David Francis

Narrative, identity and the museum visitor experience

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

My research explores how visitors experience museums as narratives, and how museum professional use narrative to create exhibitions.

Start Date: October 2011
End Date: October 2016
Theme: Objects, meanings and knowledge
Research discipline: Museum Studies
Locations: UK
Staff member: Stuart Frost
Department: Learning, Volunteers and Audiences Department
University and department: Institute of Archaeology, University College London
University supervisor: Theano Moussouri, Jeremy Tanner

How do museums use narrative in exhibitions?

The exhibition Pompeii and Herculaneum can be seen as structured around a classic three act narrative, with the encounter with the casts acting as the exhibition’s climax.

What narratives do visitors bring to an exhibition?

Several visitors reported being motivated to visit Vikings Life and Legend because of a personal connection to the Vikings based on ancestry, nationality and local history.

How do the Museum’s narratives interact with those of visitors?

Several visitors commented how interpretation and design helped to foreshadow their encounter with an iconic object at the climax of an exhibition.

About my research

Museums are often defined as collection of objects; however, they can be also read as collections of stories or discourses. The nineteenth-century style of museum display has been described as encyclopaedic, in that objects are grouped taxonomically to illustrate systems of knowledge.

Since the 1990s museums have increasingly experimented with organising exhibitions around a linear story. Through the arrangement of objects, design and labelling museums can be transformed into narrative environments.

Within the field of visitor research, there has also been an increasing number of studies that have explored how visitors’ pre-existing narratives about museums and their subject matter influence their experiences in exhibitions. It is hypothesised that museum visitors seek out objects and displays that reinforce their existing narratives.

Utilising a qualitative approach, including interviews and observation of visitor behaviour, this study attempts to explore the interplay between the narratives of the Museum and its visitors.

Aims of my research

The research aims to use the British Museum as a case study to explore the phenomenon of narrative within exhibitions. It will focus on three different forms of museum space to explore how narrative functions. These spaces are the Round Reading Room, the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre and the permanent galleries of the British Museum.

Museum professionals, including curators, designers, interpretation officers and project managers, will be interviewed to explore their opinions on how narratives are used to shape museum exhibitions.

The experience of the museum visitor will be captured through interviews with visitors before and after their visit. Video cameras will be attached to visitors, with their permission, to determine their routes through museum spaces and which exhibit elements they engage with.

Around sixteen visitor groups and six museum professionals will be interview for each display studied.