In a sense, what all museums have in common is that they tell stories. They tell them through art, science, history, artifacts, objects, artworks, performances, education, and more. They help people visualize the past and gain empathy for societies and people. They engage the imagination of visitors and build bridges between cultures over space and time. Salvador Salort-Pons, Director of the Detroit Institute of Art, calls museums “community builders that emphasize our rich, diverse cultures as a bonding medium for our society.”
A lot of that community building happens by way of storytelling, but storytelling by its very nature is fluid. A good story feels universal and familiar, but includes captivating detail we’ve never heard or seen anywhere else. Likewise, a good museum taps into visitor curiosity and empathy with a collection of stories that draws people in. There’s no one single formula, no workbook for museums to follow to tell their tales well. It’s up to each museum to weave its storylines together in the way it designs exhibits and leads visitors through intentional experiences.
One thing every great story does? Show, not tell.
Here are a few of our favorite museum storytellers, which have all managed to show with unique and compelling experiences. Let them inspire you, and learn a few strategic ways to infuse more museum storytelling into the experience you offer.
In 1666, the Great Fire of London raged for five straight days, destroying a third of the city and rendering a hundred thousand people homeless. A spark in a bakery on Pudding Lane became a blaze that changed the fate of the city. Most of the churches and over 13,000 houses burned to the ground, forever changing London’s architecture. This is just one of the historic stories told by the Galleries of Modern London – part of the greater Museum of London – with exhibits that span the last several centuries.
Dr. Cathy Ross, prior Director of Collections and Learning at the Museum of London, once said “Story-telling is a useful short-hand for what we were trying to do and the galleries can be said to have the look and feel of a story-experience, as far as the visitor is concerned.” She described how the Galleries of Modern London wing was designed with museum storytelling in mind. In fact, she likens the museum’s permanent exhibits to “the museum-equivalent of a blockbuster novel” – or better yet, “a Hollywood film.”
Any good film has drama, and the Galleries of Modern London is no exception. Housing 7,000 artifacts and objects, a chronological tour through the Galleries takes the visitors on a journey through the Victorian era, the Suffragette movement, and the last century’s worth of iconic British fashion, among other chapters. In-person exhibits are complemented by digital storytelling on the museum’s website, where virtual visitors can learn more about definitive movements and moments in London’s rich history.
One takeaway for your museum’s storytelling: Pinpoint the stories you have to tell, as well as your target audience, and let that data inform your creativity.
Not all stories are big. Some, in fact, are very small.
Little BIG City Berlin is an ingenious exhibit that tells the history of Berlin via a miniature model city, which incorporates mechanical movement, holograms, projectors, and other special effects. Visitors walk through the set to learn the stories of the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, the rise of Nazism, and the building of the Berlin Wall within Germany’s capital city.
Building a realistic little city is a remarkable creative feat on its own, but what makes Little BIG City Berlin so entrancing is that movement and visitor interaction create an immersive experience through the story arc of Berlin over time. In fact, visitors can “make the Berlin Wall fall” at the touch of a button. The museum boasts 50 such buttons, pedals, and games that “let you experience history in an interactive and entertaining way.”
One takeaway for your museum’s storytelling: Engaging your audience with interactive displays draws them into the story.
The true story of Anne Frank is one of the most poignant ever told, and it all began with the post-mortem publishing of Frank’s journals, written while she was a young girl in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. Today, the Anne Frank House tells her story to over a million visitors from around the world every year. They come to see the cramped annex where she and her family – along with some family friends – hid for roughly two years before their discovery by the Nazis.
This museum was founded because of a highly compelling story that’s specific to a very particular place. Many original items stand in the house, helping dramatize the Frank’s experience in an authentic way all these years later. But to tell the story well, and to make it relevant to a contemporary audience, requires a deft balance of historic authenticity and modern sentiment.
Tickets to the attraction typically sell out two months in advance, but a virtual reality version of the experience now enables those who can’t secure tickets to (and travel to) the house in Amsterdam. Still, many visitors insist that experiencing the Anne Frank house in person is the only way to properly understand the depth of this tragic and yet, somehow, uplifting story.
One thing to know about the Anne Frank Museum: You are not allowed to take pictures while inside. Instead, visitors are encouraged to take their time during their allotted hour onsite and be present in the experience in order to remember it later.
One takeaway for your museum’s storytelling: What’s the tenor of your story? Is it tragic? Somber? Reflective? Creative? Inspiring? All of the above? Align the experience with that ultimate aim and reiterate it in your policies and marketing.
Jumping forward in history, when New York’s Twin Towers were destroyed and nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks of 2001, it made a huge impact not only on the skyline of New York but on the world. Now, in place of the towers, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum honors those who were killed and welcomes visitors in somber reflection – but also tells the story in a timeless and highly personal way.
Among the features that greet visitors as they enter the site, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum includes the preserved Survivors’ Stairs, which helped hundreds of people escape to safety that day; a quote forced from recovered World Trade Center steel – “No day shall erase you from the memory of time; and a stunning work of mosaic art called “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning.” The multimedia experience is profound and provocative, and no one who visits will walk away unaffected.
One takeaway for your museum’s storytelling: So much expertise and thought went into the creation of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. As you design your own exhibits, consider working with outside experts — architects, artists, writers, and traditional storytellers who understand how to connect with people through story.
Of all the storytellers of all time, Scheherazade may be the most famous. The narrator in the Middle Eastern collection of stories One Thousand and One Nights was fabled to save the lives of herself and her children by telling stories for – you guessed it – 1,001 nights. Her legendary creativity helped her escape the wrath of King Shahryar, who had vowed to avenge his cheating wife by bedding and then slaughtering a virgin every day.
At the British Museum, Egyptian performer Chirine El Ansary is the star of the event 1001 Nights, an evening of storytelling some of Scheherazade’s stories of demons, thieves, and fools. This “storytime for grownups” is just one example of a museum event that takes the art of museum storytelling to a sublime level.
Of course, stories are not just for children. Some are not for children at all!
The Amsterdam attraction Red Light Secrets is “the world’s first and only prostitution museum,” and includes a visit to a real brothel in its original state – the scene, incidentally, of the unsolved murder of the famous prostitute Chinese Annie. Red Light Secrets offers a borderline scandalous experience that invites visitors behind the doors and windows of a brothel, with 12 free “explicit audio stories” included in the price of a ticket.
Yes, it’s a titillating story, but Red Lights Secrets also divulges the rich history of prostitution, which dates back at least to the earliest scriptures in the Bible, in a factual way. By telling the entire story of prostitution in Amsterdam and the world, Red Light Secrets helps legitimize the world’s oldest profession.
One takeaway for your museum’s storytelling: Don’t necessarily shy away from controversial content. In fact, it can often be a sensational hit.
You might think of a museum as a collection of things, but it’s really a collection of stories told from a particular and intentional point of view. With this perspective, you can better define your audience and give them a preview of the visitor experience before they arrive.
One innovative way to tackle storytelling in your museum? Consider creating an artist residency program, and bring in fresh talent to help you craft and create new stories. Read more about museum artist residency programs here.
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