Thursday, October 4, 2007


A comment below noted my fairly regular thoughts and comments about museums as places that tell stories and wondered if storytelling, as such, should be taught in museum studies programs. Hmm...I don't know if storytelling needs to be taught, but perhaps courses in screenwriting or playwriting would generate new thinking. In both those disciplines, writers use all the tools at hand, not just words, but other elements to create a visual experience. They tell the story through stage or film sets and locations, costumes, props, and of course, their actors and the words they speak. But of course, the best writers do that just with words. I'm reminded of a session my colleague Christopher Clarke facilitated several years ago at the Museum Institute at Sagamore, a program of the Upstate History Alliance. In advance, Christopher asked half the group to read one non-fiction book, and half another. The books he choose were The Sudden Sea, about the great hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti and Close to Shore, about the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks. The group, with his skillful help, examined how these authors chose to tell a story and how their storytelling as non-fiction authors, relates to our own work as exhibit developers or other museum people. The books (both great, entertaining reads, whether you're interested in sharks or hurricanes or not) use detail--but selectively; they have characters that you care about; and each book has a careful, compelling story arc.

Museums have both more and fewer tools at our disposal. To me, books are a type of experience that's fully immersive, and I'm not distracted by other people, by whether or not my feet hurt, by whether my parking is too expensive, or any of the other million things that occupy museum goers' minds. But, we have the ability, within our resources, to create immersive enviroments that stimulate the imagination, and, of course, we have the real deal. We have (just to name a few things I've seen that stick with me) Darwin's notebook in which he first posits the theory of evolution, Vermeer paintings, or even the well-worn overalls of a worker in the Lehigh Valley Railroad shops in Sayre, PA. Each one of those items connects me to a story--and for me, as a visitor at least, I care about the people embedded in those stories.

So should museum programs teach storytelling? Couldn't hurt (and might even help make those historic house tours better!)

Above: Can't figure out how to get people into your museum? Consider the methods of this sideshow barker in Donaldsville, LA, in 1939. Photo by Russell Lee, FSA/OWI Collection Library of Congress.

1 comment:

Kristin said...


Of course, I believe in the value of this -- wanting from my beginning to combine storytelling and museums, and being crazy enough to pursue graduate work in each. Back in the day of interviewing for graduate school I was told I was, essentially, ahead of the curve in this thinking. But, 17 or so years later, I don't see storytelling as strongly embedded or understood as I would have hoped.