Storytelling and telling stories in the museum

Perspectives from two female writers’ Ted talks

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – photo via Flickr

There are talks and tips about pretty much any topic on Ted and precisely 18 carefully curated playlists on the theme of storytelling. At Wezitcamp, we dived into the “How to tell a story” playlist to find thoughtful advice that applies to museum professionals working – or wishing to work – with storytelling. From political considerations to engagement techniques, here’s a snippet of what two talented storytellers – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elif Shafak – shared in their Ted talk.

Give your audience a chance to identify

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie starts with reminiscing her childhood and early teenage years as a Nigerian girl reading white English and American literature. She highlights our need to identify with the protagonists of a story and stresses “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, especially as children.”She shares the moment in which she “realized that people like [her], girls with skin the color of chocolate whose kinky hair could not form ponytails could also exist in literature.”During our own workshop at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the question of identity and the need to recognize oneself (or to recognize one’s story) in the museum’s collections came up many times. It is sometimes very difficult – if not outright impossible – for some audiences to identify with stories being told in the cultural institution they visit. Based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s argument, this might be due to museum’s tendency to present single stories.


Tell many different stories

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains that we are too often presented with a single story and find ourselves complicit in accepting this single story as a truth. She describes the single story of the African continent as seen and depicted in the West: “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind white foreigner.” But what about all the other stories of Africa, she asks. In her own Ted talk, writer Elif Shafak shares a similar experience based on her years at an international school in Madrid. As the only Turk in her class, she became – like many other foreign classmates of hers – what she calls the “representative foreigner.” Each child, she explains, was seen “not as an individual on his own, but as a representative of something larger,” of his/her own country and all the stories and stereotypes that are attached to it. We sometimes find a similar phenomenon in some History museums where certain witnesses of historical events become genuine “collective individuals,” capable of representing, by metonymy, an entire social group.  Stereotypes are, for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the main consequence of single stories. “And the problem with stereotypes,” she adds, “is not that they are untrue, but that they are uncomplete.”

How can museums avoid telling single stories? During our transmedia storytelling workshops, many participants referenced collaborative programs including storytelling, in which museums would invite locals to share their own experience of an event, their own perceptions of an artwork, and so on. We discussed Portland Art Museum’s “Object Stories” and other initiatives building cooperation, trust and a sense of agency for museum visitors and non-visitors. The way a museum may editorialize personal stories is also central to this issue. There is a difference between a museum that limits itself to giving voice to personal stories, and one that reacts to this story, highlights it through a thorough work of editorialization, curation and interpretation.


Power relations

Storytelling is inherently linked to power and power relations. “How and when [stories] are told, who tells them, how many stories are told are really dependent on power,” says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Power,” she adds, “is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definite story of that person.” On the same topic, Elif Shafak warns her audience “We should see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed.” Recently, various museum professionals have argued against the idea that museums should – or even could – be neutral. Sharing thoughts, experiences and ideas with the hashtag #museumsarenotneutral, they are exploring museum’s “sensitivity to political decisions, censorship and the financial economy,” as Anabel Roque Rodriguez argued in an article published on Art Museum Teaching. Telling stories – or storytelling – in museums is hardly neutral, and maybe it should not be. In a previous article, we mentioned how emotions and active engagement affect our skills related to learning. Would museums be more effective educators if they took a stance and presented audiences with personal narratives rather than neutral labels? The debate remains open. In the meantime, many History museums such as Holocaust memorial museums and museums dedicated to Resistance movements have chosen to give witnesses of historical events a significant role within exhibitions and educational content.


Hearing storytellers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elif Shafak reflect on the impact and consequences of their art is a great source of inspiration for museum workers practicing storytelling. If you have other Ted talks, testimonies and tips that have helped you reflect on how to approach storytelling in your institution, please feel free to share them!