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Film: Creating the inclusive museum through storytelling

This presentation on creating the inclusive museum through storytelling was given at MuseumNext Indianapolis on 26th September 2015, by Matthew Solari, Creative Director, BRC Imagination Arts. In his presentation Matthew talks about how highly impactful inclusive museums tap into the power of authentic stories to create both communal and personal moments.

Matthew: And one of the most important survival tools that we’ve developed is a story. Now, much has been written about the science of storytelling and its critical role in human evolution and what we’ve learned is that stories that deeply resonate and emotionally connect, matter. In many tribes the role of a storyteller is an important and sacred position, usually held by a priest. Stories build empathy for members of our immediate circle and strengthen the tribe, so organising people into groups comes naturally. It’s hard-wired. Us or them. Friend or foe. Republican, Democrat.

There are many story types but one of the more popular is the origin story. Origin stories tap into something fundamental to our nature. There is a reason that we crave stories about how Batman became the Dark Knight or how Wolverine became one of the x-men. Origin stories seek to answer timeless questions of who am I, where do I come from, is there a purpose to my life.

All cultures have an origin story. Throughout most of our existence much of the natural world was a sacred mystery. In creating and sharing myths and stories people were able to offer explanations about everyday natural occurrences as well as our own beginnings. For example, this composition depicts a Native American creation story about how a coyote and a flock of ducks created the lands out of mud in a world of water. As new scientific discoveries unlock some of the mysteries of the universe, a new image of our story is taking shape in the Big Bang.

Now most of us are familiar with the Judeo-Christina origin story. Actually it’s two stories. In the first story, creation took six days and man and women were created last after all the plants and animals. In the second story, creation takes one day: man is created first, then the plants and animals, and finally woman. What I find fascinating about most origin stories is they offer us a ‘how’ but rarely a ‘why’. As Elie Wiesel puts it, perhaps God made us because he loves stories. Every story should have a purpose. You need to know why you’re telling it.

See these altar boys up here, there’s a story here and the reason why I’m going to tell it to you. I grew up in a largely Roman Catholic suburb of Atlantic City, New Jersey. I went to Catholic school and I was an altar boy. I loved it. I loved the stories. They really resonated deeply with me and I seriously contemplated becoming a priest one day, so you can imagine how my world was rocked when I woke up one day and realised that I am gay!

Now my family was awesome but I suddenly found myself an outcast in my church. The stories that once made me feel included, now excluded me, put me on the outside. I was no longer welcome. And I could hide who I was and stay but that never really sat well with me, so plus I wasn’t just any gay – I was a subset of gay called a theatre queen, and theatre became my new church, my new religion, my new tribe.

So today – that’s me up there in a show in Miami about 20 years ago – today I’m a proud to be a member of the sacred tribe of priestly storytellers. My life’s work has been about telling stories that connect us, rather than divide us. It wasn’t apparent to me at the time but looking back on my life, I now see that through line, and stories have the power to change people. That change is why we tell stories, and we tell inclusive stories because it’s impossible to hate someone whose story you know.

As cultural storytellers, museums can be a powerful agent of change, but to do so, we need to tell inclusive stories that break through the barriers that divide us. So what are the keys to creating the inclusive museum? There are many but I’m going to share with you just about five of my favourites today. Before architecture, before collections, start at the heart. What is the change you want to create in your guest? Everything else follows from there. Make it universal.

Focus on the stories that we can all relate to regardless of age or language or culture and people have a hard time grasping large numbers and abstract concepts so keep it personal, keep it authentic. Authentic stories have real power. They’re like a talisman. They transport us to a new place. And make it emotional. We literally think with our gut. Facts inform but emotions persuade.

Now, let’s look at a few of the five keys in action. BRC collaborated with the new Museum of Liverpool to redefine the concept, not just of a city museum but the inclusive museum. Start at the heart. The Museum of Liverpool was to be the people’s museum that embraces economic and cultural diversity. They wanted guests to feel that their story was important and worthy of respect. Make it universal. We saw input from the broader Liverpool community and listened deeply to their stories. We incorporated community curated exhibits into the concept of the museum. Those old letters and photographs in your shoebox can join the other history defining stories that made Liverpool what it is. Reflecting those stories in the museum allows visitors to validate their stories and the values expressed by them as being museum-worthy.

Keep it personal. Nothing engages people like other people. Now recently, as an example, the Museum of Liverpool did an exhibit on April Ashley, a pioneer in the transgender community. They told her story in a very personal way. They used her story as a springboard to tell the stories of other less famous, non-famous transgender people. Now, by putting a face to the story we connect one-to-one. That connection makes us realise that the other is a human being as well, maybe someone we know, someone we love. That is true empathy.

And another recent exhibit was called ‘Black Hair’. These are deeply personal and authentic stories that explored how Black Hair has evolved and how they reflect wider social and political movements. This is true social vision. This is the people’s museum. Keep it emotional. Now people leave, perhaps knowing something about Liverpool, but more important they leave with the impactful heartfelt connections to the people whose stories that they’ve discovered.

This bold approach has been a huge success. In 2013 Museum of Liverpool was awarded the Council of European Museum prize for its role in promoting human rights. In its first year, over 1.1 million people walked through their doors, beating attendance predictions by over 30%, becoming the most attended British museum outside of London – and one of the best indicators of success, a 4.5 star rating on Trip Advisor.

