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How museums can tell stories online that people want to hear


Why do people get lost in a novel, spend hours binge-wachting series on Netflix and forget the time while scrolling through their social media timelines, while the average visit duration on a museum website is less than 2 mintues? Our stories are at the core of our museums and they have all the potential to be equally engaging as a television series. I’ve asked scenario writers, theater makers, journalists at newspapers and UX specialists to find out how we can rewrite and redesign our stories so people won’t move away. In this talk, I share what I’ve learned.


Fransje Pansters
Digital Communication Advisor
Van Gogh Museum

Filmed at the MuseumNext Digital Summit 2019

Fransje: Well, hello everyone. I think I attended my first MuseumNext conference about eight years ago when I was an art history student. And it’s really amazing for me to be on stage today because I’ve been learning so much from this community and I’m happy to share something back today. I’m here today to tell you something about Vincent van Gogh and my passion for storytelling. So let’s start. Vincent had the dream of becoming a recognised artist, but when he died at the age of 37, he had sold only one painting. It was thanks to his brother, Theo, who set out on Vincent’s behalf to fulfil his dream, but then Theo fell ill very soon after Vincent died, and Theo passed away only half a year later. So basically, it’s thanks to Theo’s wife, [Joh 00:01:00], and their son, and then Vincent eventually became the recognised artists as we know him today.

So, since the opening of the Van Gogh Museum in 1973, Vincent’s fame has only increased. Each year around 2.3 million people visit a museum. By showing his art and spreading his life story, we keep Vincent alive for future generations to come. But it’s not just Vincent’s life story that’s worth to be remembered. Museums from all over the world are able to stay relevant, to make sure we don’t forget the things we find important or beautiful, by using storytelling. In fact, museum professionals have been using storytelling long before it became a buzzword. So, what’s new? Well, the digital world is very new. Well, it’s not very new, but it’s kind of new. Because in this time, where we’re spending a lot of our time online, our time is very limited, so that means that taking one hour for meditation may feel like forever.

Whereas taking one hour to watch a Netflix series feels like, after that, after you’ve completed one series, all you want is to watch the next episode. And then, looking at the average time span of our museum website for the collection section and the story section, people spend an average of three minutes. Now, three minutes, that is just… I mean, I’m happy with the amount of three minutes, but compared to people spending one hour on Netflix, watching series and then continuing watching more series, it’s not that much. And I wonder, because we as museums, we have excellent content. We have great stories to tell. We have all the ingredients that Netflix’s have to share a stories. So what does these Netflix companies know about storytelling… Sorry. That we don’t? Well, I think that in this online world we’re living, just telling a story is not enough. It’s about how you tell your story. And in this constant flow of information, you need to stand out.

And I consider it more as a sort of shop window. Your stories are your shop window by which you can enter the universe, or allow your visitor to enter the universe, of all the great content that lies beyond. And like a bookshop will never expose all the content and all the books they have right in their shop window, they will try and tease you and make it look appealing for you in order for you to enter the bookshop. Well, let me give you another example. Who is familiar with this woman? Raise your hand if you feel like you know her. Yes. I know, [Edith 00:03:43], you know her. Most people know her as Pocahontas. I was shocked when I found out her real life story because it’s very different from how Disney depicted. In reality, Pocahontas was kidnapped, separated from her family and young son, and later her husband was killed. She suffered from physical and sexual abuse and was forced to marry her oppressor.

Now, I’m surprised how little people know about this other side of the story of Pocahontas, because many people may also feel that Disney’s version, based on true events, is actually quite historically accurate. So I feel that we, as museums, whether we’re art museums, history museums, or science museums, need to have a stronger voice in this online Disney world to tell these other stories based on historical facts. And I think, if we want to stand out between all the fake news, it has been mentioned before today, we need to use popular storytelling techniques to our advance, in order for people to pay attention. So I wanted to know, using storytelling, then what is a good… How do you tell is a good story? And I’ve been asking advice from story experts in the Netherlands and today I want to share three lessons learned with you.

First of all, is that you have to make your story personal. Museums often do with the past, and by looking at the past, it means we often have an historical perspective based on facts. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s like Hannah explained before, it’s about making a story. Because historical facts in a row can make a story very distant because some event that happened in 16-something, what does it have to do with me? Why should I care if I can watch Netflix instead? So to illustrate that, I know I’m going to exaggerate a bit on this story, but a traditional museum story would go something like this. What you see here is a 19th century compass. It is a pocket sized compass, which is very special because it fits in your pocket.

