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Museum storytelling that demands attention on digital platforms


How do we approach storytelling on digital platforms in a way that makes best use of the various mediums available and competes against all the other content around to grab people’s attention and hold it?

In this talk, we’ll share our editorial approach and how we go about finding the right time, place, and method to tell a story.

This approach has enabled us to better connect with people and to fulfil our aims as an organisation – it’s also encouraging people to visit in person too.


Alice White
Digital Editor
Wellcome Collection

Kirsten Riley
Head of Social Media and Digital Editor
Wellcome Collection

This presentation was filmed at MuseumNext NYC in Autumn 2019.

Alice: Hey, hello everybody, this is quite a large stage. So today we’ve heard lots of incredible people talking about different ways to do storytelling, some in very, very high tech ways, and we’ve really seen a focus on access diversity, and inclusion, and those telling stories and thinking about trying to reach new audiences and engage new people is something that we’re really passionate about Wellcome.

So we’re going to talk to you about some practical things that we’ve done. Most of what we’re going to talk about today is not high tech at all, it could be done in different ways and scaled in different ways, and we’re going to talk to you about what we’ve done and what’s worked for us. But we’ll sum up with some of the ways that that could be adapted, we think, to work in other places for other organisations that are bigger, or smaller, or have different size, teams, those sorts of things.

So let’s get going. Who are we? Kirsten and I are in the digital content team at Wellcome Collection. So we produce digital content, and we are part of Wellcome Collection. And if any of you didn’t get to go last year and visit, this is our organisation, this is the reading room and this is our new exhibition, Being Human, that just opened this year, that we’re very proud of. And Wellcome Collection is a physical space on Eastern road in London, and it’s an organisation that describes itself as a free museum and library for the incurably curious. And the incurably bit hopefully doesn’t refer to any conditions that our audiences have to suffer from necessarily, it’s more the case that we are about health and getting people questioning and thinking about health.

Kirsten: Adam mentioned there about mission and museums having a mission, and I think that that’s extremely important. It’s easy to lose sight of that as Adam said, when you’re busy and it’s difficult, but I think in terms of the Wellcome Collection, our mission is definitely a very important one, is to challenge how people think and feel about their own health. And we do that through connecting science, medicine, life, and art in general, and that’s quite a tall order, and we do that through the traditional ways that we all convene our missions through exhibitions and through events, but we also have a range of digital formats that we convey that mission with.

And I think the way that we describe it is trying to make sure that in those digital platforms, we’re not always issuing calls to action, but rather calls to think. I think that’s very important. And someone mentioned earlier about the dichotomy, if you like, between the digital aspect of the museum and the physical museum. And I think that the way that we’ve described it is very much that for us, the digital stories and the digital platforms are not a route to the museum, they are in fact the museum.

Alice: So today we’re going to talk to you a little bit about storytelling and the different places and ways that we do storytelling. And I really want to strongly emphasise right now that this is not a perfect how to, this is not a formula that is a guaranteed success, this is a very much a work in progress, we’re still learning, and we are very keen to hear from you if you have any suggestions about ways that we can do this better. And we’ll talk about some of the research that we are continually doing to try and figure that out for ourselves as well.

So what are we doing and where? This is our website. On the left is the homepage that you will get to if you first search for Wellcome Collection, and on the right is something that makes it a little bit special, which is the stories tab. Not all museums have a stories tab, it’s often not something that people expect for us to have, but we do, we do storytelling. So if you can’t come to an exhibition and encounter the stories told there, by walking around, you will get to read them wherever you are.

This is a range of some of the articles that we’ve published recently. As you would expect from a museum website, the storytelling often takes the form of written articles, so these are some of those. And how we do that is we invite people to pitch to us, and then we work with them to develop their pitch so that we have a really clear sense, both us as editors and them as storytellers.

What is this story? Because we found that mostly about 750 words is the length of people’s interests, so we don’t have very long necessarily to do storytelling. And if we want people to go away with a clear sense of what the story is, they’ve been told, if we want people to go away feeling like they understood what the questions were that they now have, or what the message was, we need to be quite concise. So the pitch model is really important for that.

