Only Connect

Story has never been more fashionable. Everything from insurance sales to football to toothpaste is sold using some kind of story. 

But what do we really mean by “story”?  And how can it help in designing museums and exhibitions? There’s a very famous short story dubiously attributed to the American writer Ernest Hemingway


For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn

 This kind of short story is known as “flash fiction” or, in Chinese it’s called “smoke long” because the story only lasts as long as it takes the listener to finish a cigarette – although you’d have to be a pretty fast smoker to get through a cigarette in six words!

These six words are a helpful reminder of the basic ingredients of story and what I consider to be the basic ingredients of a good exhibition. You can see the first four words are neutral facts: For Sale: Baby Shoes. It’s really the two final words that make it a story.

 Those two words: “Never Worn”, suddenly deliver a whole world of pain that is not present in the first four. These two words make meaning and create an emotional connection for the reader.

 It is this connection which is so vital in good story-telling and so hard to achieve in designing exhibitions which have to appeal to a wide audience. John Steinbeck talks about the need for good stories to create connections for everyone:

 “If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And here I make a rule - a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.”

 You’re probably thinking that’s a very difficult thing to achieve. But I think what Steinbeck means is that a good story has to offer hooks for different people and if it is to have impact it must connect with each person’s own story in some way.

 Shaping Stories

Where were you on 11th September 2001 - otherwise known as 9/11? The day Al Quaeda attacked the World Trade Center in New York City?

I remember very clearly where I was. Standing on a former battlefield in northern France with a group of archaeologists. They were using new DNA techniques to identify the remains of unknown soldiers killed during World War One. It was a bleak, cold day and the landscape around me was desolate. My colleague’s mobile phone rang and I was annoyed with him for answering because the place where we stood felt sacred and his phone seemed to violate the memories of what had happened there.

“Twin towers; airplanes; attacks; collapse”….the disconnected words continued to tumble from his mouth and slowly the horror began to dawn. I actually thought “World War Three is beginning and I’m stuck on a battlefield from World War One”.

 Now, 14 years later, a new museum has opened on the site of the World Trade Center. The National September 11th Memorial Museum is designed to remember those who died and seeks to tell the complex story of what happened that day. Stories don’t get much more powerful than 9/11 but, unlike our story about the baby shoes, what happened on September 11th is massively complicated and it takes great skill to shape it into pieces that are manageable for visitors from all over the world to connect with.

I’d heard very differing opinions about the Memorial Museum. This is inevitable with almost any museum but particularly so with such a politically complex and emotionally charged one. While I found the spaces to be shockingly real – still ringing with the sounds of a global theatre of war, hatred and irreconcilable difference, others have told me they found the museum alienating, difficult to relate to and sanitised.

 These arguments are interesting in themselves as they show how subjective any museum experience can be. But here I want to explore five ideas that grew from my experience at the 9/11 Museum and to show how they can be applied to shaping stories in space.

 The Power of the Real

The National September 11th Memorial Museum is a great example of where the space itself tells a very powerful story. By simply arriving at Ground Zero and seeing the Memorial Pools on the footprint of each tower of the former World Trade Center you are embarking on a narrative journey.  Some people feel this is enough and are deeply moved by the simplicity of the waterfalls, by the names inscribed on the bronze walls.

But for those who want to venture down into the foundations of the World Trade Center there is a powerful narrative expressed in the very fabric of the foundations, the remnants of the steelwork, the retaining wall of the Hudson River.

All these elements of “the real” create an incredible theatre within which the detail of the story unfolds. This “power of the real” is a great virtue in creating narratives as the place itself tells a story before you even begin to communicate the detail.

 The Journey

To visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum is to go on a physical journey as well as an emotional one and I was really interested to understand how these two relate in designing spaces for exhibitions. Where narrative and physical spaces work together each reinforces the other and here at the 9/11 Museum I felt they were fairly well aligned.

The visit begins with a steep descent - a powerful threshold with all its associations with death and loss but also has a very tangible message because the museum itself is situated within the foundations of the World Trade Center. So as I descend further into what’s called Foundation Hall I get a sense of the height of these buildings and of the great abyss into which they fell on that terrible day.

