I’m now more than halfway through my time in the US, and life has been frantic but fascinating, in and beyond the museum world. There’ve been monsoon rains, rattlesnakes, and rats, and many quirky encounters with thick-accented New Yorkers in buses, ubers, and ramshackle shops.
But what’s struck me most (aside from a particularly vicious rat) is the sheer diversity of the museum sector, and the generosity of the many talented people I’ve met.
Time for a series of highlights – separate posts, no particular order. I’ll add to it as I go (including one for my hosts, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum – but I’ll save that for a little later).
- Connected Worlds, NYSCI – immersive, digital, physical storytelling
- Noah’s Ark, Skirball, LA – immersive, physical storytelling
- Desert at Night, Cactus to Coast, San Diego Natural History Museum – immersive, bilingual storytelling [coming soon]
My main focus in the US is on how new technologies are being applied to storytelling in museums, including bilingual interpretation, but some of the best experiences haven’t been tech-heavy/savvy at all. Which just goes to show (as if we didn’t know it already) that innovation comes in many forms and doesn’t equate to technology. But things get really exciting when tech enhances what we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do – and when it helps us tick some of the boxes below.
6 boxes to tick in museum storytelling
Aye, I’m aware of the irony. How can powerful experiences be about box ticking? Well, they’re not, and there’s never going to be one right way to tell stories and engage visitors in museums. That said, these six general traits just keep coming through – as often as not because of their absence. They’re not rocket science, but they’re still surprisingly rare.
- Emotional connection and powerful storytelling
- Social connection and participation
- Physicality (embodied, sensory experiences)
- Less is more
- Orientation (unless getting lost is the idea)
- Real stuff (real objects, purposes, opportunities, or issues)
I’ve just noticed that if this were an acrostic poem, it would spell (or misspell) ESPLOR. Or SLOPER. Take your pick, because don’t we museum-ers just love our acronyms.
For 1, I specifically say ‘storytelling’ rather than ‘stories’. Museums are storehouses of great stories: fabulous raw material, objects with multiple voices just waiting to be revealed. But those stories aren’t always told in a powerful way – in a way that does them justice or really connects them with people. When they’re not, they’re reduced to mere information. And in a world where information is mobile and omnipresent – at our fingertips anywhere, any time – museums simply cannot afford to stay stuck in that place. That’s the route to irrelevance.
None of these traits are specific to the digital realm, of course, but apply there as everywhere else. The highlights to date nail a number if not all of them. I’ll give examples as I go. And I’ll take a more thematic approach to them later too.
Asking the right questions
In all the highlights, the exhibit developers have asked themselves:
- Who is our primary audience? (They haven’t been afraid to narrow that down – but in doing so have achieved inclusion rather than exclusion.)
- What will give them the most powerful, concrete, connected experience of this topic?
- How can we tap into their lives and emotions?
- How can we inject something special or magical into the experience?
- Where might technology help, and where might it hinder us?
The results are striking. Go visit if you can.