And another thing that’s a little bit different, I guess, is that the stories that are told here are not just curators and staff, this isn’t the voice of the organisation telling you urban knowledge. Most of the things that we publish are actually written by people outside of our organisation.

So we’re bringing in new perspectives. So even when we are talking about exhibitions, which we don’t always, you’ll see a lot of these things don’t seem to relate to any exhibition that we’ve held recently, they just relate to our broad themes of getting people thinking about health and wellbeing. But even when they are about our exhibitions, they’re a bit of a different perspective because it’s not just the curator’s view, who else can tell stories, who else might have a view on this, who doesn’t necessarily get to curate an exhibition, but can definitely do an interesting article.

And topics, really quite a broad range of topics. So we have ranged from, for example, how Brits very surprisingly slowly came to accept soft toilet paper in their lives, over the course of the 20th century, to what it’s like today to try and locate and use accessible toilets if you’re a wheelchair user. Not everything is about toilets, we do give you on that as hopefully this indicates, but yes, so a broad range of subjects that links in with our collections, but doesn’t have to, it links in with our exhibitions, but it doesn’t have to.

Kirsten: Again, going back to some of the talks earlier, we’re all very lucky to work in museums, there’s obviously challenges, but I think we’re all very lucky to work with some really, really exciting content, and we find that content every day. One of the formats that we have for our stories is something that we’ve called In pictures. And it’s that journalistic approach that you see in other different types of platforms and newspapers, but what we’ve done is actually take it from our collections and be able to tell a narrative through some of the images from our amazing library that we have, these are just a few of them here.

Now, we used to have a format, this was an evolving process, and I think that’s one of the key themes throughout this presentation here is that this whole thing is always evolving. This came out of what we called listicles and something you see on BuzzFeed quite a lot, where it’s just a list of images, and so this is nice. And this evolved into something where actually we took a whole bunch of images and created a real narrative arc and those images, which I think is important.

And we’ve got a range of things, thankfully, there’s no toilet paper here, there’s no toilets, but Beth defined signs of Victorian air ballooning to Chinese pillow history, that is a thing definitely. And also we’ve got faces from the archives, so people that are perhaps unsung heroes of medicine and science, and we throw some light on those. And related to this, there’s also the fact that we take those pictures and then create them as Twitter threads and be able to serve that audience where they are. So we’re not always expecting people to just come directly to us, we’re going to where the user is.

Alice: And as well as showcasing that incredible history and some of the things that we have, we’re trying to bring this right up to the modern day. So our collections development team are collecting things right now that relate to how people live in the world and how their health is impacted by different factors, such as, for example, climate change and keeping things contemporary, and relevant, and bringing our stuff up-to-date is something that we try and do with our storytelling as well.

So we have Photo stories where we have photographers sharing their photographs along with their personal perspectives on why they took these photographs and what they mean to them, and that’s a really great way for people to tell their stories. And what I love and I think is really special is that particularly for the obesity and Britain’s boys and transitioning in the family album, examples here, we have quotes from the participants in the photographs, as well as from the photographers themselves. There’s that layering of voices of the different perspectives going on.

So as well as the in pictures and as well as the traditional articles, which as I said, usually around 750 words, we also have serials, because some stories take a lot more unpacking frankly than you can do in 750 words. So serials give us the chance to tell a story over six parts published once a week, every Thursday, about 1,000 words each and the serials are told by one person, and really give that person a chance to explore a topic from lots of different angles and to give their personal insight.

So the skin bleaching serial that you see on the left touches upon history, science, bad products that could be harmful, personal experiences and the motivations of why people still might want to do that today. And then on the right hand side here, we’ve got the painful reality serial that we commissioned from an incredible historian called J Verde.

And J wrote for us about how medics have sought to understand pain through history. So that’s a topic that generally we’ve all experienced pain at some point in our lives, we can all relate to, but she talks about the political aspects of this story and how the bodies of women and people of colour have been used to try and figure out how the human body works and advanced medicine. And her work is not just a history, even though she’s a historian, this story is told through her personal perspective of someone who is trying to get a diagnosis for mysterious and excruciating pain that ended up being diagnosed as endometriosis, which lots of people experience, but there are still so many questions about today.