 Part of the descent takes me alongside the Vesey Street staircase that was one of the few means of exit for people escaping the wreckage. During the construction of the museum this staircase had been scheduled for demolition but those people whose lives had been saved by it protested vehemently and the staircase was saved from demolition and incorporated into the museum.

 Making Meaning

The opening exhibit of the museum reminded me of John Steinbeck’s advice that a “great story must be about the listener”. While most of the visitors to the 9/11 Museum were not directly involved, the designers nonetheless created connections to allow everyone to bring their own story of that day. The opening exhibit shows how people all around the world were affected by the attacks. Right from the start I am drawn in, I’m told “it’s not just our story, this story is also about you”. As the visit continues this message is reinforced. We are all part of this conflict and as human beings we can all participate in its resolution.

 Narrative Layers

A story as complex and as emotionally upsetting as 9/11 presents a real design challenge – just how do you go about layering so many complex narratives without baffling or overwhelming the visitor?

I choose to follow a tour where the guide speaks to the group through individual headsets. This allows the guide to speak quietly, avoids any imposition on other visitors and gives me the freedom to wander as I please while still being able to hear the tour guide. We are also invited to switch off our headsets at any point if the story becomes too overwhelming.

 The strength of the guide was to lead us with her voice from a tiny detail in a fire truck to a huge philosophical thought about transformation without our really noticing it. The layers of narrative were visible if we chose to analyse them but actually seamless if we chose to just go with the flow. I was particularly impressed with this overarching narrative around transformation which was expressed through many different stories, some heart-wrenching and tragic, others uplifting and positive. The lesson here is the power of a big narrative which creates the lens through which the detail can be viewed. It provides a hook upon which to hang so many different layers throughout the visit and allows different people to connect on different levels.


Finally I think it’s really vital to remember that “narrative” is not always expressed by a linear description of a definable sequence of events but can sometimes be more powerful when it is simply be about firing the imagination or making a visceral in new or unexpected ways. I’m thinking of exhibitions or artworks where the object itself embodies the meaning and to see it is to submit to what it provokes inside you rather than to seek a long explanation.

 When it works this can be the most powerful form of storytelling because the listener is creating the story for themselves inside their own bodies and minds. The memorial pools are a great example of this as is the art work in Foundation Hall. These letters spell out a line from a poem by the ancient Roman poet Virgil:

 No Day Shall Erase Thee from the Memory of Time.”

 The letters are made of steel from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The blue ceramic tiles represent the bright colour of the sky that September morning in New York while their varied hues represent each individual who lost their lives on that day. The story of the day dwells within the very fabric of this artwork.

 So for me narrative is not about a linear story but rather a means to create connection and make meaning. It’s the difference between information and communication as or, author Sydney J Harris says:

 “Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”

Once Upon a Museum

When I began this journey to reimagine museums I was determined that, however limited for time, I would try to take inspiration from places and people outside the world of museums and collections. So, last Saturday morning, I set off to explore what new and wacky ideas the neighbourhoods of San Francisco might reveal to a curious mind.  This is the first of a series of posts capturing those ideas....

Detail of collage mural in Balmy Alley, Mission District, San Francisco

Detail of collage mural in Balmy Alley, Mission District, San Francisco

I kicked off in the Mission District (famous for its colourful murals) because I’d been told it’s a neighbourhood in transition, shifting from Latino family communities to young “tech” wealth. Colourful, bohemian streets with a chequered mix of minimalist restaurants alongside gaudy taquerias bear witness to this transformation. So far so global..... But then I came across 826 Valencia and that’s when I woke up.

It took me a while to work out what was going on. The graphic mural above the storefront looked intriguing but indecipherable from the sidewalk (I learned later that it depicts a complex history of communication) while the storefront window tells stories of the "2015 Scholars" : awards given to outstanding public school students in the Bay Area.

So it looks like an educational charity of some sort but, step over the threshold, and you land in a pirate supplies store selling anything and everything the modern buccaneer might need. What on earth....? 

