April 06, 2012

Do cultural institutions tell stories? A new bestseller gets me thinking

The rise of live storytelling in recent years is remarkable, both for its bottom-up, scrappy scene (headquartered in Brooklyn, of course) and its rehabilitation of a historical form of entertainment and conviviality. A few storytelling events are held at museums, but that’s not the same as museums telling stories in their own exhibitions or programs. A new hiking memoir, of all things, just reminded me what the recipe has always been.

Having been laid up sick for a few days with the book, Wild, for company, I can tell you that its author, Cheryl Strayed, deserves the praise that critics have been showering on her. The book, which is about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone in order to put her reckless, splintered life back together, is heartfelt, honest, gripping, funny and, for me at least, deeply moving.

Those are critical clichés, I know. But there’s one kind of cultural narrative they’re almost never used to describe: museum exhibitions. Museum people often speak of exhibitions as “telling the story” of so-and-so, or collections as “telling the stories” of a particular time and place. But compared to the real storytelling that’s going on these days, from The Moth (pictured) to This American Life to books like Strayed’s, museums’ use of the word “story” feels like a mere metaphor, an approximation.

You’ve seen plenty of exhibitions with a historical shape, and a beginning, middle, and an end. But when’s the last time you came out of an exhibition feeling like somebody had told you a story? 

When’s the last time you’d have described an exhibition — or a symphony concert or dance program, for that matter — as heartfelt, gripping, honest, or moving? The individual artworks, historical artifacts, or performances, sure. But the exhibition — the evening — the program created by the cultural institution itself?

Strayed’s book got me thinking about the difference between a narrative (that slightly precious, academic word) and a story. Her book, like all good stories, moves in two directions, which we might call horizontal and vertical (see diagram, below). The horizontal direction is the unfolding of the plot: where the story is taking us, and how we’re going to get from here to there. It’s the dimension of surprises, twists, and the pleasure of wondering (or fearing or wishing) what’s going to happen next. When we say something is gripping or suspenseful, we’re praising the horizontal dimension.

Exhibitions, for all their traditional emphasis on chronological and other kinds of narratives, aren’t particularly good at this. As I’ve asked here before, when do museum visitors ever feel suspense about what the next gallery will tell them, or how it’s going to end? ...

The vertical direction is a different kind of unfolding: our descent into the mind of the storyteller, our deepening connection with her (and with the other characters in the tale). It’s a fundamentally social — that is, human to human — phenomenon, an act of cooperation and mutual empathy. We’re not just beholding a story objectively, learning what happened out there, to someone. We’re connecting to a specific, present fellow human in an inescapably subjective way. This is the dimension of responses like "heartfelt," "honest," "funny," and the pleasure of slipping into someone else's head and heart for a few minutes.

We could say that exhibitions are even worse at that this vertical dimension. Or we could say they’re simply not interested in going there. After all, there’s often no discernible “storyteller”; the voice behind the exhibition is a group, not an individual, and it’s a group that doesn’t seem to want to be present in the tale it’s telling. Objectivity is the rule, in more than one sense: visitors are invited to connect to the objects on display or the “stories” they illustrate, not to the humans who chose to put them there.

It’s a little bit like the musicians at a classical concert who don’t make eye contact with members of the audience, even during intermission when those people milling near the lip of the stage, looking at the musicians.

At the risk of oversimplifying, what Strayed’s book helped me realize is that storytelling is first person, not always literally but on some level. Museum exhibitions are third person, or on rare occasions second person plural (the editorial “we”). The difference is that vertical dimension. Without its power and pleasure, we’re not in a story.

One way to see this is to imagine Strayed’s book as an exhibition. Think of it in two different ways: first, as a “typical” museum installation, with lots of objects (her painfully tight boots; her too-heavy pack, nicknamed “Monster”; her tattered trail guide) accompanied by information-packed wall texts and labels written in an objective, third-person voice.

And second, as an exhibition with the same objects but with her voice, perhaps recorded and floating through your ears, perhaps on video, or maybe just on the walls. Not just a narrative, but a sensibility, a person, someone who has turned her own experience into a different kind of experience as a gift for us. 

What if curators and exhibit developers thought of their jobs that way?

Julian Kingston — April 09, 2012

Well put.

We at Theoria Cultural Thinkers feel that museums need to figure out their core stories and then tell them in the most engaging, accessible and far-reaching way possible. And not just in exhibits, the whole of the museum's presence in the world should reflect those stories.

