of the stories contained within a museum by challenging cultural sites to rethink their objects in such a way that they become- and remain- relevant to contemporary audiences.
I want to know the stories behind why objects were made in the first place, but also why they continue to be valuable and meaningful enough to still be here. Stuff rarely survives by accident; for things to survive, they get cherished and preserved and that means they retain significance. Museums capture that significance and they care for these objects, but it’s the stories that bring them alive, it’s the stories that can connect us to the past. So, let these voices sing. Whatever platform suits the story best- use it.
"Museums should not just serve as mere repositories of content but should engage and stimulate."
I’m especially interested in how digital spaces can create extensions to the physical estate of museums, enabling innovative forms of engagement between visitors and collections
Take for example, the Leonardo da Vinci: Ten Drawings from the Royal Collection exhibition at Nottingham Castle, which I was privileged to work on. One of the most popular and successful parts was the Mona Lisa selfie station we designed, which the exhibition’s curator went on to describe as “one of the most effective methods to engage visitors with the subject matter and one of the most enjoyed elements of the exhibition.”
We also used community events to help generate interest for this exhibition, including one of the more unusual highlights of my career – a feline life drawing session. Inspired by one of the drawings in the exhibition, Leonardo’s Cats, Lion and a Dragon, we worked with a local artist to run the event at Nottingham’s Kitty Café.
The exhibition’s curator told us: “Looking outside of the ‘gallery walls” to neighbouring organisations and community groups now informs most of my exhibition planning; with a more relaxed and less institutional attitude.”
One of the other vital elements in maximising the success of an exhibition is using the buildings and architectural spaces available wisely. They play a huge role in the way people view objects, and can significantly enhance the process of learning, understanding and interpretation for visitors.
This premise was behind the work carried out by my colleague the late Dr Wang Qi who was responsible for the Dinosaurs of China exhibition held at Wollaton Hall in 2017.
Combining his research into architectural language and how buildings ‘speak’ to visitors with the amazing collections held by the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing resulted in an exhibition seen by more than 130,000 visitors.
One of the biggest privileges of my role is that, through the founding of the International Creative Economy Leadership Academy, we have been able to take our learnings and collaborate with partners in China, helping museum staff across the country revitalise their displays.
The country’s cultural sector has experienced an unprecedented increase in the number of new museums, outpacing the development of adequate training for their workforces. Our Telling Stories workshops, developed by myself, Dr Wang Qi and Professor Jonathan Hale, were delivered to staff in 19 of the 23 regional provinces in China between 2016 and 2019.
The sessions looked at the lifecycle of an exhibition, historical Western approaches to collecting and display, design of museums spaces and the visitor experience, and have made a real difference to the stories being told in museums across the country, challenging the norms and ensuring that the voices of everyday people are seen and heard, not just those of the politicians or ruling elite of the day.
Dr Gabriele Neher
Dr Gabriele Neher is Associate Professor of Art History in the Department of Cultural, Media and Visual Studies.