I interrogated the cashier and learned that 826 Valencia is a creative writing space which invites writers, editors and educators to volunteer one-to-one creative tutoring with school kids and high school students. Created by the writer Dave Eggers, the idea was simply to help them with their homework by giving one to one attention (virtually impossible in a school classroom) and allowing them to experience their own capacity for thinking and creating. How 826 Valencia came to be, why the pirate supplies storefront, and how it has grown is a superbly inspiring story that makes you want to set up an 826 everywhere in the world. And that’s just what Dave Eggers wants us to do. His TED talk called Once Upon A School is really inspiring - and very funny.

Getting one to one help with written homework was just the start. Through this kind of creative coaching students begin to discover their innate abilities to express imagination, humour, story and now the best work is published in the 826 Quarterly. A group even wrote to President Obama giving him 100 tips for a good presidency! Talk about finding a voice....

Creative writing, making up stories, finding a personal voice gives young people permission to let go, to run with ideas and to have fun. After all, there is no right way to write a story.

Publications of students' creative writing at 826 Valencia. Amy Tan, Isabelle Allende and many others have sponsored themed writing projects with great success.

So, Mission Accomplished in the Mission.  A new idea for education in museums by connecting with young people from a crazy store in a random neighbourhood. 

Museums are first and foremost places of creativity and of learning and while most museums do masses of educational programmes, the richness of 826 Valencia made me wonder how many get down and dirty and help kids who are simply struggling with their homework…?   If you know of any please get in touch! That might not be their primary role and some would be better placed than others to offer more creative and individualised empowerment. But in the meantime, 826 Valencia is going in my bag of treasures from the "New World" which has fired my imagination to help museums make more of an impact on people's lives. 

Dream Machines

This Churchill Fellowship brings challenges and surprises on so many different levels. I'm now on the second leg, currently in Boston where I was expecting to spend my time with boffins at MIT.  Instead I have been captured by unexpected beasts and beauties. A short trip out of the city to the old town of Salem Massachusetts brought surprising inspiration at the Peabody Essex Museum with Theo Jansen's captivating Strandbeest (Beach Creatures).

An early "fossil" of Theo Jansen's Strandbeest family which continues to evolve to develop bigger and better brains

Having seen his beasts in action on the beach (here online) I was worried that seeing them "in captivity" inside an exhibition space would be much less exciting.  I was wrong. The exhibition is both playful and deeply enquiring. It tells stories about process and cleverly deconstructs the beasts so visitors can understand why and how these marvellous creatures not only move (using wind power through recycled plastic bottles) but can also detect water and rescue themselves from dangerous waves.  

Recycled plastic bottles form the "wind stomach" of the Strandbeests when they are out on the beach and exposed to the maritime winds.

Jansen restricts his palette to materials available in your average Dutch hardware store. 

The language of the exhibition is designed to reflect Theo Jansen's hardware/laboratory aesthetic : the exhibition design thus reinforces the pleasures and power of curiosity, of tinkering, of seeing what happens if....

Visitors move the fossils to experience the extraordinary motion of these early creatures.

Simple but funny interactive game helps visitors explore the components and gives Theo a chance to explain his engineering thinking to anyone who wants to hear.

Jansen restricts his palette to materials available in your average Dutch hardware store. The main components are plastic conduit piping for electrical wiring, plumbing joints and plastic ties. That such beauty and wonder could emerge from such utilitarian parts adds another layer of pleasure to the awe-inspiring experience of seeing how his Dream Machines actually work. This approach speaks powerfully to the work of the Exploratorium in San Francisco where art is science and science is art. There is no distinction between the two disciplines. Both are processes which help us understand the world and the universe around us and inside us. 

Stunning photography by Lena Herzog also captures the beast of Theo Jansen's working process. 

The exhibition may at moments feel like a kind of zoo where creatures that were meant to be in the open air are confined between suspended ceiling and carpet. But what really gets unleashed here is the power of the imagination, a call to explore, to be curious, to try things out and above all to try to KNOW the world by using our hands.

