Why do stories matter to museums and how can museums become better storytellers?

Anna Faherty (Strategic Content)
Original paper on MuseumNext >

Stories are universal. We all read, watch and listen to them. We all tell them. Stories are part of what makes us human. In fact, stories are so ubiquitous, we often don’t think about what makes a good story, or question why stories matter in the first place.

Why stories matter to museums

Museums are often thought of as places that collect, care for, display and interpret objects. While valid in many ways, this view omits the human element of museums.
An alternative approach is to think of museums as places that collate and share human experiences. This is the view put forward by Salvador Salort-Pons, Director of the Detroit Institute or Art in a recent article. More fundamentally, Salort-Pons describes museums as spaces for empathy and “a bonding medium for our society”.
Salort-Pons might as well have been writing about stories. Stories share personal experiences in an authentic and easily accessible form. They feel familiar, yet enable us to step into the shoes of others. They are full of detail, but leave space for us to insert our own thoughts, feelings and memories.
We use stories to make sense of the world. While we see ourselves in them, it is through stories that we encounter new perspectives that change how we think and feel.
At their core, stories make us care. They connect us with people and places, even stimulating the release of a hormone usually expressed during intense bonding experiences, like childbirth, breastfeeding and sex.
This emotional connection is the reason stories are so powerful. As any advertiser knows, stories drive people to take action, whether that’s buying a product, gifting a donation or making a difference in the world.
From a marketing perspective, stories can help museums raise funds, encourage visits and trigger sales. For instance, when the Tenement Museum in New York wrote about former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a fundraising mailing it told a story about Roosevelt’s work in the local area. By connecting the teenage Roosevelt’s story with the Museum’s education programmes, the call to action was obvious: donate money and you could inspire a new generation of young Eleanor Roosevelts.
Looking beyond the museum itself, stories help organisations drive change in society. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH), once a place for art and history, now a place that uses art and history to build a strong community, puts stories centre stage. The Museum’s mission statement makes this clear: ‘we find, spark, preserve, and trade stories, ideas, and elements of creativity drawn from people across Santa Cruz County’. Stories are how MAH ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections.

How to find a story

Finding potential stories isn’t usually a problem. There are stories are everywhere. Look inside a museum and you’ll find stories about the foundation of the institution, the history of the building, the collection, individual objects and the people who made, used, sold or owned them.
Museums are also full of people, who bring their own stories with them, from researchers and other visitors to staff and volunteers. There is never just one story to tell. The myriad options can make finding one single story to focus on feel overwhelming.
The sphere in which museum stories live, undiscovered or untold, is vast. Like a marble slab waiting for the sculptor’s chisel, the possibilities are endless.
Finding the right stories is less about looking for them and more about thinking through what you need. You need to know who you are as an institution, what matters to your audiences and what you want your stories to achieve. Armed with this knowledge, you can start to make decisions about the sort of stories you want to tell.
These six questions can help you make smart choices as you develop stories for exhibitions, programming, fundraising and social media.

1. Who is the story about?
2. What point of view are you taking?
3. What goes wrong?
4. What events will you share to move the story on?
5. What details will you share?
6. How does the story end?

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