Earlier this week, Rebecca Herz over on Museum Questions posted an interesting piece in response to the movement for adding more storytelling to museums, wondering if story is as effective as museums wish it to be, and if prioritizing storytelling diminishes the role of museums. There are already a lot of great comments in the thread there and I encourage you to read the responses; I felt like my reaction needed a little more time and space for thought, so here we are.
In my non-museum life, I am a writer, an English major, and daughter of a librarian and a former theater teacher, so I fall firmly on the side of story. I agree with the power of story to provoke emotion and generate strong memory and help us make connections between things we know and new facets of learning. I heard Kendall Haven speak and read his book Story Proof, and it made a lot of sense to me.
The questions Rebecca raises are good ones, the most central of which seems to be this: museums are seen as places of authority, and what if the stories we are telling are not the ones people are taking away? what if stories are diluting instead of enhancing what we have to teach?
As someone who reads as many writing resources as museum ones, this concern reminded me vividly of the problem so many authors/creators have with the existence of fandom. An author or poet or TV production team or movie director spends all this effort to create a story and launch it into the world, and every once in a while then throws a fit when people say ‘we love that this is in your story’ and the creator says ‘but that wasn’t there at all! I didn’t want you to find romantic tension between these characters, I wasn’t trying to tell a story about that kind of opression, I was telling this kind of story, not that one.’ (Poets are usually better about this; they understand and intend for people to get more out of a poem than they necessarily put in in the first place. TV writers are notoriously bad about it. If we want museums to have fans/an engaged community, let’s take our cue from poets.)
Once you put a story out into the world, whether you are an author or a museum, you don’t own it anymore. I heard someone say once, “We are not all watching the same show” or reading the same book. People will consume the same set of words and images, but how they interpret, absorb, and remember them is influenced inevitably by who they are already and what they bring with them. Trying to control what they take away or turn it into (such as in the varied reactions of people at the Lincoln Museum in Rebecca’s piece) is impossible.
To put it another way: think of a book that hit you just right when you read it, and another that you simply couldn’t appreciate at all the first time; there may be a right time to see a museum exhibit for someone the same way there is a right time to read a book. When I first read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I thought Anne Elliot was a spineless doormat, and boring to boot. I was a teenager. When I re-read that story years later, I fell in love with Anne’s resilience and steadiness, and her belief in second chances. The teenager described in Rebecca’s post who was made so sad by the slave auction diorama that she couldn’t absorb anything else–perhaps she didn’t seek out more information about Lincoln, the Civil War, or civil rights then, but that doesn’t mean she won’t ever take a class on the period in college, or become an activist for social justice in a few years, or a public defender, or an economist.
One cannot tell only one story, and one cannot know how it will affect people, and one cannot fret over it. This is equally important for museums and for authors.
What one can do, in the museum world, is provide scaffolding and a diversity of access points to your story/collections/mission/exhibit. If everyone is hearing a different story, tell a bunch of good ones, complicated ones with multiple narrators and intersecting themes. Lay out your analytical lines for the people who want to follow them, engage with first person narrative from primary sources, supplement with drama and suspense that put your audience in the center of your tricky questions. Get fully on-board the storytelling train and add a theatrical performance to your exhibit, live or recorded.
I spent years as a kid going to the Museum of Science in Boston and vividly remember the theater program Lynn Baum describes in her comments to Rebecca’s original post. The Bog Girl, the cowardice of the Titanic‘s owner (“He did not look back.”), and the possibilities of international space exploration on a mission to Mars (“Don’t eat the samples!”) are burned vividly into my mind, and so are lifelong interests in archaeology (including marine archaeology), Celtic history, geology, and space exploration. To Rebecca’s point about emotion potentially interfering with analysis, I admittedly don’t remember a ton about the specific chemistry of why peat bogs are great for mummification (something about acidity and submersion protecting things from oxidization?), or the exact range of years from which the Bog Girl originated, but I was, and remain, interested in going to other museum exhibits and reading other National Geographic articles and finding other historical fiction that will tell me more about her world.
For that matter, I rarely manage to see a quilt without being reminded of another piece of museum theater I saw on a family trip as a kid, called Quilters, which was all about women’s experiences as frontier settlers (“Sunbonnet Sue getting bitten by a rattlesnake!”). It didn’t make me want to quilt, or settle on the prairie, but it gave me an intense appreciation for the efforts of women who did either or both. Stories may not always have the *intended* effect, or an immediately obvious one, but they always do *something:* inspiration, fascination, curiosity, aversion, imagination, irritation, sorrow. And that something–intended or accidental, analytical or emotional– is still so, so much better than nothing.
Museums are used to being perceived as authorities, to having this role as expert, as treasure vault, as teacher. Letting go of that kind of control is a little nerve-wracking (see all the drama in the last few years over crowd-sourced exhibits and participatory events and people quitting over ‘the death of real curation,’ etc.), and it’s hard. Maybe museums are not all natural storytellers. It’s probably easier for some museums than others, and some of us might think we’re telling great stories, when we’re actually that guy in the corner of the party who’s as compelling as six-day-old dry toast. (See the aforementioned ‘nothing.’)
Let’s not be toast. Let’s be a taco buffet, with lots of options for our guests to choose among; soft or hard-shelled, full of protein or mostly toppings, spicy or mild, simple or complex as individual taste demands. Everyone ends up with something that the host can recognize as a taco (exhibit message), and no one goes away hungry (bored). Offer a bounty of stories with lots of ways to get at them (interactives, tours, audio, visuals, touch points, story books, creative response invitations) and enjoy the various voices and viewpoints that result. Make it a potluck taco buffet and invite other tastes/voices in. In the 21st century, fewer and fewer people want the voice from on high dictating the one story, so let’s tell lots of them instead.