Divertimenti : Stairways

The first part of my field research is over and I'm back at my desk and my life, trying to make some sense of all the things I saw and heard and thought while I was away. The blogs have been a helpful tool in encouraging me to make some shape out of it all but I'm conscious there are lots of random sights and scenes that don't fit into a big scheme just yet. Some appeared on my twitter feed, others are just sitting on my laptop waiting for their moment in the sun. So I'm planning a series of "divertimenti" to capture some of the details who knows, may turn out to be the key to my research...


I got to noticing the impact in public buildings of a well-designed and generous stair. Here are some of my favourite sightings:

19th century staircase at the former theatre La Gaite Lyrique. Recently converted into a centre for digital arts, most of the building is singularly lacking in character but the staircase continues to express some life.

The entire structure of the Reichstag Dome serves as a stairway up to heaven and down to reunification and democracy. Architecture by Norman Foster. Image by John Dawson

A beautifully restrained staircase follows the contours of the hilltop site in David Chipperfield's Modern Literature Museum in Marbach Germany. 

Berlage's clear lines, top lighting and contrasting colour scheme make his staircases into Mondrian-like works of art.

The clean lines and spare surfaces of the Grand Stair at the Neues Museum is a confident and generous interpretation of the 19th century original destroyed during World War II. Architecture by David Chipperfield Architects. Image by David Kasparek

A sweeping stair at the Museum of Asian Art in Paris creates a sense of great occasion. The curving structure offers views down into the grand hall and into the beautifully-sequenced exhibition spaces on the upper levels.

Objets d'Art-chitecture / 1

Although I came to Berlin to study the city’s museums, actually the city itself turns out to be the most interesting and engaging museum of all. Of course it's not full of glass cases and video screens and multi-media labelling. The stories are told through entire buildings, sculptures and squares and lots of human traces from graffiti to urine to soldiers in historic uniform on the street.

I can't begin to capture the complexities of the urban forms that make up this crazy city so for now I'm just going to share some of the "objets d'art-chitecture" that populate the urban theatre that is contemporary Berlin.

Peter Eisenman's Holocaust Memorial is a chilling architectural intervention within a tourist-filled area of the city. An interesting case of content being separate from the architecture as the documentation centre is in a subterranean hall, allowing the sculptural forms to express the horror of the Holocaust and encourage individual contemplation. Image by John Dawson

The much-lauded Reichstag Dome more than lived-up to expectations. A breath-taking exercise in architectural story-telling. I visited late in the evening and was surprised by the relaxed atmosphere and the fact we were able to wander freely well after 11pm.

A contemporary reworking of the traditional Berlin courtyard housing at David Chipperfield Architects' Joachim Strasse offices

19th century apartment building flanked by more recent infill on Kastanienallee, Prenzlauer Berg. Throughout East Berlin these elevations speak of Vienna and Lodz and Budapest all rolled into one.

The Philarmonie and Kammermusiksaal by Hans Scharoun and Edgar Wisniewski respectively. Two of the more successful buildings forming part of the experimental and rather desolate Kulturforum.

Berlin is a very “noisy” place, by which I mean there are a great many different visual voices from the past and the present that positively screech at you in an architectural mash-up whose frequency goes up and down depending on the neighbourhood. But of course, unlike a museum, the city does not have a curator, an overseeing intelligence to edit and arrange and draw the eye. For the most part, the encounter with curiosities and urban forms is incidental and organic. However, I did come across one fabulously deliberate intervention near the Sony Center : a large glass structure encasing a piece of historic architecture.

Fragment of the Grand Hotel Esplanade, formerly a popular meeting place for the glitterati of Berlin until most of the hotel was destroyed during WWII. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the remaining fragment of the hotel was protected and restored. With the 1990s construction of the Sony Center (whose sail canopy is visible above) the fragments had to be moved once more. Today the vitrine invites close inspection of the plasterwork and presents an incongruous objet d'art-chitecture amid the modern glitz of Potsdamer Platz.

 The incongruity is almost farcical and had it been proposed as a work of art would no doubt be considered trite and overplayed. But as a museological intervention within a city whose every element speaks of a hundred untold stories I took real delight in its lack of subtlety. The chap in the photo seems to be scratching his head, unable to know what to make of it. I loved its theatricality and told myself it could only be Berlin..... 