Larry Fisher — April 18, 2012

I would suggest reading a new book, "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human," by Jonathan Gottschall.

As someone who has been advocate for effective storytelling in museum experiences for the last twenty-plus years, I find it interesting that in recent years the notion seems to be becoming popular in our profession (one I might add, noted for being decades behind the curve in some cases). For years I have combated the curators who feel that a "narrative" is a story—well, as you point out, it’s not. When I did "Heroes of the Sky" at The Henry Ford Museum, the goal was to tell stories about people. People who were adventurers, inventors, risk-takers, entrepreneurs, and record setters who, at times achieved great things but at other times failed catastrophically. These were stories chosen so that the guest could find themselves in the them and become immersed in the experience. These were not stories about the airplanes; the planes were simply vessels to help carry the stories to the audience. These stories were punctuated by objects that became touchstones to the people and stories: the lucky rabbit's foot that made the first North Pole discovery flight almost fail, or the tattered logbook of one of the first mail pilots.

The magic of the museum experience is that well crafted stories can move in multiple directions, weaving threads that reflect real-life experiences. Multiple stories can be told in parallel, or on a collision course in ways that the printed word or film cannot. We live, breathe, and exist in three-dimensional space, and museums are one of the few places where we can tell stories within that three-dimensional context. I applaud those who are coming around to recognizing this incredible opportunity, museums like Conner Prairie and others that have embraced the story as the medium. In the 80's and 90's there were moments when I was all but crucified by museum colleagues because of my Disney background. Recently, I went to Universal's Islands of Adventure to see the Harry Potter attraction. Seeing so many people deeply engaged and truly immersed in the story was evidence of the lessons we can learn about storytelling from other (non-museum) contexts and the power we can bring to the museum setting.

Thank you for stimulating some thoughts on the capacity we have to be wonderful storytellers.

Paul Orselli — April 20, 2012

Nice post!

Another way to get more "human stories" into the mix might be to include opportunities for more humans being able to tell their own stories in the exhibitions.

Museums also seem too ready to eliminate floor staff as part of the exhibit experience and instead try to provide digital or label-based substitutes as the "story tellers" or "facilitators."

Peter Linett — April 21, 2012

Paul, I agree completely. Not sure if it's an economic resistance or something else, but it sure seems widespread. When I've had this conversation with museum people, they point out with pride the oral histories they feature, often from multiple people in an exhibit or media piece. But to me, that often means the museum is giving the job of telling the story to someone else instead of owning it. The voices of witnesses to history or scientists out in the field, or whoever is doing the oral history, are sometimes great. But they're not a substitute for the museum itself -- the curator, exhibit designer, etc. -- having its own storytelling voice, its own perspective and humanity. That's the role that hosts like Ira Glass play in radio and podcast storytelling: a master, organizing presence and guiding personality. Which is what I'm saying is missing in museums.

Thanks for commenting, Paul. I admire your blog.

James G. Leventhal — May 06, 2012

great post, Peter. And, having just come from AAM in Minneapolis, I was struck at the inclusion of the folks from The Moth. I must confess I had to meet with someone else at that time. More though, there was lots of talk of the integration of first-person voices, especially capturing those voices through social-media based applications and for the inclusion in interpretive spaces for visitor experience, like at the Minnesota Historical Society. Whenever these actual "voices" entered the sessions, there was a *hush*...a reverence. It was sweet.

At my museum -- the Contemporary Jewish Museum -- we have stories being told in a central large video space in one of our current exhibitions "California Dreaming":


we don't really quite do what you describe above...a great storytelling, but we get close, I think.

And I have felt myself on-the-brink of tears more than once listening there.

Thanks, Peter!

Allison — May 07, 2012

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

I think there are some lessons for museums from some of the rich story-telling cultures of many Indigenous people. I have been reading 'The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative' by Thomas King - a great read about the power of stories.

Stephanie — June 19, 2012

The commentary above is a wonderful addition to the blog post, and as a novice in this field I appreciate being able to see what other people have to say.

My two cents is to reiterate the importance of being able to find oneself in the story, however it is being told. My experience with high school students has shown me that is you want them to care about Shakespeare (for example) you have to take him off the pedestal and make him human. (Descriptions of the conditions at the Globe Theatre back in the day always helped too.) The same can be said for museums and their choice of exhibitions, new content but still having a certain something that is easy to relate to.

Thanks again for the food for thought.

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