And it’s very different from all the compasses that were used, for example, to navigate the seas. It is kept in a wooden box from a specific type of wood, and it once belong to a very special person. Now, what if I told you that a compass like this changed the course of history? That it once belonged to a little boy who was sick in bed, he was around five years old and feeling very bored. And then his father, Herman, gave him this compass as a present to kill some time. And then the little boy was fascinated by the needle who always knew where the North was and he figured, “If the needle can find out where North is, there must be some force behind it that I can understand, myself, as well.” And so, little Albert Einstein grew fascinated by science and by physics.

So online, it’s important to grab the attention of your audience and a way you can do that is by focusing on emotion, because emotion is timeless. So you need to find something that people can relate to and in this example that I gave, everybody knows what it’s like to be sick in bed, even as a child. Everybody knows what it’s like to be bored, and everybody knows what it’s like to have a present that you’re really, truly, very happy with. So by looking for emotion, you can close the gap between the past and the present. And an very nice tool, in order to reach that emotion, is to look for change. So if you don’t know where to start, look for change. You can look for change in someone’s life, what turned it upside down? Who changed someone, for the better or worse? And this can be about someone’s personal life, like an historical figure, but it can also be the personal story of an artwork.

How did people react when it was first launched and how do we think of it now? So you can also use myth, to debust myth. And also at the Van Gogh Museum, yeah, we tried to do it in very small ways as well. So for example, when talking about Vincent online, we prefer to use the age he had. So Vincent became an artist at the age of 27, which is way more appealing than saying he became an artist in the time of 1881, because knowing that he became an artist at the age of 27, you can refer back, thinking, “What was I doing when I was 27?” And maybe it’s nice to know that Vincent found his purpose in life rather late. So there’s plenty of time to find your true purpose in life, like Vincent did.

A very different example. Who of you has seen the series of Chernobyl? Oh, a lot more. Nice. It’s a story about epic failure that almost destroyed an entire continent. And this topic touches on the lives of all people in Europe yet very little is known about this nuclear disaster. So the makers of the series set out to educate people on this historical event and they did that by making a mini series of five episodes. And I feel they found an amazing way to do so.

In the first episodes, it’s all about touching the audience. It starts by visualising the horrible disaster the night before it happened. It’s also very personal, because it focuses on a life story of one firefighter, this man in particular, and his pregnant wife. It doesn’t have a helicopter view trying to do justice to all the firefighters that were involved in the event, because obviously there were more, but they chose to focus on one story instead. And what it allows you, as a viewer, to do is that you can… Well, get emotional and relate yourself to this person. So you really hope the firefighter will survive, but you truly fear he you may not. So after the first episode, it leaves you wondering two things, “Will my firefighter survive?” And second, “How could this horrible event have ever happened?” And that’s what they’re going to explain in the next four episodes.

So, what I learned from watching the series is that they try and make you care before they start explaining. They’re letting go of a chronological order and he started in middle of the action. I listened to a podcast with the director in which he explains to what extent the series was based on historical facts and what was added for fictional, and then story improvement, and I found it interesting to learn that it was actually very close to the historical events. The only thing they changed was, like I said, focusing on one person instead of a group of people in order to… Yeah, let people engage better to the characters. And again, what I find interesting in this example is that we as museums, we don’t need HBO budgets to tell stories like this. We can write personal stories and be based on facts, it’s just about how you structure and order your story. And this also touches on the second learning, which is plot over chronology.

And I’ll apologise for the scheme being in Dutch, but I think it shows very clearly what the hero’s journey is about. So basically, we learned online that to engage people, it works really well to pose questions. But not any question is a plot question, because for a plot question, something has to be at stake, there has to be a hero to root for. Your main character has a dream or a goal that he wants to reach and he has a set of qualities in which allow him to reach his goal, so that is the box with all the jewellery. And then one day, there will be an appeal for action, which is the letter. Now, if, from this point, the hero would have a smooth way to the top, to success, straightaway, there would be no story. Because you know, it would be too boring.

Someone had an idea and a goal and he reached it. “Hey, hooray.” So, what is really important is to create empathy for the main character and you can do that by letting him overcome obstacles, fears, any kinds of human interactions, so that the audience can identify with the main character, with the hero, as a person, and also with his objective. So for example, Frodo from Lord of the Rings, if he would make it in half an hour with the ring to the lava, there would be no story. We wouldn’t still be talking about it. So what is really important, is surprise. So as Frodo comes along with this dragon appears, you go like, “Oh, I really hope he will survive the dragon because he still need to get the ring to the lava. I’m not sure if he’s going to make it.” But most of the time, when an obstacle comes along, the character needs to learn something about himselves, he has to overcome fears, but he, most of the time, will get help. So we’re now with the hands, help.