So that really helps people to understand the reason why we do this, the reason why they should care and why this history matters is because we don’t have all the answers. And I think these things still have their echoes and affect people in the modern world. It’s not just history, it’s still living and weaving those narratives together like that is a really great way of sharing that.

Sometimes we don’t just want to hear from one person over a long narrative, we want to hear a bunch of different angles on the same topic. So we have theme weeks and we have guest editor weeks. So theme weeks might be something on a particular topic, we recently had one on music, for example, lots of different perspectives on music. We’ve got, in my own words, a set of five stories where people talk about what it’s like to live as them and their health and wellbeing.

And on the right side, we have different voices, which is a guest editor week. We got Francesca Martinez, who’s an amazing woman to invite anyone she wanted to tell stories. She got to choose who the five people were, who told the stories on her theme week. She got to choose the topic and she chose the topic of activism, and what gets people into activism? What are the personal stories that make them want to change the world? And those stories are incredible.

And the wonderful thing about guest editor weeks is that like some of you might do Twitter takeovers, for example, that’s a way of reaching people and finding people who might not normally have heard of us, and it’s a way for us to commission people who we might not normally have heard of. So that’s a really exciting way of finding new voices to talk passionately about topics that are really important to them and giving people a platform. We talked about power earlier, and very few of us raised our hands. We’ve got loads of power, we’ve got great website, we’ve got social channels, we should give that to people so that they can use that.

Kirsten: And I think that’s really heavy. It’s not all serious, thankfully, but no, of course… Going back to mesh and we have a mesh and we have a responsibility, and actually we do, we do all have power to be able to use our platform and to use that platform for other people as well. But when I say it’s not all serious, we commission a series of web comics that we call body squabbles. These are done by one of our VAEAs, visitor experience assistant, in the museum. They are weekly and they allow us to explore the more random and curious aspects of our health and wellbeing in a more lighthearted way.

We look at these and they’re fun, but actually we don’t know what we’re going to get every week until it arrives two days before. We don’t sensor it, we don’t gate it, we allow this person that freedom and that space to be able to say, “You create something for us.” And I think that’s important as a museum as well to sometimes step back from control. And I think that these web comics definitely prove that stories don’t have to be serious to matter, and I think that’s important as well.

We’re on to the next one. Now this is my comfort zone here, I’m afraid, because I manage Wellcome Collection’s social media. I don’t know whether I should apologise for that. I don’t know if any of you have actually seen Wellcome Collection’s social media, you can get a flavour of it here, I’m sure. Yes, it’s all serious of course, it’s a serious business, museums.

Interestingly, more social activity or the function of social is based in marketing most of the time, and Wellcome Collection it’s based on our digital content team alongside stories, and that really says a lot about the way that we approach social media. We approach it with an editorial mindset. That doesn’t mean that in every post we can tell a story and that there’s a beginning, middle and end, because on Twitter things are a bit difficult, but we approach it with that editorial mindset.

We are not going on to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and saying, “Buy this, click, this link, visit us.” We are actually saying, “This is a piece of content, consume it at your leisure, enjoy it, we’re not asking anything for it.” And I think that’s important. We’ve got a responsibility to deliver content and stories.

One person mentioned earlier on about, we make stories in all of our museums, but how do we get people to see them? And I think that one of the things that we do in social media as well is obviously support the promotion and marketing of the stories that we do on the platform, and that’s a big part of that as well.

Sorry, this is going to be a recurring thing. I’m sorry, I apologise. No, I’m sorry, not sorry, that kind of thing. So we saw Facebook earlier, Facebook we used to predominantly drive traffic to our website and to our own channels. On Instagram, it’s more about us building the brand. This is not a marketing channel for us, this is very much about delivering content where users are and allowing them to enjoy it there.

And then the next one, I did warn you, sorry. The reason why we’ve got these three up here I should say is because they were the most popular posts of the last 12 months. It seems as if the internet, God, you try and give people culture and this is what the like. Okay, what can I do?

