Telling Stories with Invisible Objects

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When I began as the Curator of Interpretation with the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery in 2008, my first project was Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. 28 square miles in northern Colorado, Soapstone was purchased by the city of Fort Collins to be a park and conservation area. Along with its attraction as a natural space, Soapstone was home to the Lindenmeier Archaeological Site, the most extensive Folsom-culture site in North America and a National Historic Landmark. My job was to represent the museum in developing the interpretation of the Lindenmeier Site.

First discovered by amateur archaeologists 1924, the Lindenmeier site was – and is – an incredible and important site. Before Lindenmeier’s excavation, humans were believed to have been in North America for 3,000 – 4,000 years. However, the discovery of a Bison antiquus vertebrae with a Folsom point embedded within it more than tripled that estimate. Suddenly, here was irrefutable proof that humans had been here over 12,000 years before.

Unlike the other known Folsom sites at the time, which were kill sites, Lindenmeier was determined to be a winter camp location. Over 51,000 artifacts were found there, including projectile points, bone needles, beads, and delicately carved pieces of bone. Stone objects made from non-local materials showed how far these people traveled to gather for the winter. Suddenly the picture of the loin cloth-wearing, mammoth-hunting caveman was being challenged. These people weren’t just surviving, they were thriving.

What a story to tell! But there was one big problem. Unlike other archaeological sites in Colorado, such as Mesa Verde or Canyon of the Ancients, at Lindenmeier there was nothing to see. No dwellings, no structures, nothing that automatically announced that you were in a place where something had happened, where someone had been. The artifacts that had first revealed the story were in museums. On top of that, the need to protect the site from amateur excavators and looters meant that, even though we could show you where it was, we weren’t about to.

So we were left with the challenge of sharing a story we had first learned and understood through objects, without the objects. How do you do that? How do you tell a story with invisible objects?

In the end, we did something very smart. The basics were covered: an overlook/visitor’s center with interpretive panels and sculpted representations of the iconic artifacts, on-site interpreters with photos and reproductions to share during programs, and repeated encouragement to visit the museum to see the real artifacts. But we didn’t stop there. Instead of only focusing on the objects – on the things – we shifted the narrative to focus on the deeper story of the landscape and the roles it had played throughout history. The artifacts, even if they couldn’t be seen, were only introductory tools, vehicles to larger ideas and focal points for more abstract explorations of the connections between people and place. It didn’t matter than the artifacts weren’t there. The story of what they represented was.

And it worked. I remember leading a tour on the opening weekend of the park and telling the story of Soapstone and Lindenmeier with nothing in my hands. Nothing for visitors to look at except the vista in front of them. And while I described certain objects – an ocher bead, a fluted projectile point – they weren’t the main focus. They were only entries, tools to whet the visitors’ imaginations before we dove into 12,000+ years of history that still felt tangible when immersed in landscape surrounding us.

I was reminded of Soapstone and Lindenmeier recently as I listed to the British Museum’s podcast series Germany: Memories of a Nation. Based on an exhibit of the same name, the series examined the past 600 years of German history using objects, art, landmarks, and literature. In exhibit form, organizing narratives around objects makes perfect sense. But in a podcast? How do you incorporate the objects when you can’t see them? What role do the objects play, and how do they assist in their narrative inclusion rather than hinder in their visual absence?

I think the (excellent) series does a very good job of focusing stories with objects. Every episode begins with a “thing” – a painting, a sculpture, a sausage – as an introduction to a larger idea. A description of that object sets the stage and then the scope grows. But, throughout the story, the narrative returns to the object. The objects become anchors, keeping the story from drowning in too much history, too much information. Instead the listener has beautiful vignettes, glimpses into history through which the objects are the windows. Suitable, then, that the objects are invisible, isn’t it?

My favorite example of how the series does this is from the final episode – “Reichstag.” At the very end, as narrator and British Museum Director Neil MacGregor works to summarize modern Germany’s relationship with its history, a framed picture frames a much larger idea of nation and identity.

As one of the central arguments of the series has been that German history, unlike other European countries, looks forward, it may seem perverse to end it with this image in front of me now, of a young woman looking back. In 1977, the artist Gerhard Richter took a photograph of his daughter Betty looking over her shoulder at one of his paintings hanging on the wall behind her. An imprecise grey rendering in paint of an old press photograph. 11 years later, in 1988, he transformed his photograph of Betty into a painting, and that painting later became the subject of this lithograph of a young girl with blonde hair wearing a bright red and white jacket – or is it a dressing gown? – looking over her shoulder, away from us. In the very process of its making, this lithograph is a complex meditation on events and on their recording.

And it would not, I think, be doing violence to Richter’s art to read it as a metaphor for Germany’s subtle, shifting, obsessional engagement with its own past. Richter and his daughter embody much of that past. Brought up near what is now the Polish border, Richter’s childhood was lived under the Nazis and disrupted by the war. He fled the East just months before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. In the lithograph, Betty turns away from her father. She was brought up in West Germany, part of a generation that grew up in a country committed to excavating its shameful past, publishing and, where possible, punishing the crimes of her parents’ and her grandparents’ generation. Betty inhabits a space that’s still animated by her father’s works, although his painting is no longer clearly visible on the grey wall behind her. Just as all Germans still live in the presence, growing fainter but none the less compelling, of the deeds of previous generations. What Betty makes of her father and his generation we can’t tell. But in a moment this young woman will turn and face us and the future.

As listeners we never see the painting, but we don’t need to. Its description, plus our imagination, lets us see the object and then see past it.

Do you have any experience telling stories with invisible objects? Where have you seen it done well? How necessary do you think objects are for good museum stories – invisible or not?

P.S. I haven’t listened yet, but the British Museum also did a podcast series of A History of the World in 100 Objects. If it’s anything like Germany: Memories of Nation, it should be excellent.

Original image by allison, found here.

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One thought on “Telling Stories with Invisible Objects

  1. Pingback: Now With Slightly More Swedish | Museums Askew

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