Narrative Models: From Communication Heritage to Immersive Heritage

In general, the narrative model uses a direct relationship between people through a basic mechanism, a conversational strategy that seeks a more effective and natural communication. It is no longer a question of telling what happened; visitors directly witness what occurred, although they may be marginally part of it. The narrative model is based on a logic of narration that takes into account the subjects provided both by the disciplines of reference and by the tangible culture (Roberts, 1997). However, it builds a sustainable scenario as a communication tool, taking certain references from literature, theater, and cinema.

Value is linked to the significance of the overall context in which the subject and knowledge to be transmitted are developed and in which pieces, collections, and heritage are shown (Tsybulskaya & Camhi, 2009). Museology is also based on these three aspects to support the exhibition narrative. The museog- raphy employed is typically not explicit, at least in the perspective of the main scenes, and can have complementary spaces for interpretation or exhibition that often involve the same profusion of communication resources and support that were used in the explanatory model. However, these museum resources are often located in areas adjacent to the main scenes without being part of them. In the narrative model, public and educational programs are also used. They are typically developed in the same narrative environment; thus, it is difficult to separate them from the rest of the elements.

A prototypical example of the narrative model is the so-called Hiving history’ environments that help visitors ‘live as if’ they were characters of that time, working in some simple activities but providing a subjective feeling of immersion (Anderson, 1991).

Fundamentally, the narrative model represents a return to transmission mechanisms based on cognitive analyses of the centrality of narration for the human mind (Bruner, 2003). On the other hand, it is also based on the idea that heritage is the product of a human group and that tangible culture is the result of individuals and societies. From this perspective, heritage recovers people. ‘People are more important than objects’ reads the theme statement of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) meeting in Melbourne in 1998. On that occasion, a representative of the Maori tribe went before the assembly and argued that when he went to museums presenting his culture, based on the Western cultural model, he saw objects but could not see their spirits. That is, members of his community and the voices of his culture were missing.6

This return to the embodiment of heritage is very important because it involves the explicit recognition that tangible culture is a means to a more fundamental end that goes beyond itself. In this sense, one must recall that both the narrative and explanatory models do not imply a loss of value of pieces and collections. Nor do they emphasize their preservation. This argument was sometimes used to hide a lack of deep reflection regarding heritage, its enhancement, and sustainability (Campolmi, 2015).

Moreover, the narrative model recovers the basic psychological mechanism of oral communication, that is, conversational mechanisms such as reiteration or several others that are used to provide the key information to the other person that this specific part is very important. However, in a written explanation, such as those that abound in the explanatory model, reiteration is often avoided, and many mechanisms of emphasis are also lost when written in a much plainer text. When heritage activity monitors use the explanatory model, they can reintroduce these oral mechanisms, but they are undoubtedly influenced by the initial structure of the discourse and thus necessarily lose conversational value and the capacity for connection to recipients.

‘Living History is an idea well known to lay historians and museums interpreters but seldom heard of in academia’. Thus, begins Anderson’s famous volume on Living History (1991: 3). Initially, it was a practice rather than a reflection, interpretive in nature, to support the explanatory model discussed above. In its current and elaborate levels, it has gradually become a participatory movement, also generating its own resources and characteristic institutions.

Special mention must be made of dioramas for their historical significance. They have become widespread since the 1930s and 1940s because of their effectiveness and remain very attractive and comprehensive for many visitors. Dioramas consist of the scenographic contextualization of originals. In other words, originals are integrated into a ‘scene’ in which parts of the elements are recreated by using plastic techniques while maintaining the rigor of heritage. The selected scene typically relates a prototypical action. For example, one can cite those reflected in the Vicksburg National Military Park on the famous battle of the Civil War or the famous diorama at the National Museum of American History on the Vietnam War.7 Dioramas and scenographies have been and still are very important in history museums (Sherman & Rogoff, 1994). Anyone visiting European Viking museums, for example, will find exhibitions (Moesgaard, Oslo) in which a wide range of scenes are displayed, providing a representation that will be impossible to forget every time visitors’ knowledge about the great culture of early medieval northern Europe is activated. Several studies have shown that dioramas still retain great attractiveness for visitors, especially for those who are less experienced, and are still more ‘interactive’ than many digital proposals (Bitgood, 2011).

The narrative model has evolved, from more contemplative proposals, such as classic dioramas, to proposals for more immersive and participatory recreation, such as living history proposals and proposals of the ‘natural’ contextualization of contents, for example, so-called ‘ecomuseums’ or ‘open air museums’. The narrative model has greatly defended intangible heritage because, in narrative proposals, intangible aspects play a key role in the script of the story. However, tangible culture also plays a fundamental role in the narrative model, as in the case of institutions such as Colonial Williamsburg or Mystic Seaport, where, for many years, they have insisted on the fact that the enhancement of heritage collections and the rigor of recreations and reproductions are a central aspect in the experience assessment by visitors (Klingler & Graft, 2012). Living History represents a useful alternative when tangible heritage is scarce, helping to highlight it far beyond what descriptive and explanatory models would have succeeded in doing. The Danish park of the Iron Age of Lejre is a good example of such an achievement.

As noted above, a central aspect of the narrative model is communication through people and their training is therefore crucial. A very common mistake is to think that people who participate in a living history park are actors and therefore develop a role with stagecraft. On the contrary, people involved in a living history have a basis on which they improvise contents, depending on the visitors’ involvement and interest. Their action is not a fixed performance, but it varies in each case and adapts to the demand of participants. Hence, they are often called ‘interpreters’ instead of ‘actors’. On the other hand, the descriptive model may have ‘guides’, the explanatory model has ‘monitors’, and the participatory model has ‘intermediaries’, each emphasizing different functions.

Among the successful living history museums, the point of reference is undoubtedly Colonial Williamsburg. On the other hand, the Mystic Seaport best knows how to combine the rigor of maritime heritage with the cultural context in a complex web of cultural, educational, and touristic interests.8 Museums that are not living history but have a strong narrative component may consist of many of the so-called house museums (which do not fall into the descriptive model). A classic example of a classical style may be the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum in Atlanta; whereas an example with a more recent approach in many ways may be the Tenement Museum in New York.

An interesting case is that of Shakespeare’s Globe, a project to recreate an English theater from the early seventeenth century, which began as a cultural tourism project but has led to the enhancement of the immediate site of the Rose Playhouse, allowing its heritage regeneration. At the Globe, classic plays are performed, many guided themed tours are also developed, and the performing actors explain and tell all types of stories in the museum’s annex.

In Europe, living history parks developed late, and indeed, they are still less relevant than in the United States. The cases of the Lejre Museum and Roskilde Museum are well-known; these are two areas of the continuously interesting Danish museology that have spent many years restoring heritage from the Iron Age and the Viking Age, respectively, by using living history, among other techniques, which are permanent in case of the first and restricted to programs in case of the second.

Compared with all of the others, the narrative model learns to live with technology (Hwang & Tsai, 2011; Tallon, 2012). For example, technology has brought great dynamism not only to classic dioramas (an excellent example is the Pequot Museum) but also in ecomuseums or archeological parks or in living history parks by providing a significant complement with mobile devices (Ibanez-Etxeberria, Vicent, Asensio, Cuenca, & Fontal, 2014).

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