Art and History Museum Perspectives on Storytelling

February 13, 2020

I decided to revisit storytelling in museum programming to continue discussing its importance from not only the history museum perspective but from the art museum perspective as well. In my previous blog post “Interpretation: The Importance of Storytelling in Museum Programs”, I discussed about the focus of storytelling in history museums, historic house museums, and historic sites to help visitors relate to or identify with the narrative they presented. This blog post also shared my experience in storytelling at the Connecticut historic house museums I worked for. These experiences are part of a small sample of examples of storytelling in museum programming, and it is important to address more perspectives on storytelling.

Art museums, for instance, have the ability to incorporate storytelling within their museum programming. What I think is interesting about art is each piece has varying emotional interpretation with each visitor who views it. Also, there are varying kinds of art styles art museums hold within their collections visitors could view on display such as contemporary, modern, 19th century art, Renaissance art, and abstract. Rather than focusing on being vessels for collections, museums and museum programs have the ability to help people make deeper connections to them. I previously worked at the Long Island Museum and facilitated a program called In the Moment, which helped elders with Alzheimer’s and dementia connect with art pieces, music, and artifacts to spark their memories and encourage them to share their memories. As I observed the participants hold onto replications of pieces in the exhibit, I noticed how happy they become as they describe the memories of family members and places the objects remind them of. Storytelling has a powerful way of expressing emotions, and by making storytelling in museum programs more inclusive it will help visitors create a deeper connection with the collections.

Earlier this month, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) released a post called “The Transformative Power of Inclusive Storytelling in Museums” in which Makeba Clay (the Chief of Diversity at The Philips Collection) discussed how art can create a deeper connection to our own narratives and our well-being. Clay also described the powerful connections they had when visiting The Philips Collection exhibits. The post continued to make arguments for improving the quality of storytelling within art museums. One of the points Clay made in the post that I find important about all museums is that

At the heart of powerful storytelling, whether through art, science, history, or other focuses explored by museums, lies a strong command of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI). By exhibiting work related to my own cultural heritage, TPC facilitates access to memories, emotions, and inquiry intimately tied to my understanding of place, identity, and community. In order to continue catalyzing powerful moments of beauty, empathy, and connection—like the one I experienced that day—museums must find ways to incorporate comprehensive DEAI into who, how, when, where, and why they tell stories. As a field, it is therefore incumbent upon museums to continue expanding their capacity to steward these values in all aspects of institutional life, including but not limited to staff, board, and volunteer composition and development; organizational strategy and operations; facilities design and upkeep; collections and archiving practices; community engagement; and programming.

All museums should be working to incorporate diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion; recent professional development programs I participated in suggest that museums are working towards improving the quality of DEAI museum programs. When museum programs’ storytelling allows for more diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, museums can help visitors who have not been previously been affected foster deeper connections with the collections. Also, the more we include in inclusive storytelling the more people will be able to develop deeper empathy for and connection with other people’s stories than they had before. I also believe the values storytelling introduce in museum programs should be extended in museum operations since we would not be able to truly be an empathetic, equitable, diverse, and inclusive if our institutions do not set an example within our operations for our staff, boards, and volunteers.

We are still on our way to creating museum programs with more inclusive storytelling but there is always room to include more, and all museums have the capacity to incorporate storytelling within their programs.

What are some examples of inclusive storytelling have you witnessed or have been immersed into?

Links:

https://www.aam-us.org/2020/02/05/the-transformative-power-of-inclusive-storytelling-in-museums/

https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2019/10/03/interpretation-the-importance-of-storytelling-in-museum-programs/

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