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Reflections on the Future of Museum Storytelling

I had the opportunity to attend my first MuseumNext Conference in NYC this November.  The theme was the Future of Museum Storytelling and the first speaker, Karen Palmer, set the tone for the event by announcing that she was “A Storyteller from the Future.” Her twenty minute TEDtalk style presentation put a mirror up to an audience full of museum curators, educators, administrators and communication professionals. She charged us with a big responsibility, saying, “You are the Cultural Custodians of the Future.”  She reminded us that the choices we make as museum professionals today will impact what museums look like tomorrow, as well as how our communities will develop over time. Future generations will reflect on the spaces we create today, informing how they learn and engage.

Karen Palmer speaking at MuseumNext NYC

Throughout the intense two day conference, we heard presentations from dozens of museum professionals who were all struggling with the same question at their own institutions. What is the future of museum storytelling? The array of diverse approaches was both inspiring and overwhelming. There were many take-aways from the conference. The one that resonated the loudest for me was the importance of designing “community forward” content. Every presentation touched on the importance of engaging our diverse communities in new and more powerful ways. Each asked essential questions and implemented transformative solutions.

Question 1. Is the traditional museum unwelcoming to large portions of our society?

Most of the presenters began with the premise that traditional museums are often located in upscale communities, and have had an historic tradition of sharing stories from a perspective of privilege.  All agreed the future of storytelling is about opening the door to multiple perspectives. However, they all acknowledged that just because we open a door, it doesn’t mean that new and diverse communities will feel welcome.

Question 2. How can we build trust with underserved communities?

Dupe Ajayi is the Intersectional Marketing Strategist for one of New York City’s newest arts and cultural Institution, The Shed. She talked about the importance of building a culture of welcome into the organizational fabric of the institution. The Shed started this process by weaving this goal into its mission statement which reads, “Driven by our belief that access to art is a right, and not a privilege, we’ll present exciting, engaging experiences for our communities and our time.”  This statement informs their programmatic choices, the design of their spaces, the layout of their advertising materials, the pricing structure for ticketing, the partnership opportunities and the interactions between staff members and the audience.

For Mirjam Sneeuwloper, from the Amsterdam Museum, building trust was a years’ long process. As part of an effort to create an exhibit on Transgender Stories in the museum, she worked with community members and organizations. They invited individuals to share their stories and helped them to create an exhibit and a space in which they felt safe.  Both the professional staff and the community participants learned from the process. Together they used what they learned to stage subsequent exhibits, strengthening community relationships while empowering the participants.

Question 3: How can we best reach underserved communities?

Charles Phillipp believes that we need to bring the museum to the people. He sees an “inequality in knowledge and empowerment” and attributes this to the tendency for traditional museums to be located in areas of privilege. He proposes to create “a network of museum fragments, located in everyday places like libraries and hospitals, turning common spaces to common good.” He calls these fragments MICRO Museums.  Each is 6 foot tall, portable, and engages in one intriguing topic.  He envisions a network of these MICRO Museums stretching out across the nation, and hopes to be “the most visited museum in America”.

Bill Adair Pew Center for Arts & Heritage

Bill Adair from The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage shared how the Center funds programming that brings storytelling into the streets of Philadelphia. He shared that, “This city is in crisis. Whole communities are disappearing, and abandoned buildings are being demolished, right and left.” The Pew  Center sponsored commemorative event, “A Funeral for a Home” provided a cathartic moment, by telling the story of one such building, and at the same time, lifted up the voices of the community.

Storyteller, Denise Valentine was part of another Pew Center funded project. She took to the streets of Philadelphia to gather stories and material for an Exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Denise shared with us the ups and downs of her process of “unforgetting and reconnecting” to “story-map” the city. She envisioned the museum as a “place where the narratives of the enslaved, the incarcerated, the displaced, and the disenfranchised are held in as high esteem as Eurocentric ideas about art, history and culture.”

