Language and Narrative in Museum Exhibition


By Melissa Forstrom Al kadhi & David Francis moderated by Steve Smith


Friday, 28 October 2016, 18:30 - 20:00


Melissa and David explore the architectures of language and narrative to discuss meaning-making in museum exhibitions. Inspired in part by the concepts of the Languitecture exhibition both talks aim to provoke and promote discussion of these often understudied areas.

Language in Islamic Art Exhibition

by Melissa Forstrom Al kadhi

In the past fifteen years, there has been an increase in the politicization of Islam and Muslim peoples. In fact, Islam/ Muslim peoples are closely associated with (if not inextricable from) religious fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism in many mass media outlets in Europe and the United States. Contemporaneously, there has been an increase in Islamic art exhibition including both temporary exhibitions and reinstallations of permanent collections in the USA and Europe. In fact, almost every major Islamic art collection in the United States and Europe have already or has plans to reinstall their permanent collection. Often, these exhibitions are infused with similar narratives where it is claimed that Islamic art exhibition can “bridge cultural and/or religious divides” in “the West”.

Looking at language as part of museums’ architecture that creates meaning, this illustrated presentation explores the dichotomy between the mass media and written interpretation in the following Islamic art exhibitions: the New Galleries for the Art of Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Arts of Islam, Louvre, Paris; Hajj: journey to the Heart of Islam, British Museum, London; and Pearls on String: Artists, Poets, and Patrons of the Great Islamic Courts, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Through this exploration, this paper exposes the dialogical and sometimes reflective relationship between the mass media representations of Islam/Muslims and Islamic art interpretation.

Excavating Freytag’s pyramid: Narrative exhibitions at the British Museum

by David Francis

The staging of the exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum in 1972, effectively heralded the birth of a new narrative genre – the blockbuster exhibition. Like its movie namesake, the blockbuster exhibition effectively pushed the museum into the mainstream – more than 1.6 million attended the exhibition, some queuing up to eight hours to see the fabled gold death mask. It also ushered in an era when the museum adopted the narrative language of cinema, with exhibitions organised around the three-act structure of a Hollywood screenplay, and scenographic vistas providing the exhibitionary equivalent of the cinematic close-up. Today, blockbuster exhibitions remain an important part of our cultural landscape, yet their underlying structural language and grammar remains poorly understood.

Using examples from the special exhibitions of the British Museum, I trace the process of narrativisation – how museum curators and designers encode meaning through the interplay of object, text and space – and how visitors decode them. Interviews and video tracking reveal that visitors rarely take museum exhibition narratives at face value, but rather undertake what Stuart Hall calls negotiated and even oppositional readings. These readings manifest themselves in post-visit discussions, but are also embodied in how visitors move through an exhibition space. As part of my talk, I also reflect on my role in this narrativisation process as a former interpretation officer at the British Museum – a role specifically created in the mid-2000s to mediate the encounter between object, narrative and visitor.



Melissa Forstrom Al kadhi is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Westminster and an Adjunct Professor in Communications and Media at Manhattanville College (New York). Melissa has been invited to speak at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the New York Public Library, and by the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture. She has guest lectured at Johns Hopkins; the University of Leicester; the University of Westminster; and the University of Swansea. Her doctoral thesis (2017) is titled: Interpretations and Visitors in Two Islamic Art Exhibitions.

David Francis is a Doctoral Candidate at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London and worked at the British Museum as an interpretation officer from 2007 to 2016. There he created interpretation for 25 exhibitions, including Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam and Shah ‘Abbas and the Remaking of Iran. In 2016 he undertook a month long residency at CARMaH – the Centre for Anthropological Research in Museums and Heritage at the Humboldt University in Berlin. This summer he also lectured on creating exhibition narratives in Natural History Museums as part of the University of Nottingham’s International Summer School in Beijing. His doctoral thesis (2017) is titled: Narrative, identity and the museum visitor experience.

Steve Smith is an artist, doctoral researcher and visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster’s Department of English, Linguistics & Cultural Studies. His practice-based research is titled ‘finding the Material of Memory in Place’.