Storytelling in the Museum: Author, Meet Curator

A museum district is a different kind of hub in the city than the theatre district, the financial district or the shopping district. A certain calm and reflection, an academic environment, a sense of mystery, must be upheld for the museum district to feel like a special place within the bustle of the city.

It is no coincidence that the collegiate area surrounding the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston feels a little quieter and more studious than the rest of town. The academic buildings face in, away from the road, towards park land and pond, as if trying to protect the grass and geese and trees between them, and amid this park, two of the city’s best museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, sit, two very different arenas of culture and history but both using story to impress their visitors.

The Museum of Fine Arts is a huge, palatial slab of stone. On the outside, simple but majestic, and on the inside, a labyrinth of artifacts from all over the world. In fact, journeying around the museum is a little like taking a world tour. The exhibits are ordered according to their origin and their era, and it is very possible to feel certain that you’re lost in “European Art” and the next moment find yourself in “Africa and Oceania.”

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a Venetian fortress, originally the home of adventurer-collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, and faithfully reconstructed and added to; the heart of it is an Italian-style, turreted, walled villa, which itself hides an inner courtyard. The entrance and outbuildings of this villa differ completely from the main structure, one modern steel and glass structure creates the admission area, and another long glass corridor flaunts the museum’s plant nursery.

These two museums have been designed and curated many times over, as their artifacts have come and gone. The art of curation is vital in maintaining the integrity, and the story, of each museum, despite changes and despite the demands of diverse visitors with many other forms of media competing for their attention.

No surprise then that there are many, many writing lessons to be learned from a stroll around one, or two, well curated museums. So, focusing on the objects and moments that stood out to me as I visited the little Boston museum district this week, here are five lasting literary impressions that show how we can learn from other forms of storytelling around us:

Juno

In the MFA’s European Art wing, guarding her fellow artifacts, stands the magnificent giantess Juno. The 13-foot marble statue had been living in a private garden, as part of a regal Italian design, and had to be air-lifted into the museum building. Her face has been reconstructed, so that her expression fills the room, as it may have filled that Italian garden, with serenity and strength.

Juno at the MFA Boston, image via BostonGlobe.com

One of the MFA’s successes is how it holds complete stories within its overarching narrative. Because its scope is so wide, it is only possible to really take in bits and pieces of the overall story of the museum, so by focusing on each bit and piece, like this story of Juno’s journey to the museum, the museum gives the visitor gets that sense of satisfaction unique to a good tale, with each visit.

Writing lesson: Making smaller stories and anecdotes within your huge masterpiece, making them complete, satisfying wholes, is a great tip for pulling your reader on that long journey with you.

Rooms

The museums have chosen to present their stories in very different ways, the MFA creating wings for continents, time periods, and themes, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner recreating the original residential home of the collector, by making rooms instead of sections or themed areas.

Gothic Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photo by Sean Dungan, 2010

I think the latter strategy is the most effective. When you enter the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, it is like answering an invitation. You feel invited. And once the deliberate, modern entrance area is passed, and the museum begins, the light diminishes slightly, a different smell and air pervades, and, as you walk about slowly and freely, the Venetian, intimate atmosphere is so real that it’s difficult to keep your own character about you.

Writing lesson: Atmosphere is the key to story. If you can spend time making the atmosphere of your settings natural and developed, just like this facsimile of Isabella’s house, story and character will inevitably follow.

Music

The two museums both capture music between their walls, and try to bring music out from history so that it is not just wooden instruments and portraits and old written notes.

Grand piano from 1796, image via MFA.org

The MFA dedicates a special room to instruments of antiquity, set up like an ancient music shop. One imagines a motley band of players, comprised of every variety of instrumentalist from various centuries making the room its home. But it also has a regular program of concerts, specializing in the music of the periods and areas of its collection, so that actual sound becomes a part of the museum experience.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner also celebrates music; it has a concert hall and practice rooms in one of the higher, more modern gables of the museum, so that inevitably at some stage of your wandering, you’ll hear the faint vamping or twinkling of some classical piece.

Writing lesson: Appealing to the visitors’ senses allows these museums to create atmosphere, and enhance the stories of their objects. By adding sound and smell and taste to your work, even faintly in the background, the main events will be that much more provocative.

Kunstkammer

The Kunstkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities, was a craze in Renaissance Europe (check out The Miniaturist for a fictional interpretation of the craze). Wealthy home owners would dedicate a room or a corner of the room to keeping, shrine-like, cabinets and shelves of “curiosities,” objects of interest and strange, even gruesome, artifacts.

My favorite room at the MFA is the Kunstkammer room, a quiet, stowed away display of curiosity cabinets, including one extraordinary cabinet decorated with enamel camels and elephants. The objects treasured in these cabinets range from chess pieces to jewelry to gruesome bones and exotic idols.

Object from the Kunstkammer room, via MFA.org

Writing lesson: Curiosity may kill the cat but it fuels the reader. Stow away your objects of curiosity and those strange little sentences and ideas that inspire you and freak you out at the same time, until you find the right place for them in your writing, because if they interest you, they’ll interest others.

Cloister

Both museums curate spaces and stories of spirituality, religion, and godliness. Whether its Juno presiding over one room, or a haunting portrait of Saint Francis in another, the structure of each museum’s narrative allows these objects space and time to work on the visitor.

One of my favorite treasures in the Isabella Stewart Gardner is the Spanish Cloister room, a long, airy corridor, light from the outside on the left, warmth of the inner courtyard on your right, and at the end of the cloistered hall, a John Singer Sargent painting of a gypsy dancer.

Writing lesson: Spirituality is powerful. Whoever you are, responding viscerally to the dramatic painting of a religious martyr, or the quiet resounding of the stone floor through a cloistered hall, or the sitting wisdom of a giant Buddha sculpture, seems pretty natural. Don’t be afraid to use and experiment with the drama you learn from church and temple in your work.

There’s a lot we can learn from the examples of storytelling all around us, and especially from professional curators of experiences, like those at the MFA and the Isabella Stewart Gardner. A good journey will always translate into story, whether it’s the ups and downs and final resolution of a roller coaster, the difficulty and relief of a mountain hike, or the journey to different eras and places of the museum.

Any particular museums or exhibits that fire you up for storytelling? Any curators you admire? Let us know on Twitter. And if you’ve got the Boston bug like me, take a look at our post about the literary district on the Towerbabel Blog.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Georgina Parfitt’s story.