Narrative Theory in Gallery Design: Its Use (Or Misuse) and Impact on Visitor Experience

Primary author: Carrie Vielle

Primary college/unit: Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture
Campus: Pullman


Narrative Theory’s origins lie in the fundamental understanding that storytelling is a basic human strategy for understanding our experience, Visitors in museum galleries naturally seek out and construct narratives – it’s essential in the meaning-making, understanding, and remembering process of museum material. Capitalizing on this visitor behavior, many contemporary exhibition designers create varying degrees of controlled, immersive narratives and participatory experiences designed to influence specific visitor understanding and experience.

The value of the application of narrative in exhibition design is a widely debated, multi-dimensional topic: is immersive storytelling controlled by exhibit designers truly beneficial to comprehensive understanding, or does a more discursive, free exploration of exhibition material and its consequent visitor-constructed narrative produce a more successful outcome? While this research will not answer that question directly, it will focus on defining design strategies employed to establish an immersive vs. discursive experience. The analyses and comparisons of a variety of exhibitions that represent either narrative approach will propose that a balance of immersive and discursive narrative approaches within a single exhibition design can potentially accommodate the benefits of both types of narrative construction. The key exhibition used to support this conclusion will be the world-wide traveling exhibition “Pompeii: The Immortal City.”