Reading Museums as Literature


Language Games: Literature as a Tool for Museum Analysis

Three months into the first year of my thesis, which looked at the production of temporality in museums, I still had no way of gathering data, let alone analysing and assessing it. I had explored physics, philosophy, phenomenology, anthropology—and still lacked any coherent framework. That changed during the Christmas break, when I realised that the answer had been staring me in the face. I have always loved literature, and it occurred to me that this art form was akin to the creation of museum environments—dependent upon time, rhythm, structure, as well as content, to get its message across. This realisation opened me up to a wonderfully rich resource of ideas and techniques: thus began my language games.

Why use Literature to Explore Museums Spaces?

Literature, a ‘temporal art,’ has diverse methods and attitudes through which its body of work can be analysed. Narratology, poetics, and drama all have strategies of production and analysis, from which those who wish to explore other, similar forms of art, can take inspiration.

I consider museum exhibition to be a form of artistry and, therefore, also able to take a great deal from the work of literary thinkers: though it will be admitted that this might not, at first, be immediately obvious.

At a glance, literature and the museum are wholly dissimilar. One deals in words, the other in objects; one in abstractions, the other in physical actualities. Yet they are close in kind. Museums, originally, were the houses of the Muses, schools of arts and letters, spaces for reflection—and it is worth noting that seven of the nine goddesses had to do with poetry.

But the link runs deeper than familial connection. If we look closely at the fundamental nature of museums and pieces of literary work, we see that both reveal themselves sequentially over a period of time, playing with the ordering of objects and events and the speed at which they are encountered. Both play with focalisation, personhood, perspective—even grammar to some extent. And both are rhythmical, dependent upon the patterning of content to create cognitive and emotional a/effect.

A couple of elements from narratology and poetics can be used to illustrate how these links can be used to interesting effect. Not everything that can be discussed will be discussed here: what follows are single examples only.


Narratology is the study of narrative structures and features—plotting, distance, personhood and the like. Of late, the notion of narrative has been much touted amongst those who write on and build museums as a way to create affective and satisfying experiences. As yet, however, I have not seen a piece which tackles narrative in a satisfyingly strict literary fashion. Here, I wish to discuss one element of narratology, with details which have been unfortunately neglected: the construction of narrative and dramatic forms.

Any piece of literature in any form is a presentation of events, arranged in a particular fashion. These events may be intrinsic to the progression of the series (thus forming crucial moments of a story, for instance), or they may provide less significant filler. Roland Barthes termed these two event forms ‘cardinal’ and ‘catalystic,’ respectively. The balance between cardinal and catalystic events can have a significant effect upon the perceived speed with which the narrative/series of events progresses—for instance, the plot of Tristram Shandy is so packed with catalystic events that this fictional autobiography never really moves beyond the protagonist’s first day of life.

How can we relate the notion of ‘events’ to the museum space? Thusly: by understanding that any museum display is made up of a series of incidents waiting to be experienced by any given viewer. Each object within an exhibition can be equated with a narrative event. The museum may choose to highlight some as significant parts of a particular story—making them cardinal objects. However, they do not have complete power over the personal narratives which people bring into the space. As a consequence, any given object has the potential to become either cardinal or catalystic within the story of any given individual.

The events which make up literary structures are pulled out of the story world (whether real or imagined) and shaped into a plot which may align closely with that world or dramatically depart—at least in terms of temporal ordering—from it. Russian formalism describes the story world as the fabula, and the manufactured plot as sjuzet, and both of these terms—and their consequences—are significant for museology.

A museum exhibition can easily be understood as a sjuzet—a carefully selected set of events, arranged to make sense of the complex fabula of human existence from which they come. We can also attribute the term ‘fabula’ to the originating lifeworld of the object. Any one museum exhibition, then, may be made up of objects from many different fabula, which have been put together in a single sjuzet. The museum collection itself is ambiguous: in one sense it might be interpreted as the fabula from which the object-events are selected, but in another, it might be understood as a form of sjuzet—the objects already having undergone a process of selection, classification and ordering. This process of selection brings sharply into relief the fact that museums do not present reality, but instead curate a version of it.

Here we cannot cover the full depths of narratology: perspective, in particular, is an element which narratively focused museum design should pay particular attention to. But even the little glimpse I have offered above shows how a fully grown narrative museology might have implications for object interpretation, exhibition design, and museum self-awareness.


Poetic pieces of literature use various devices—spectacular, unusual or metaphoric language, for instance—to create their very particular way of presenting the world. Of most illustrative use here and in relation to museums, is the way in which they use rhythm.

Rhythm is fundamental to human existence. The geological rhythm of the earth and the ways in which we sleep and wake, are some of the few experiences we can say we do share with our ancestors of thousands of years ago. This deep connection to rhythm and the fact that humans experience it cognitively, emotionally and physically, means that it can be manipulated in order to affect the ways in which we experience artistic products—be they music, literature, or museums.

Rhythm in literature depends upon the structure of a text—that is, the way it is broken up by punctuation and units of text such as lines, paragraphs, or stanzas. One of the most characteristic—though not the only—forms of punctuation are stops, which come in various degrees of intensity from the full stop to the comma. These signal temporal, grammatical, topical, and conceptual shifts in a text. Full stops, for instance, often signal a complete end and change; but colons and semi-colons are softer, implying continuance.

