Narrative and Metaphor in (Museum?) Education

What is a narrative, you might ask, and why is this relevant in terms of museums and museum education? Well, coincidentally, a recent conference on Narrative and Metaphor in Education, which took place at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam this past weekend, can help to illuminate this subject.

Narrative and metaphor have grown strong roots in the fields of medicine and nursing; doctors and patients exchange stories in order to come to an understanding of the situation and how it can be treated. Narrative and metaphor are also increasingly used in the fields of teacher education, in which teachers can use reflective narratives to understand their students experiences, for example.

In the spirit of listicles, some of the major takeaways from the conference that can apply to the museum field:

  1. Worlds
  2. Contextualization
  3. Ongoingness


The concept of “worlds”, as discussed at the conference, largely refers to the idea that people live within their own worlds and that a multiplicity of worlds, stories, and relationships exist at any given moment in time between people (or patients, museums, museum objects, etc.). When someone “travels” between worlds, she can then see a situation or experience a story through the eyes of another.

As argued during the conference, world traveling isn’t possible without an understanding of our own personal narratives — we must understand who we are and who we are becoming in relation to these worlds, our position in relation to our own world as well as to that of others.

For more information on worlds, please contact Georgia Dewart and Hiroku Kubota, who did a wonderfully engaging presentation on this topic.

This conceptualization of worlds can also initiate a process of empathy between researcher and participant or among participants. Janet Dyson and Clare Smith, who work as teacher trainers in the UK, experienced that encouraging their teachers to write stories from their students’ perspectives opened a door to empathy for the teachers — they were more actively able to understand why their students felt a certain way or how their students might perceive a certain situation within the classroom. As one of their teachers said, “Story doesn’t tell you what to think and feel but gives you space to think and feel.”

Worlds also become important in the discussion of social learning, which is an increasingly pertinent topic in terms of museum education. One of the keynote speakers, Niklas Pramling, understands children’s expressions, for example, as metaphor: there is a gap between what they say and what they mean. Extrapolating this premise, Pramling also noted that there is a relation between what is expressed/what is intended and what is perceived/understood. This can be understood within the museum (education) context in multiple different perspectives: there is a gap between the museum’s intention with an exhibition and the visitor’s interpretation, or between two visitors in the museum space, etc. 

That is not to say that museums cannot express their intended meaning, but that world traveling — in museum speak, co-construction — may be a necessary element of developing exhibitions or programs that align with their intentions.

Thus, this conceptualization of worlds and world traveling can be significant for the study of empathy, social learning, and co-construction of exhibitions/experiences/learning/etc. within the museum space. As the social aspect of the museum visit becomes increasingly important, this aspect of narrative inquiry could prove itself an increasingly useful tool.


Metaphors themselves are situated — in that they use context in order to derive meaning. Without that situated context, it is impossible to understand the reference or meaning of the metaphor. Claiming that you heard something straight from the horse’s mouth is completely meaningless if the listener doesn’t understand the context of the metaphor.

One of the most obvious aspects of the Narrative and Metaphor in Education Conference was its limitless array of perspectives and interpretations of narrative and metaphor as well as the relevance of narrative and metaphor to education. This might sound like a contentious point, but it became clear throughout the three day conference that this ambiguity is characteristic of narrative research, as well as one of its most valuable qualities.

Rather than imposing a research structure on the object or subjects of research, narrative inquiry and research allows for themes to emerge organically, as it follows participants on their own paths rather than attempting to fit them within a predetermined structure. As Gwyneth James aptly put it in her presentation: “Diversity characterizes narrative inquiry and we should celebrate that.”

Falk and Dierking acknowledge that learning is situated, it is contextual. Following their Contextual Model of Learning, they claim that learning is focused by the personal, sociocultural, and physical contexts within which a learner learns.

Narrative inquiry and methodology relies upon the fluidity and contextualization of experience; interpretation is essential to narrative. In the words of Max van Manen, we imbue meaning in our embodied experience, so, as we experience and construct narrative, we necessarily construct meaning attached to that narrative as well.


As Kieran Egan put it in his highly amusing keynote presentation, we as humans don’t know how to feel about endless narrative, so we often tell ourselves stories to create closure or assign meaning. For example, (as he put it) if you were to think that his lecture were boring, and you left, but then you twisted your ankle, you would curse yourself for twisting your ankle and curse Egan’s lecture for being so boring. However, if you twisted your ankle and then — while on crutches — decided to buy a lottery ticket and won a million dollars, you would begin to thank the heavens that Egan’s lecture were so boring (although it was anything but), etc. In other words, we are in the habit of imposing a closed storyline on courses of events when, really, our lives and our narratives are ongoing and messy things.

This element of narrative embraces the element of time as well as the traveling nature of concepts and “ongoingness” of learning in general. Museum educators tend to think of the museum experience and may often disregard or place less emphasis on the ongoing nature of the learning process — the prior knowledge and experiences with which visitors approach the museum and how the knowledge or experience gained from the museum visit continues with visitors into their daily lives after the end of the museum visit.

The range of presentations at the conference — from digital storytelling in the teacher education classroom to a nurse’s interactions with a homeless patient in his own world — reveals the flexibility and dynamism of narrative as research tool. This flexibility proves its value as a tool in the realm of museums and museum education, which encompass so many different subject areas, fields (think: art history, psychology, history, optics, space, etc.), people, etc. The museum field — especially museum researchers and professionals interested in understanding better the museum (learning) experience — would do well to welcome the expanding field of narrative studies.

You can find more information about the conference here. There is also a plan to publish a book from the conference proceedings, so please keep an eye out for that as well.

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