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!

Could pairing VR and storytelling help us keep collective memories alive?

How new technologies make us engaged witnesses of past and present conflicts

As a powerful tool for accurately recreating places and environments, virtual reality appears as a weapon of choice for historical exploration. In his talk at the last Museums and the Web conference, Michael Haley Goldman (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) showed how such new technologies could help retain and disseminate personal stories that are crucial to what is often termed “duty of remembrance” in Europe. In this article, we look at a few projects that successfully blended VR and storytelling to address narratives of past and present conflicts.


Stories from the past

“It really is about space, presence and first person narrative,” Michael Haley Goldman declared during the Museums and the Web conference as he reflected on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum use of VR technology. He mentions the “explosion” of VR experience on concentration camps. For instance, at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial in Germany, scientists from the  Synthetic Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems (SPECS) group at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona developed an augmented reality app recreating the fully-destroyed camp.

Although these new technologies prove extremely useful in capturing the attention of younger audiences, it seems that personal testimonies are much more powerful when it comes to transmitting knowledge and awareness regarding those conflicts. But what happens when all the people who have lived through those direful events are gone? In his talk, Goldman mentions the extensive efforts made to capture the testimonies of the last holocaust survivors. Several projects around the world have used hologram-like technologies to create immersive and interactive educational experiences based on survivors’ testimonies. For the Forever Project in the UK, ten of them were interviewed.

They answered over a thousand questions while being recorded with a 3D laser image technology. Those recordings were then projected within the museum. Visitors could ask questions to the image and thanks to an ingenious algorithm, the machine selected the most appropriate answer among the 1400 recorded, thus creating a dialogue-like interaction between visitors and survivors. The Forever Project followed shortly after the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie’s “New Dimensions in Testimony”. In this project,  a hologram-like representation of survivor Pinchas Gutter answered students’ questions within the setting of their classroom.

Those examples show that the use of VR technologies can be an excellent way to keep collective memory alive. It does come with a few challenges though. As Goldman pointed out during his presentation, such experiences raise a few questions in terms of user interface: how do you speak to a hologram? And then, in a few decades when these technologies will have become obsolete, how will we be able to preserve those testimonies?


Stories from the present

War and conflicts are not solely contained in the past. The numerous conflicts and population displacements happening today also call for documentation, conversation and representation. In his talk, Goldman cited a recent installation by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which allowed visitors to have a live conversation with Syrian refugees as part of the “Genocide: The Threat Continues” exhibition. Conversation is also at the root of the interactive VR experience “The Enemy” on show at the Institut du Monde Arabe until June 7th.

This multi-users VR installation takes participants into a 300-square meter virtual perimeter where they meet six different soldiers from three different conflicts: gang wars in Salvador, the Israeli-Palestinian and the DR Congo conflicts. There is no live interaction here, but the filmed sequences change according to the visitors’ information, and to their physical reaction during the experience. Last but not least, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – which we mentioned in our previous article – realized a VR storytelling experience for the Empowering Women exhibition in August 2016. The experience called Weaving a Better Future VR, collected stories from Maya women of Guatemala. They shared their experiences as victims of human rights violation, activists fighting for social justice, mothers and weavers.

Empathy helps us understand and retain information, but as Goldman pointed out during his talk, using empathy to teach traumatic subjects can be problematic. On the matter, he cites the work of Liora Gubkin and invites us to move from “empathetic understanding” to “engaged witnessing”. In an immersive experience, the way we tell stories and the amount of visual information we offer to the viewer are crucial. An experiment around the VR documentary Taro’s World, showed that “when the audience has limited visual information they will work twice as hard to make meaning out of every detail they see”. When dealing with themes of war, conflict and traumatic events, how much should we show? There is a risk of creating sensational or even voyeuristic experiences that move away from the educational and social goals of our cultural institutions. Once again, when it comes to VR experiences at the museum it seems that technology must not be an end in itself, but another tool to help institutions achieve their mission.