But on Twitter, as you can see, it’s all about those trending topics, and engaging, and things. Twitter is definitely the channel where we engage more and dialogue with people and try and find what people what are interested in, and it’s very responsive, it’s very new. So that’s what that reflects there as well.

And this is one of the interesting things, we started to commission content. So we talked about stories, but we started to commission content now for Twitter itself, and the same way as we would commission an article or blog post, whatever you want to call it, and we commissioned these takeovers. This one is by someone called Dr. K. Lester known as Whores of Yore. You should check her out, she’s amazing. She’s a professor of sex history, but we gave her a platform to [inaudible 00:18:37] allowed her voice to come through.

Again, it wasn’t a censored or a curated sort of thing, this is very much her voice in our platform, together it’s a collaboration. And this one was about how sexual censorship on the internet is actually damaging for women’s health and safety, and that’s a really important topic. So going from dick pics to censorship, we cover quite a lot on social.

Alice: Yes, we really do. So as well as having our own website and our own social channels, we’ve also put lots and lots of content out on to Wikimedia. And this is important for us because it’s not just about people telling stories for us in our spaces, it’s also about trying to be generous and sharing our content so that people can use it in their own stories. They are completely in charge of what they want to do with it, and where, and how.

So we’ve uploaded a huge number of images to Wiki Cummins, and I think what’s fascinating for us about that, is that looking at the stats, the most used and most viewed images from our collections on Wikipedia, where people are using those are completely different to the sorts of things that people are searching for on our site. We know that the types of content and the types of storytelling that happened with our stuff there are totally different from what happens with us. And that’s exciting actually. And every now and again, it gives us insight into a new story we should be telling.

There’s a picture that we have that’s of a demon called Layla, and that got us thinking, “We’ve got loads of female demons, people are obviously interested in them. We should think about telling some stories about this. What is it about these female demons that’s really freaked people out through history?” So that’s a bit of a sneak preview of something that we might have coming up in the future.

And it’s not just about our stuff, we also run workshops, Wiki editing workshops to enable people to edit, so that they know how, so that they can use the stuff from our collections, if they want to and know how they can put that out there into the world, but also to just share the stories that matter to them. And most of the workshops that we do around Wikipedia are about increasing the representation of women, of people, of colour, of LGBTQ plus people, people who are disabled and these people and the work that they have done, and the incredible contributions to society that people have made that often don’t get as much acknowledgement as they should.

So if that feeds back again into our own platforms and our own storytelling, that’s brilliant, but if it doesn’t, then it’s fine that it lives in a different space. We’re still fulfilling our mission of getting people to think and feel differently about health, even if it’s not on our website, and that’s good by us.

So now we’re just going to share some things that we’ve learned along the way, in case that’s useful to you. We’ve developed some guidelines, things like what’s a good article length, for example, like I said, we know that about 750 words is mostly good. Sometimes we have a discussion as a team of editors and think, “No, this really needs to be longer,” or “this could be told in a different way.”

What’s interesting is that a lot of the pictures we get this needs to be a serial told over six parts, and then we talk about it and we’re like, “No, there’s one story here, this can be done in 700 words.” And getting to work with people to frame things is really important.

And we have image guidelines to think about how do we not just show a bunch of images that illustrate exactly what the story is saying, but do something to further that. So we had an article on AI and the future of maybe extending people’s life after they die, and it had these fantastic photographs of a robot walking his dog and playing with his kid to get people thinking, “Is that still my dad? Is that a robot with intelligence downloaded into them?” Who knows? And we also have some principles up here that Kirsten can talk to you. If you have any questions, content factors, we try and have as many of those incorporated into our stuff as possible to make it work. And not all of these are going to work for everywhere, but this is something that we try and think about.

So supporting our contributors, this is really important. If you’re going to tell stories, we really believe we need to make sure that we’re supporting the people who are doing the storytelling, especially if that’s people outside of our building who don’t have access to all of the things that we do. In our organisation we’re very lucky, so we pay our contributors. This might not be something that works for every organisation. We’ve had lots of conversations with other organisations and other places, and it might be that a gift card for your shop might be a good payment, or it might be a book or a book voucher, or it might be a chance to go behind the scenes with your curators and spend time in the museum and have privileged access to stuff that you don’t grant often, might be a really great way of giving someone something back for their time beyond the fact that they get to put it on their CV.