Question 4: How can we amplify the voices of the unrecognized?

For Alice White and Kirsten Riley from the Wellcome Collection, digital content provides a multiplicity of solutions for the future of storytelling. I was amazed at the vast array of digital content they provide their public audience. From webcomics to blogs, from photo stories to online serials, they develop their content with a twist. Their motto is “give people platforms, give them power.”  So a great majority of their content is crowdsourced. They invite members of the community to pitch their content ideas.  They don’t stop there. They help the audience through the process of becoming an author. They provide editing and image sourcing and they publish the work across multiple platforms from their website to social media outlets. They invite guest editors in to explore unique themes.  This connects the Welcome Center to new audiences and, in turn, brings new voices to the Center’s site to amplify.

David Eng Tenement Museum NYC

David Eng at the Tenement Museum, shared his unusual problem.  The historic museum has reached its maximum 275,000 capacity for visitors annually. But the Museum’s story is bigger than the brick and mortar buildings that it inhabits. The Tenement Museum is telling a dozen immigration stories within their walls, but there are hundreds of thousands more that weren’t being captured. By creating the Your Story, Our Story website, the museum has expanded its reach and audience, and has been able to invite people from across the country to share their immigration stories as a part of an online digital storytelling exhibit. Now the site features over 6,000 stories showcasing “the cultural tapestry that makes up the country.”

Question 5: How can we design community first exhibits?

Two young women from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History; Victoria Lee and Ashley Holmes, shared with us their successful community first approach to exhibit design.  Their exhibit supported residents, giving them an opportunity to share “their stories, their words and on their terms.” Victoria and Ashley walked us through the complex process of exhibit design with 800 collaborators.  It begins with identifying the community issue to tackle. Next, you seek community partners. Then you assemble your collaborators. You co-design all aspects of the exhibit together. You develop a call to action and co-host the event and experiences.  Their effort was successful on multiple levels.  The museum had huge peaks in attendance, better press coverage, and an increase in volunteerism. It was so successful that it is being replicated across the state of California.

Question 6: How can a small museum, with a limited staff and budget, implement such grand efforts?

Your efforts don’t have to be huge, just thoughtful. Jeff Martin shared that The Philbrook Museum of Art in Oklahoma is small in comparison to some of the major museums represented at the conference. The staff wanted to find ways to provide increased access to the community.  They looked at their resources and thought outside the box.  They created “Me Time Mondays”. Opening the Museum one Monday a month to one person who gets the run of the physical museum as well as the museum’s social media outlets increased the museum ‘s visibility and its reputation.

Seth Godin speaking at MuseumNext

Question 7: What if your Museum is not ready to engage in the storytelling of the future?

Keynote speaker Seth Godin enumerated all the excuses for waiting to innovate, “It’s always too soon. None of us are ready. We are all afraid. We all think someone else should go first.” He challenged us to be leaders, to be the ones to dictate by example, “to take the dangerous leap.”

Question 8: What should the takeaway be from the MuseumNext Conference?

If museums are going to be relevant to future generations, museum professionals cannot be afraid to innovate.  We have to step forward and take that “dangerous leap,” and find new and surprising ways to engage with our ever-increasing and diverse audience. We should strive to share stories that reflect the full spectrum of the multi-cultural community around us. We should approach the new future of storytelling together, by exchanging ideas over the phone, connecting over coffee, or by participating at conferences like MuseumNext. By sharing our success stories and our failures with colleagues around the world, we can learn from each other and elevate both our museums and the communities they support.

If you missed the MuseumNext conference, virtual tickets are still available.

About the author – Amy Hollander

Amy Hollander is a storyteller, exhibit designer and a strategic planner with 20 years’ experience in the Museum field.  She established her company, Cloud Mill, LLC to help museums navigate 21st century challenges.  She works with institutions to strengthen their programs, policies and performance. Her focus is on developing comprehensive strategies that utilize modern tools and employ holistic solutions to address existential issues.

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