The Museum as Unreliable Narrator

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  • Title: The Museum as Unreliable Narrator: What We Can Learn from Nick Carraway
  • Author(s): Jeanne Goswami
  • Publisher: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Collection: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Series: Common Ground Open
  • Journal Title: The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum
  • Keywords: Knowledge, Museums, Narrative
  • Volume: 11
  • Issue: 1
  • Year: 2018
  • ISSN: 1835-2014 (Print)
  • ISSN: 1835-2022 (Online)
  • DOI:
  • Citation: Goswami, Jeanne . 2018. "The Museum as Unreliable Narrator: What We Can Learn from Nick Carraway." The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum 11 (1): 1-11. doi:10.18848/1835-2014/CGP/v11i01/1-11.
  • Extent: 11 pages


Narrative is universal. Studies show that narrative is key to the functioning of the human brain. And yet, within the museum, confusion remains over what “narrative” means and what its role should be. Using Abbott’s distinction between “story,” a series of events that unfolds chronologically, and “narrative,” the specific representation of such events, I argue that while many museums tell stories, few embrace narratives. To do so would mean abandoning a “neutral,” “factual” voice in favor of a point of view. But visitors see through this supposed neutrality to the unspoken issues (colonialism, racism, sexism, etc.) that inform our histories, collections, and staffing decisions. How do we grapple with these topics as authentically as possible? I begin with the premise that museums (and their founders, donors, and employees) are fundamentally unreliable, implicated in their own histories, and I submit this as a potential opportunity, not a liability. Using well-known examples, like Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” I posit the ways in which acknowledging unreliability could help museums craft authentic narratives. The unreliable narrator forces readers to discover their own meaning based on what they understand to be true or false in the account. This powerful method of engagement relinquishes power to the reader. Why not share that power with museum audiences as well?