Every day I have the endearingly annoying responsibility of going home in the middle of the workday to take my dog out to go to the bathroom. After letting Milo out, I often stop by the en-route 7/11 on the way back to work because I am in need of refreshment after a strenuous walk with my 9 month old Beagle. Or because I’m lazy and like pre-packaged food, but it really doesn’t matter what the reason, the fact remains that the staff at this particular establishment are a bit familiar with me by now. There is a point to this, I promise. Please bear with me.
Last week I was enacting this routine and went up to check out and make the usual chit-chat with the man behind the counter when he noticed my work name badge. After making a typically vanilla comment about my commute and complimenting me for the wonderful work of “my museum” (sure, I’ll take credit…), the very nice gentleman inquired about my position at the museum and he said something that, though unintentional, piqued my interest for the rest of the day and, sure enough, it seems to have woven itself into the subsequent week. This man, you see, was not a native English speaker and though he was perfectly right to ask if I was responsible for handling and researching the museum’s collection, which I believe was his intention, what he actually asked was this:
“Are you a narrator?”
At the time I was hurried and flippantly smiled and responded with a thoroughly un-oratorical “no, I’m a museum educator. You know, tours and stuff…” It occurred to me – in the way only a true story can – as I heard the faint tinkle of the door shutting behind me that I had not only answered the wrong question, but I had given the wrong answer to the question that was asked.
In fact, I thought, he might have given me a better job title than I gave myself! I, Colleen Wilson, am an Art Narrator; Weaver of Tales about Tale-Tellers; Official Keeper of Stories, Yarns, and Mysteries Yet to be Solved! And that, my friends, is what my topic for today is: how to narrate your collection.
We’ve all been on The Museum Tour – you know the one. It starts out with a couple of names and dates pertaining to the building of the collection or the museum, then it hits up a few select works of art that may or may not be linked by a glaringly obvious theme where you learn about where it was made and who paid for it (and what it’s supposed to make you feel if you’re in that sort of genre), a ‘fun fact’ or two, then you get to go home. Now, this may just be my 21st century over-stimulated brain talking here, but where is the excitement in that? How about some adventure? Mystery? In art museums, we’re the luckiest of the museum bunch! We have stories of sword-fights, hijinks, jokes, ancient Gods and Goddesses, whole other fantasy worlds, and some the greatest romances of all time at our fingertips if you dig deep enough! These can be found steeped in the histories of each work of art either in the subject, the artist, the patron, the provenance, or sometimes all of the above!
Of course, this all sounds quite familiar if you’ve read pretty much anything I’ve ever written on museum education – pique their interest by making it interesting – and so far I’ve talked quite broadly about themes that can be found ‘in any subject.’ It hit home today, however, that I wasn’t stressing this enough: any subject. ANY subject.
Today, dear reader, I attended a lecture on the trade, embargoes, and taxation of American timber for use in British furniture making from 1600-1910. If there was ever a lecture I was less inclined to attend, I cannot remember it. I was mind-blowingly shocked when Adam Bowett, an independent furniture scholar from Britain, took the stage and promptly whisked us on a whirl-wind adventure of desperate sea-faring merchants and impatient oligarchs and an unexpected twist in which Canada came out of last place and stole the lead in North American timber trade to the British Isles on a technicality! (Finally! A reason to have a rivalry with those overly polite, maple-syrup-eating Northerners!) I’m fairly certain that I audibly gasped when it was revealed that these somehow endearing annual statistics of American timber in Britain – those numbers that I had watched with baited breath as they rose and fell with the geo-political tide – amounted to less than 3% of Britain’s imported timber at it’s peak. Womp womp.
Now, if you chose to skip over the part where I gushed about how awesome the timber trade is (obviously you missed out, but that’s neither here nor there), the point is that even that – the story arc of a log of American yellow pine which would only end up as a base-board in an exceedingly small number of British furniture drawers– can be told with the heart and character of a Homeric Epic.
I hope this inspires you to go out and find the Harry Potters, the Sherlock Holmeses, and the Counts of Monte Cristo in your collection to put your audiences on the edges of their seats.
Your humble servant,