Authority, Authorship, and Storytelling in Museums

From the library at the Crane Estate, Ipswich. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

From the library at the Crane Estate, Ipswich. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

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.)

Steampunked Dr. Seuss: a transformative work found at the Springfield Museums, MA. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

Steampunked Dr. Seuss: a transformative work found at the Springfield Museums, MA. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

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.

What catches your imagination? Detail image of a dressing table, RISD museum. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

What catches your imagination? Detail image of a dressing table, RISD museum. Photo by Meg Winikates, 2015.

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.

“To Help People Dream,” AAM Day 2

I have a feeling that this is the sort of conference that gets exponentially more busy each day, so today I’m going to stick to bullet points: my top 3-5 reactions, quotes, ideas, or experiences from each session.  (You can expect me to go back to some of these ideas in later posts instead.)

Session 1: Stories Alive: The Power of Theater in Conservation Education

  • I respect people who start professional conference sessions with puppets.  Seriously, way to grab attention when half the people in the room haven’t got their caffeine yet because the conference center Starbucks was overwhelmed.
  • This was an interesting balance to yesterday’s session, because it included examples of different kinds of (mostly larger) theater programs, and also discussion of evaluation and figuring out lingering impact and message effectiveness.

Session 2: General Session – Education, Stories, Museums: Transforming Lives, Keynote Speaker Dr. Freeman Hrabowski of UMBC


  • Instead of ‘what did you learn today,’ ask ‘did you ask a good question today?’  Encouraging curiosity leads to great thinkers.
  • Experience in the arts, even if you are not excellent, makes you realize and appreciate what it takes to be excellent.
  • The fundamental purpose of museum and of education is to help people dream.

Session 3: 3D Printing from the Smithsonian

  • I feel like museums need to go talk to people at Pixar and Weta and some of the other fields where they’ve been doing more with 3D scans and imagery, like those laser scanned reproductions of various actors for their character busts and replicas.  Because there are cool ideas out there we could be using.
  • I like the idea of reproduced models of archaeological digs and virtual dinosaur bones for study.
  • The Smithsonian has a real advantage in testing out these new techniques given that they have 19 museums and 9 research centers to play around with a range of ideas.


Session 4: Maximizing the Nation’s Common Wealth: Museums and Parks in Partnership

  • Sitting in the same room with the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the Deputy Director of the National Park Service is a little like attending a museum equivalent of a rock concert.
  • The strategic plans (with an emphasis on education for each) are supposed to be available in the session notes on the AAM website.  They sound/look like an interesting read.
  • For all that they have significant and impressive visitation figures, both institutions suffer from the same issues regarding diversity and relevance that almost all traditional museums are currently facing and attempting to change.  It will be interesting to see what works on such a large scale.

Session 5a: Museum Marketplace: Exhibit Labels competition

  • Definitely a lot of labels that privilege descriptive writing over the purely didactic.  Makes for an interesting read that has either a conversational or reflective cadence.




Session 5b: Museum Marketplace: Education showcase

  • Always nice to see what other folks in my field are up to!  Reading blogs is interesting, conversations are even better.
  • Fun and interesting thoughts about Maker spaces and their uses with school programs.
  • Cool cooperation happening between Smithsonian museums for interdisciplinary approaches to exhibits, especially art & science.  Always nice to see that happening.

Expo Showcase 6: Augmenting Dinosaurs – Augmented Reality Installations 

  • I appreciated the opportunity to hear from museum staff, computer/media designers, and the paleontologist whose research led to the animations used in the augmented reality interactives.  The range of perspectives made it more useful and interesting than a vendor-only session would have been.
  • T-Rex shook its prey like a crocodile does and Allosaurus did the dip and rip move that small raptors like kestrels do.  And they can tell that based on skeletons and the way the muscles would have had to attach to them.  Amazing.
  • Augmented reality seems like a reasonable thing to explore for enlivening the natural history elements in the Art & Nature Center–but I wonder, what would make it compelling for the Art half of that equation?

After Hours Fun 7: Wonders of the Undersea World at the Baltimore National Aquarium

  • Great staff, very personable and willing to answer questions on practically any topic.  Beautiful building,  not unlike Boston’s NEAq (and the central tank was apparently designed by the same person)
  • They have dolphins–7 of them. I am very jealous.  
  • I loved the rainforest exhibit, including the opportunity for visitors to hold a stick with live crickets over the archer fish tank and watch them spit water at the crickets to knock them into eating range.  That was highly entertaining, if unfortunate for the crickets.
  • I will never understand aquarium catering being okay with serving seafood, no matter how tasty the crab dip.

Bonny Baltimore, Day 1 from the AAM conference

Today was my first day ever at an AAM conference, and it started off brilliantly.  It’s going to be a busy several days, according to the amount of orange highlighter decorating my conference booklet, and if all the sessions are even half as interesting as the first few, it’ll be time well spent.

