AAM Rundown 4: Narrative as a Platform for Public Engagement

I am a huge proponent of storytelling. It’s why I became a film major, and it’s why I went the museum route with my interest in science education. One of my favorite speeches is Robert Krulwich’s commencement address to the California Institute of Technology, titled “Tell Me A Story“. You can go check it out right now, I’ll wait.

"Follow the North Star" experience at Conner Prairie

Conner Prairie’s immersive “Follow the North Star” experience relies heavily on first person narratives, actors and audience participation (photo from the IndyStar)

Ok, we’re all back? Good. The reason I bring up storytelling is that I attended a talk on “narratives as a new platform for public engagement”. The title’s a bit misleading, since storytelling is hardly new (humans have been telling tales for millennia). However, there has been a relatively recent emergence in using more traditional narrative techniques in museums. To that end, the speakers of this session talked about transforming information in a thesis format into a story format.

What’s the Story? Narrative as a New Platform for Public Engagement


  • Daniel Spock (Director, Minnesota History Center Museum, The Minnesota Historical Society)
  • Benjamin Filene (Director of Public History, Department of Public History, University of North Carolina, Greensboro)
  • Jesse Heinzen (Multimedia Producer, Minnesota Historical Society)
  • Ellen Rosenthal (President & CEO, Conner Prairie Museum)

Storytelling as a medium suits museums quite well, if you think about it. Stories, like a visitor’s exhibit experience, aren’t necessarily linear. Meaning is imprecise and impressionistic, there’s a high emotional quotient to the content, and information is often particular since it’s specimen/object-based. And yet many museums take a very didactic approach to their labels and communication strategies, opting for a 3rd person voice that’s authoritative, dispassionate, and omniscient, and they tend to make rational generalizations from specific instances. Shouldn’t museums adopt a different approach, especially considering that museums themselves are venues for story triggering (“this object reminds me of that one time…”), story sharing (with group members or the larger public), story enactment, and story making (the museum visit experience becomes its own story)? The speakers today made suggestions about how to implement narrative-based alternatives to disseminating information in museums (and historical centers in particular).

One thing that all museums can do is to start with a specific story to illustrate a macro-level point, sort of like a case study. The trick is to make sure the stories matter on their own merits. Don’t just use people or objects as stand-ins. Though people and objects can come to represent more than just themselves, they do’t exist merely to be examples, and must be able to stand alone as well.

To tell a story you have to be a good listener, not only to get the material you need, but also to empathize with your subject so that you can embrace their perspective and tone. Luckily, the public loves hearing the story of the search for story materials. Publicize your project early on, and you may get community support and extra aid. At the very least, you’d be validating all your community partners.

Museums can use the stories of real individuals to build exhibits around sensitive topics where a curatorial voice would ring false. For example, Benjamin Filene gave the example of using oral histories to tell the stories of neighborhoods that fell apart because of drug use. He also talked about how personal histories could act as counterpoints to historians’ consensus; if you only read history textbooks, you might wonder why on earth the residents of mill villages didn’t strike against the company, but if you listened to the residents themselves, you’d realize that they had positive memories of their community and, in their own words, “didn’t know [they] were poor”.

Speaking of oral histories of neighborhoods, Ben Filene had an excellent suggestion for getting visitors to participate — have a map that they can write on, where they can record their memories of specific places. In the digital age, this could mean using something like Google maps to record such stories, like the Philaplace project from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Map use isn’t just for history museums though. The California Academy of Sciences’ Golden Gate Park Field Guide app lets you write up, geotag, and share your wildlife sightings with other park visitors.

Jesse Heinzen at the Minnesota History Center talked about using multimedia to create compelling experiences, and finding emotional hooks to pique interest. Looking at the evaluation feedback, it’s no wonder Jesse Heinzen is such an advocate multimedia installations: visitors who saw the multimedia exhibits “Home Place” and “This Must Be Hell” found the entire History Center overall to be more interesting, enjoyable, and emotional. This is all on top of their increased appreciation for the specific topic material of the multimedia exhibits.

Now, multimedia exhibits can get visitors to live through the story as if they themselves were experiencing the events, and they can create a sense of visual literacy, but they’re not the only means of creating immersive experiences. Ellen Rosenthal described her experiences at the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, and outlined the criteria they use when developing interactive live-action programs such as the “Follow the North Star” underground railroad experience. The criteria are essentially as follows:

  • the program should center around a real (and dramatic) historic event
  • the program must be based in an authentic environment
  • technology can be used as a storytelling device, but actors must be able to convey the energy of the events
  • allow visitors to play roles, and give them real decisions
  • the story should have a beginning, middle and end for a complete experience
  • there must be something for all ages in the experience
  • there must be a broad variety/diversity of characters for visitors to interact and identify with
  • encourage visitors to talk to each other, not just the actors

Time for some final hints, tips, tricks and advice. Use your physical space to support the story, not just text on panels; however, beware of bottlenecks especially when implementing multimedia installations. Make sure you provide visitors with strong clues about your exhibit/show’s content before the even enter, both to pique their interest and to align their expectations with your messaging. Use augmented reality technologies to superimpose content on top of existing landscapes (this could be useful for everything from paleoecology to neighborhood histories). For science-based exhibits that don’t have the luxury of oral histories, try incorporating or even highlighting the biographies of the scientists who worked on the topic, both to humanize the topic and talk about the scientific process. In fact, whether you’re dealing with a scientific, political, historical, or otherwise academic topic, you may want to point out the dead ends, false starts and mistakes made along the way. All people make mistakes, and visitors can identify with that. Visitors may also appreciate the sense that a given topic isn’t predestined or cut and dried, but could have developed in any number of ways.

If any of you readers have tales of your own experiences of narratives in a museum setting, tell me about it in the comments section!

One Thought on “AAM Rundown 4: Narrative as a Platform for Public Engagement

  1. Thanks for posting! I wanted to go to this session and didn’t make it so it’s really helpful to hear a rundown of what went on.

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