We make sure that we copyedit and proofread stuff. We’re lucky that we have real live copy editors and proofreaders, but there are things like Grammarly that you can use to run things through and just give them a sense check so that there’s another pair of eyes on things. We take time, like I said, to try and commission the right images and ask if people would like to appear in the images of their work that go with their work.

Being flexible, this one is the hardest thing. We’ve had contributors who have had personal circumstances come up that have meant we’ve had to move their posts and frantically scramble to get something else ready to bring forward at a moment’s notice, sometimes multiple times. But we believed in their story when they commissioned it. It’s important that we tell it and that they have the time to tell it as and when they’re ready.

And so, us having to do a bit of a frantic scramble every now and again is worth it for that, or maybe we could just not publish something that week. We were able to bring stuff forward, but if you can’t then sometimes doing the right thing and giving the people sometimes is important. And asking people how they are. When we’re asking people to open their hearts and share really personal things, I think it’s really important for us to keep asking how they’re doing. And if there’s something that we can do better, that we’re always learning new things, and there are always things that we can find out about how to better support our contributors.

And there are loads of people who know way more than us, loads, and loads, and loads of people. So how do we find stories? There are so many stories in the world, but we as a team have a narrow subset of views, relatively speaking. We can’t be everywhere, we can’t be everyone, so how do we do that? And we have an incredible access diversity and inclusion team. Isn’t this picture lovely? They’re great. And they give us excellent advice. They’re a great sounding board and they’re great at recommending things.

We also have interest groups at Wellcome, staff networks, like the BAME Network or the LGBTQ Network. So we have networks of people, why not ask them for their advice? And we also do a lot of external hunting around, asking for word of mouth, putting in the research time. So this picture up the top that I mentioned actually earlier the article about public toilets, we worked really, really hard to find a photographer who had that personal view of trying to find those kinds of toilets.

So how are we doing? I’m going to whiz through this really, really quickly, but basically I don’t expect you to listen to us if we don’t have any evidence that we think this is working. So on the left we have page views. As you can see, our page views have increased significantly. This is the same quarter, July to September every year for the past three years. And we know we’re getting lots more people, we’re getting lots more loyal people returning to read because they know what they can expect from us and they like to see it there, and we’re also getting loads of new visitors, which is exciting.

The diagram on the right is our bounce rate, which has dropped through the floor, which is super exciting because it means that when people get to us, they’re staying, they’re reading, they’re engaging, we are doing that thing where we are getting them to think because they haven’t clicked on something and gone, “Not for me,” and promptly left again. So these things are really, really important.

Our time spent reading actually has decreased, and we don’t necessarily mind about that. This year we’ve introduced the image gallery format and that just takes less time to consume, to engage with. So thinking about those numbers, we’re okay with that. User research is really important to us. It’s really hard to get a sense of what people think about the stuff that you’re writing, the stories that you’re telling, unless you ask them.

And we’re not the only people who do storytelling, I’m sure there are lots of people in this room who do storytelling at their museum, but still in the vastness of the internet, it’s felt to be a relatively unique and really special thing. People are interested in the authors, they’re interested in hearing different perspectives from these museum authorities.

Kirsten: I think we’re getting thrown off stage. So what I’m going to say, in a good way, I think we’ve got a huge presentation here, and what we want to see is one thing that came up a lot was how do we actually measure whether this is affecting people? We can have lots of stats, we can have lots of numbers, how do we know it’s actually emotionally resonating with people? And one way that we do that is looking at comments on social media. And I think that one of the things that came out of looking at all of the comments that we collated over the period of the last year was that this is from the pain series, which was a very big and serious series of narratives, and this is from Rob’s web comic that we do. And what we’ve realised between both of those is that it’s not the size of your story that matters, it’s what you do with it, I think. So on that note-

Alice: On that note, we will just leave you with some things to think about, because we think in doing all this we’ve raised a lot more questions than answers, and we look forward to hearing your questions and trying to answer them if we can. Thank you.

Kirsten: Thank you.

Sarah: Thank you so much.


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