Word of mouth is your best advertising. As you can see, these keys create real results but can these keys be applied to just any subject? I can tell you that we’re in the process of testing this theory on a brand new project right now so here’s what you know about me so far: my early tribe was the church. I left when I realised I was really gay, and I’ve devoted my life to telling inclusive stories that bring us together. The church, and religion in general, are so not a part of who I am anymore.

Now, imagine what’s going to go through my head when BRC got a call to help create a new museum based on one of the most controversial and divisive subjects of all time. It’s such a landmine that it is one of two topics you are told never to talk about lest it ruin a family dinner or result in all-out war. So here I am now, a gay, liberal, now atheist, being asked to work on the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.

So I thought seriously about whether or not this is a story that I could tell, that I wanted to tell. Could I find a way to tell it in an inclusive way about a book that is often used to demonise, oppress and even condemn people like me? If nothing else, the Bible does show us the power of storytelling, and as someone said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Now, people attribute that to Voltaire but they equally attribute it to Ben Parker, uncle of Peter Parker so first, as storytellers we must use that power wisely and I can tell you, although the particulars of our motivation are different around the edges, the Museum of the Bible shares our goal in creating a truly inclusive museum that welcomes people of every faith, every persuasion or non-faith.

Now first, I want to give you a little context about the museum to understand where we’re going with this. BRC is one of several designers on the project. We each have a sort of a turf that we are working on. We have a [asked] task with creating an experience that immerses guests in the narrative of the bible – what’s its overarching story and what does it try to tell us? People have been trying to answer that question for thousands of years. I have come to realise it is not an easy task.

So the stories of the Bible experience is divided into two parts – the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament unfolds in a series of highly theatrical walk-through environments that put you in the middle of the physical and spiritual journey of the Hebrew people and their relationship with their God. The New Testament is an immersive cinematic experience that plunges you into the middle of the action at a time when the world stands on the cusp of monumental transformation, and together they make up the stories of the Bible experience.

Now, remember our five keys. I’ll walk through a few of the quick examples how we’re applying these to this monumental task. First, start at the heart. The DNA of the experience can be summed up on this passage from John: ‘This is my commandment – that you love one another as I have loved you’, so we chose our north star. That tells us everything we need to know as designers and storytellers; everything else that we choose will fall from this. This is our point of view as storytellers. Every story must have a purpose.

Keep it universal. The New Testament is a story told from the perspective of Luke. Previously in our story you had to be a Jew to be God’s people, and as a gentile, he was an outsider to the family of Israel. Most of us can identify with being an outsider at one point in our lives. We have empathy for Luke. His story is our story as the message expands to include all humankind. We recognise our shared humanity and the desire that everyone, no matter their identity or belief, is welcome.

Make it personal. The story of Abraham: this one was a tough one! Yes, Abraham’s the cornerstone of three world religions but his story’s also filled with genocide, rape, slavery, and the condemnation of homosexuality. Now, how we dealt with this is we focussed again on our storyline from the heart. We narrow our lens to focus on Abraham’s personal journey in a way that most people can relate to: the desire for a family to call his own and for children to whom he can pass down his blessings.

Effective storytelling means holding close to your target and not being distracted. Keep it authentic. The subject matter is monumentally complicated and dense and we are led by a team of some of the world’s most accomplished and respected biblical scholars. The result is an approach that is stripped of theology and it’s routed in academic consensus based on history and the archaeological record. This has the dual effect of creating a universal framework that avoids dogma and the nuances of religious interpretation and it’s a pretty interesting distinction there, which even to this day, for two and a half years on the project, I’m still learning those distinctions every day.

Keep it emotional. Imagine the night of the first Passover – the fear, the anticipation of freedom; you were there on that night, experiencing it for yourself. When we can tap into someone else’s emotions, that’s the beginning of true empathy, and empathy is what it’s all about. It’s the red thread that runs through all the keys, as Richard Solomon wrote: increased empathy is often a precondition of political acceptance and the engine of reform. True freedom and equality requires acknowledging our shared humanity and replacing prejudice with empathy.

These techniques have powerful applications in the real worlds as well, as recently proven by the success of the Irish Marriage Equality referendum. Now, proponents of marriage equality broke through the tribal boundaries by presenting their case in a very strategic story-driven way. Using all forms of media they appealed to their fellow citizens by advocating for the traditional Irish values of family and civil rights. They shared their individual dreams of equality for loved ones and neighbours no matter their sexual orientation. They told true and authentic stories that were heartfelt and deeply emotional and personal.

An overwhelming majority of voters understood the commonality of these true heartfelt and personal stories and made history at the polls. In a largely Catholic country, for the first time in world history, marriage equality was granted to homosexuals through a popular vote. The results weren’t even close.

The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story. Stories are the greatest tools for fostering empathy. As spiritual descendants of the priestly tribe of storytellers, museums can serve as powerful agents of change. We have momentum at our backs and the tools to create true inclusivity and change millions of people’s lives each year. We can help guide our communities to the understanding of the traits and experiences that we share are far greater than any differences we perceive.

What will you do with your power?

Thank you.

This presentation on creating the inclusive museum through storytelling was given at MuseumNext Indianapolis on 26th September 2015, by Matthew Solari, Creative Director, BRC Imagination Arts. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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