Pre-gentrification in the historic Mitte district. 

I do love this sail canopy at the Sony Center, designed by Helmut Jahn with Arup 

Bigger than ME?

On my way to a meeting in the engine room of the Pompidou Centre yesterday, I was caught short by two very powerful posters carefully blu-tacked to some office doors. The first simply said Je Suis Charlie.....



It may seem obvious, but these two posters made me realise just how much time cultural organisations spend thinking about how to allow people to have fun - which is great - but very little time thinking about how they might influence our world for the collective good.  

On the other side of those postered doors I had a really interesting discussion with staff from the Pompidou about the impact of the French Government's long-standing commitment to providing state-funded cultural activity. It sounds idyllic to have such generous public funding, particularly to us in the UK who are catching up with the American model based on private philanthropy. When I asked which system worked best for people  my interlocutor put down his pen, looked me square in the face and said "Listen, it is the duty of the French State to provide education and high level cultural activity. It's as simple as that."

His clarity echoed the clarity of those posters - art and democratic freedom of thought and freedom of expression are completely essential to the life of the nation and therefore it's the job of the government to make sure art continues to thrive.  C'est évident, non?

Of course, the discussions over "art for art's sake" versus "committed art" have been raging for centuries and my blog isn't going to bring these two poles together. But the horror of the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo do affect us all and we should remember how priveleged we are to enjoy such freedom of expression through our many cultural institutions. The morning left me with a feeling that "museum selfies" aren't really enough to engage people in the power of art and culture. That while cafes and toilets and push chair access are hugely important, there also needs to be room in the conversation to talk about the purpose of art and its great potential to change lives, to change the world for the better. 

So my "Thought for the Day" is to add the voice of American sociologist Steven J. Tepper to that of Charlie. Tepper teaches the importance of cultural activities that go beyond personal experience and immediate gratification and asks his students to engage with ideas and images and worlds that are "Bigger than Me" . 

Dancing to Mondriaan

If a child came home from a school trip one day and said, "Mummy, I danced my way to Mondriaan today" you'd be justified in thinking they'd had one too many bottles of fizzy pop. But that's exactly what I did and all I drank was tap water! It's day two of my Churchill Fellowship (see the Intro) and already I've found a brilliant example of how play and learning can come together in a powerful mix.

This is the Gemeente Museum in The Hague by Dutch architect Berlage. The linear galleries are beautifully lit white boxes with natural daylight from an internal courtyard which lights the art works in a fairly conventional manner. But, in the basement, a sequence of artificially-lit black boxes provide the setting for some  very unconventional and very serious play.  

The Wonderkamers are aimed at kids between 12-16 - the age group characteristically difficult to please in museums. Through a very clever mix of digital and physical games the curators have proven that it's possible to have a lot of fun while you learn stuff. And I for one will never forget dancing the Boogie-Woogie with Mondriaan.

Did you know all those lines and colour blocks were inspired by New York skyscrapers and the strict geometrical rhythms of Boogie Woogie tunes?

Here you get to feel the rhythm of the music, follow the steps and every time you make a mistake (which was often in my case), you get a Jackson Pollock splat all over the clean lines of the Mondriaan. It's fun, it's physical and it's memorable.  I'll be posting again about this amazing kids museum  but for now I'm still tapping my feet to the boogie woogie and I'll never look at a Mondriaan painting in the same way again.



Day One

Only just arrived in Amsterdam. Nothing to report so far except what a great city! It only took a ten minute tram journey through the south of the city to remind me of the pleasures of good urban design and culturally distinctive architecture.   Not sure what that has to do with the price of eggs but I guess you could say it's about having time to really look and to be in the moment. Very exciting to have time to "stand and stare".  Watch this space....

Urban intervention "iamsterdam" is not just a clever piece marketing but also a means of connecting strangers in a city. These giant letters spelling Amsterdam provide playful human interaction and a new way of experiencing the city itself. Picture by John Dawson