And also, Disney knows this knows this very well and that’s why all their main characters often have a sidekick, like the tiny animals being funny, helping around. So like I said, you can extended this over a long story, like Lord of the Rings did, but you can also apply it in a different way, and I like to give you an example from the museum field. So this is a social campaign by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I think they took a very interesting approach. They made a summary of an existing plot line of Game of Thrones, and they retold the story using images from their collection. We’re just going to go and see the story for a bit.

This is all exciting. Where’s the Ghost, okay. What I find really smart about this use of storytelling is that the story will give you an incentive to click Next on the images. So, no other social post, using maybe eight images in a row, people will get as far as here, they actually make it to the end. Also, it’s a way to expose lesser known artworks. And the benefit, of course, is by picking the Game of Thrones bloodline, they can use the hashtag as well, and this will generate lots of traffic. Also, what I like about is about it is that it’s a format with repetition. So after every episode, they can reuse the format, use another plot line, and expose different types of art from their collection. And also, by tapping into current events, by Game of Thrones that was very popular at the time, they make it very personal, because people watching Game of Thrones, it has a certain relevance to them. But now, the best of all this, is that the power is it a plot line and the copywriting, which is obviously very cost-effective to do.

My last point is to keep it short. Now you seem very obvious, but I noticed that in the museum world, we often have the tendency that we want to be complete in the stories that we tell, which means that we want to explain everything at once. And my point is, you don’t have to explain it all at once. Remember the shop window. If you have your full stock in the shop window, nobody will enter your shop because they’re like, “Whoa, that’s a lot of books. I’m not sure what to go for when I’m entering to shop.” So it’s okay to make people curious and then tell more. It’s basically what the entire Chernobyl series did. They were first touching you, trying to make you care, and only then they were explaining. And what it does, it creates an internal motivation for your visitor, or your audience, to look for more.

Now, some more examples from the museum field. This is an example from the Wellcome Collection, and it’s a museum that’s connecting science, medicine, life, and art. And I feel they have a very interesting approach on painful realities, or even female pain, because history is often focused on a male perspective and they chose to have a female perspective instead. They’re breaking taboo by focusing on a topic that is not often talked about, for example, female pain around having a period. The stories in the series are both funny and personal and based on facts, and it explains how female pain was long considered as a mental illness. And each of these stories is focusing on a specific aspect of female pain. So in the end, a series or a sequence, what it allows you to do is to focus on one topic in particular, focus on touching the audience. And then once they’re triggered, once they’re engaged with your topic, they realise, “Hey, there is even much more, and maybe next week there will be the next episode of this series and I want to keep track of that.”

And so, the stories altogether will illustrate the bigger picture, instead of saying, “Hey, I have this amazing story for you and I want you to hear it all at once.” Another example, from my neighbours, from the Rijksmuseum, they have the Rijks Stories, and they have tapped into a format that is very known online, like the lists of Five Things You Need You Know About, Ten Things You Need To Know About. And there are two ways they did it, and I think they did it really well. So the first one is about a comparisment between Rembrandt and Velasquez, some similarities you didn’t expect between the two artists.

And then the other one, below, is maybe more… Well, silly topic, but cats, in a museum’s collection. Now, many people would feel like this is not an art historical topic, of showing just 10 cats, but it is really appealing to all the popular cat memes online, and it’s a smart way to connect your collection to current affairs in a very playful way. And yet people who click on it will actually see 10 cats from the collection, which is way more than they would otherwise see. Also in the comparisment between Rembrandt and Velasquez, every step of the 10, or of the 10 things, has an image that goes along and a caption that has the length and the swiftness of a social posts. And what it allows for your reader to do is that it’s very easy to keep track, because they know that point three… Saying, “Okay, 10 more is going to come. Oh, seven more is going to come, because it has to be 10 in the end.” So it’s easy to keep your attention because you know what will come next.

So what I hope you will take home, basically, is just a summary of what I explained before. But first of all, you have to make your stories personal. You can look for change because if you look for change, that’s often where the emotion lies, and emotion is relatable. It’s okay to first touch people and only then explain. And again, focus on one main character instead of having an helicopter view of all historical characters involved. Coming to the second point, plot over chronology, the hero’s journey. If you Google that online, there’s lots of explanation, blogs, on how to use the format, but it’s a tool to make your story more engaging. And to keep in mind, something has to be at stake. You have to create sympathy for your hero or your main character. And remember that every hero has a weakness, and also, it works really well to surprise on the way to success.