In museums, stops of many forms appear. The ends of cases, walls, corners, doors and even objects themselves, can sit in a position that allows them to act as a stop. This position is often relational. So, for instance, the end of one case in a series of topically related displays might simply be a colon if there is no shift or a minor shift, in the next case, but if there is a marked difference in focus, say, time period or a shift from the ways objects relate to people to the science of their design, it might be interpreted as a full stop.

Lineation is crucial to the ways in which a text makes meaning through rhythm. In poetry, there are two basic forms of lineation—sticic and stanzaic. In sticic poetry, paragraphs continue unbroken, whereas stanzaic poems break their structures up into verses, or stanzas—the sonnet is a typically stanzaic form. Sticic poetry can be immersive, but it can also drag if allowed to go on for too long unchecked. Stanzaic poetry can be more dynamic, but it may also be too broken up to allow a steady rhythm to develop. Neither of these things is inherently wrong, but they do change the way in which a text is experienced and perceived.

In the museum, understanding how paragraphs and lineation work has the potential to be key for designing affective environments, because they help to highlight how single works sit together and create their own special structural character. So, for instance, knowing how paragraphs work together can help a designer or architect to lay out a sequence of rooms and place subjects in them in such a way as to create connections, breaks, and a valuable a/effective experience.

Stress is also a fundamental element of the way in which poetry is able to mean. Metrics is the study of stress patterning in poetry: how series of stressed and unstressed syllables are arranged. The patterns into which they are put affect the way a text sounds and moves. For instance, falling rhythm, in which the final syllable is unstressed, creates a steady marching motion, but can fade away at the end. Rising rhythm, on the other hand, can be a lot faster, and ends on a defiant, powerful note. There are also types of metrical lines, such as pentameters, which count how many syllables are involved, and feet, which are particular arrangements of stressed and unstressed beats—iambs, for instance, follow an unstressed-stressed pattern.

Understanding how to place points of stress in a room is vital for the creation of visual and physical rhythm in a museum. The arrangement of cases, the distances people have to walk, the structures in which they see the space and the way lighting is used—all these serve to create stress. By understanding and using feet, metrical lines and rhythmic styles, museum makers could create some extremely affective spaces and produce meanings and experiences they may never have been able to before and may not, indeed expect.

Again, there is more to poetics than simply rhythm: rhyme and echoic devices are also key. Used independently of or in combination with narratological strategies, a poetic museology would be able to understand, discuss and put into practice these strategies to very physical and cognitive effect.

This theorising is all very well. But how did I put my analysis into practice?


The connections seem highly abstract, it’s true, but I applied this thinking to museum spaces in a very concrete way. I call it ‘literary phenomenology’—a grandiose title for something rather simple. From the literature review which furnished me with the above information and more, I gathered a series of questions, broken into four sets of questions related to dramatic structure, perspective, semantics/grammar, and prosody, with which I interrogated the spaces, spending time within them—at times a detached observer, at times wholly immersed—conducting a sort of embodied interview. The process was long and tiring. I spent a week in each venue, often from opening to closing time every day. I analysed how the space was laid out, watched how visitors and staff behaved and the daily rituals that occurred in some—especially at opening and closing time. This interrogation furnished me with hundreds of thousands of words of notes, which I typed up, assessed for repeating and relevant topics, and used as the basis for my thesis and its structure.

I asked, for example, ‘What shape is the/are the plot/s in this gallery? Are they linear, episode, fragmented, rhizomatic?’ When I asked this question of myself in the Ashmolean, a large museum in Oxford with more than 50 individual galleries, I came up with a complex and interesting answer. For the Ashmolean has one overt plotted structure—the display strategy known as Crossing Cultures Crossing Time, which is physically laid out in a linear fashion, but which, using interactive devices, images and marked ‘Connections Objects,’ allows connections to be drawn across the galleries in a more web-like structure. Within even that already complicated form, in individual galleries and even individual cases, there are yet more narrative structures, each of which gives galleries their unique characteristics. Frequently, there are multiple competing ‘plots’ within even a single gallery.

Unpicking the constructions of museums, especially when the museum has been created over a long period of time, with multiple generations of curators adding their own work into the mix, is difficult to do. But literary phenomenology at least gives us some concepts with which to do this and with which to understand the effect these constructions have on those who ‘read’ the spaces.

Neither the most obvious nor the easiest method for analysing museum space, literary phenomenology has proven itself to be a treasure trove of fascinating concepts and strategies for thinking about existing museum spaces and the design of new ones. Not restricted to the study of museum temporality, it can and has been used in explorations of other aspects of these very particular institutions. It is valuable, also, for the study of other physical environments, both social and private. It can illuminate the ephemeral relationships of human beings and their activities, providing a critical idiom for their behaviour.

This method is not an absolute quantity; it can always be differently employed, added to, changed and augmented. It is as mutable as the things it studies, but has an identity at its heart. What my testing of this method leaves behind, if nothing else, is a rich new language for talking about museums, temporality, and, ultimately, the relationships which exist between conscious beings and the world of things. Like the artistic products which it combines, literary phenomenology—or, perhaps, museopoetics—is game-like: a set of structures, ideas and objects, for understanding and reimagining our existence.

Jennifer Walklate
Independent Researcher

Image: Bust of Laocoön, Ashmolean Museum. Photograph by author.

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