The afternoon’s first session I attended was a showcase of museum theater programs hosted by the folks at IMTAL, with four different museums (2 science, 2 history) offering up snippets of their presentations.  All were family and student friendly, but wildly different in presentation style and a really interesting assortment to hold up against each other.  Most included audience participation, all included humor and an emphasis on finding a connection, emotional or experiential.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago presented “Taste Buddies,” with a lead character in a candy-striped vest who employed a lot of puns and a *lot* of energy, including audience volunteers who gamely ate unidentified jelly beans (you need to know me to understand just how brave that seemed to me, but it was definitely a Bertie Bott’s moment).  Fusion Science Theater worked up a bunch of excitement over the molecular structure of rubber, of all things, using a pair of apparently identical mystery bouncing balls in a pro-wrestling style show down to introduce scientific method and a lot of the related vocabulary.


The Missouri History Center presented “Dressing from the Inside Out” with a demonstration of changing women’s undergarments over several decades, and made a point of appealing to the audience by relating the garments involved to everything from Pride and Prejudice and the probable dress-damping tendencies of Caroline Bingley to the structure of sports bras–the presenter was clearly very in tune with what would appeal to her current audience.

And my very favorite was “Love on the Range,” a storytelling performance by an actor from the Smithsonian Museum of American History, that incorporated music, dramatic pauses, and a lot of great colorful language and description.  I like the Smithsonian’s theater program for a lot of reasons, and this was no exception.


The other session I went to this afternoon concerned the use of reproductions, replicas, and non-accessioned objects in museum situations. Titled “Is it Real? Who Cares?” it featured some of the best interactive discussion in a large-audience panel-format session I’ve ever seen, with lively debate happening about the spectrum of real to fake objects and whether or not those experiences worked.  There was a lot of muddy ground in the middle, of course, but some very fun examples of curious uses of reproductions, etc, from the Franklin Institute’s extremely popular walk-through heart to disagreements over reenactors to a very wacky sounding Australian version of Stonehenge.  If you are curious in turn, you can check out the panelists’ planning blog.


Twelve Days of Popcorn (Day 5): All the World’s a Stage

I’ll save my thoughts on the importance of an educator’s being a ham for another day, but for today I’d like to highlight the magic that is live theater, from playing ‘dress-up’ in your backyard to setting King Lear on the Moon (okay, that I’ve never seen, but wouldn’t you like to?).  Here’s a collection of fun and fascinating links for you on theater, puppetry, and the Bard:

Make Your Own:

Jim Henson on making Muppets from things you find around the house.

A lesson plan on making shadow puppets in the classroom.

A video tutorial on making joints for shadow puppets (which has proved very useful for Eye Spy art activities this year!)

A historical make-your-own: 19th century children’s paper theaters on exhibit at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT.

Download a pdf of a paper theater to color and construct yourself from London's V&A. Click for link.

Or try a modern equivalent with one of Robert Sabuda’s Peepbox PopUps.

Make You Laugh:

‘Superclogger’ commits random acts of theater from the back of a truck on LA’s crowded freeways.

A Christmas Carol re-envisioned…in Klingon.  (You’ll never appreciate Dickens until you’ve read him in the original…)

Call for Submissions: A Steampunk Shakespeare Anthology (Maybe I’ll get that King Lear on the Moon after all…)

On the fifth day of popcorn, these ideas gave me glee: five puppet theaters, four juicy questions, three chugging trains, two coral reefs, and a pop-up folding snow-bedecked tree…

Plum Blossoms, Bamboo, and Pine Sprigs

Welcome in Lunar New Year with the spirit of friendship (as represented by the flower arrangement above) and with an arrangement of my own suggestions for cool resources and activities.

Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year Parade, Chinatown, New York City 2009, photo by ho_hokus

History and Culture

A brief but interesting collection of information on the New Year as celebrated in China, from the University of Victoria

A nice resizeable map of China, with or without more detailed information, from National Geographic

Asia-Art.Net, a collection of really beautiful examples from several cultures, organized by medium or by culture.


Why is it Lunar New Year?  Observing the Moon, from Science NetLinks

Arts and Crafts

Disney’s family activities offer up some fun and easy decorations for the holiday: a festive ribbon dragon, a beautiful lacy banner, and a good-luck goldfish.

The Smithsonian strikes again!  (I love these guys as much as I love National Geographic!) The Sackler and Freer Museums are home to the Smithsonian’s Asian collections, and they have both Chinese centric and Across Asia teacher resources as part of their larger set of Online Guides.

Theater and Music

Two fabulous resources from the Kennedy Center’s Artsedge:

Puppets on the Move: China and the Silk Road and

The Sounds of China Pod Page, with music to listen to and connected information and activities.


Also from the Kennedy Center, Chinese Calligraphy and Ink Painting

And finally, from Read-Write-Think, which is run by the National Council of Teachers of English, a very cool Fairy Tale Autobiographies lesson plan, which uses Chinese tales but could be adapted for pretty much any culture.

Not enough?  Then come celebrate with the Peabody Essex Museum, on Saturday February 27! (Chances are very good you’ll find me making paper lanterns in East India Marine Hall…)