If you feel like, “Well, I’m not sure how I can apply this to my collection or to the stories that I have to share.” You can always try to keep it really short. Focus on one aspect that you want to share, and altogether they will make up the bigger picture. Make lists and deliver. And I put it there because we all know there’s nothing more annoying than having clickbait, “10 Things You Didn’t Know About,” and then there’s nothing behind the link [inaudible 00:20:02]. But being historically accurate institutions, we can actually deliver. Now for the Van Gogh Museum, together with the educational department, based on these insights, we’re defining our own rules of storytelling. And we have came to the conclusion that not all rules apply to us.

So for example, I’m making it personal, someone advised us, “Well, you’re always dealing with this Vincent person, wouldn’t it be nice to tell the same story from his brother’s perspective, Theo. Because what is it like to have a brother like Vincent, who is highly creative, but needs your support?” And I thought that was an amazing idea, but then we discussed it and other colleagues said, “Well, it’s kind of hard to back that up, because Vincent wrote all his letters. So we know what his fears are, what he dreamed of, so we can all back that up. But for Theo, we have to invent a lot of things and then it would become more fictional.” So I’m aware that we are, in a way, very lucky by all the letters that he wrote.

But, like I showed in some of the examples of Einstein, it can also be like a very small, fun, fact that you know about a certain artwork. Or even in the lists, you can make use of myths that you want to debust. For a contemporary art, many people say like, “My daughter of five can do this as well.” Well, why not make a blog post about that? Stating, “My daughter of five can, or maybe cannot, do this,” and why she cannot do it and then explain. Because that is the questions that will people find familiar and can relate to.

So my name is Fransje. I’m a webmaster at the Van Gogh Museum, and I really love to continue the conversation after this event. So if you have any questions, please get in touch. Thank you.

Sarah: Thank you, Fransje. And please, if you want, you can hold on to the mic.

Fransje: Sure.

Sarah: Great, and interesting, by the way, about that Theo van Gogh narrative. Because Vincent was writing the letters to Theo and he didn’t write back or they’re not written in all these… I mean, just-

Fransje: Theo wrote back, but Vincent wasn’t as organised as his brother, so yeah.

Sarah: Right. Okay. Okay. So there it is. This is what I [inaudible 00:00:22:20]. Okay. Just so. Okay. Question. Can this approach to storytelling bring museums closer to popular culture and are there new possibilities of connection with movie and music industry?

Fransje: Oh.

Sarah: Tell us.

Fransje: Bringing it closer? Yes, I do believe we can do that, because I feel that it’s not about all the historical facts we already have. It’s not like we have to do bunches of new research, it’s just looking at the same historical events but then with a different perspective. To see if you can find a change, to see if you can have any of these little hooks which you can use to tell the story in a different way. Or even by not using a chronological way of telling your story and just starting from the action, to see what it does for you.

And I really feel that all the stories online who do that, you can stick out better and keep your audience’s attention better.

Sarah: Interpretation writers have to condense stories. Why will people read about an object online if we know they won’t read about it in a museum?

Fransje: Ah, good question. I think it’s about posing the curiosity. So if you have really good copywriters or you can make engaging sentences, for example, when you’re browsing your timeline on a metro ride, why wouldn’t you be able to stand out? So it’s about these little moments that you can really grab attention for your audience.

Sarah: And from the examples that you called, or maybe also from the Van Gogh Museum, what are the responses from more conservative visitors?

Fransje: Well-

Sarah: Do you know?

Fransje: … No. No, because we haven’t started doing this yet. So like I said, these are the lessons that came back from the experts, and I think they’re all very interesting and I’m trying to see how we can apply them in our daily business. And like I said, some of the ideas will not be very helpful to us because we cannot back it up, but they might be very helpful to you, and the other way around. So that’s why I wanted to share them, today, with you.

Sarah: And are you already prepared for the conservative visitor, as to say like the critical, or the visitors that come to you and…

Fransje: Well, it’s not that we’re going to go all goofy on historical facts. So we always have to find a balance between being emotional and being historically accurate. But as long as the balance is okay and you can back up your story, I think there’s no need to worry about.

Sarah: All right. Well, thank you very much Fransje. Let’s hear it for Fransje.

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