When we started Story Inc, coming as we did out of the world of film and television, we typically thought of stories as things that took place in time. Our first two projects were timed visitor experiences, the object theatres Golden Days and Rotorua Stories. Essentially these were immersive fantasy environments (a junk shop and a hidden lecture theatre), movie sets where the visitor would feel that they were “in the movie” even as they watched it, thanks to physical effects such as robotics and motion controlled seating.

Telling a story to an audience in time has huge advantages for storytellers, because it allows us to structure it very precisely, to control the flow of information, to create suspense, to hide things and suddenly  reveal them, and of course to create an experience that many people share and multiply with their collective response. Humans love to do things collectively – if someone else laughs, I probably will too.

At this point we were basically film makers who had strayed into different and interesting new territory – what people now call (jargon alert), location based experiences (LBEs). The natural inclination of linear, time-based storytellers in this new spatial territory is similar to that of any pioneer who has come somewhere new – to keep on doing things the same way you used to back in the Old Country.

So when we broadened our horizons a little and started to create exhibitions, rather than just individual installations, our instincts were to create highly linear experiences in which visitors would be channelled through spaces in a pre-determined order. I remember, long ago, writing an initial concept for what became The Lord of the Rings Exhibition along these lines and showing it to a very experienced writer and concept developer from Te Papa, Kerry Jimson. Kerry read it, paused for a long time, then as diplomatically as he could asked why we had chosen to do it that way. If you happen to be reading this Kerry, thank you, because this was the start of my understanding that there are fundamentally different ways of telling stories.

It must have been about this time that I read a book called Painted Histories by the late Roger Neich. The particular chapter that was a revelation to me was about the symbolism of the Māori meeting house – the way that the organisation of spaces and elements in and around meeting houses are used as models of the Māori world view, and ways to tell the specific stories of the people of that place. It was a mind-expanding moment for me to start thinking about this very different – still structured and formal – but far more sophisticated way of telling stories in spaces. 

From that time on we have always tried to create “readable spaces” that do not force visitors into linear experiences, but allow them to participate in creating stories out of different elements that we hope will intuitively make sense to them, no matter what order they experience them in.

For example, for the version of the LOTR exhibition that ended up going around the world in the 2000s, we created a broad circular visitor flow around a central dark structure, in the very middle of which, dramatically lit, was The Ring itself. One Ring to rule them all.

It’s not always necessary that visitors consciously understand the designers’ intentions in structuring spaces in this way, just as it’s not necessary that viewers of a film have a Media Studies type understanding of why a certain scene is placed before another one. The effect of spatial experiences, of spatial storytelling, is more emotional than cognitive.

 A space doesn’t have to “mean” exactly X or Y, it doesn’t speak in the same way that words to. As the psychologist C.G. Jung wrote, a powerful symbol “implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning”. At its best, spatial storytelling is like that too.

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I’ll be coming back to stories in space again soon in these blogs. It’s at the core of what we do. But next time I’m going to talk about another form of storytelling: interactive stories.

(Image: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, Museum of Modern Art, New York)