Museum Stories #3: Who Told Them (Well) And How – Three Case Histories

In the previous posts we tried to understand what storytelling is and which are some of the ingredients that can help us to tell a story in the best way.

What we will do today is analyze three examples of how (more or less) renowned museums were able to carry on a worthy act of storytelling. It should be remembered that none of these cases contains an absolute general principle: every institution has assessed the specific context in which it operates and has developed a targeted engagement strategy. Equally obvious is that these are just some of the many examples that could be taken into consideration and I urge all those who know more to point them out in the comments.

“Indirect” Storytelling – The Delaware Art Museum

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Screenshot “The Art of Storytelling”

In 2007, the Delaware Art Museum launched a project that already from the name leaves nothing to chance: “The Art of Storytelling“. The idea was to integrate the guided tours for schools in the museum and the educational training programs with a moment of direct involvement of the participants. But then the project expanded, its target was enlarged and a dedicated website was created (linked but independent from the museum’s website).

The idea was simple: tell us the stories inspired to you by this or that painting that you saw during your visit to our museum. In its simplicity, the idea worked and soon became a reference point for the community, attracting the attention of specialists. Over the first 6 weeks, the museum collected 350 stories.

At this point, the museum really wanted to expand its pool of potential participants to the project and decided to upload online a gallery of images of its most famous paintings to allow even people who have never been the museum to tell their stories. In fact, the museum did even more: it added an additional section (“Picture a story“) to the dedicated website, in which users could create their own “picture stories” by taking elements, landscapes and characters from the paintings uploaded online by the museum itself.

Several years later, the site today contains thousands of stories (told both through words and images) categorized by subject or theme, valued and boosted as much as possible (the best ones, e.g., are recorded by the users themselves and inserted into the official audio-guides).

Quoting the editors’ words: «We have found that projects evoking visitor storytelling are effective ways to engage visitors in thinking critically and creatively about, and responding to, art. These programs seems to benefit museums by both reaching out to and impacting new audiences, as well as by providing a potentially valuable feedback conduit with their audiences» [Fisher M. et alii, The Art of Storytelling: Enriching Art Museum Exhibits and Education through Visitors Narratives, 2008].

“Direct” Storytelling – Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark

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Screenshot “Stories form Conservator”

The National Gallery of Denmark, since 1998 (when  the new wing of the museum was inaugurated) until today, has always pursued innovation and renewal.

In addition to an excellent work of digitization and sharing of his major artworks, and several online engagement programs for the young and very young, the Gallery has taken on an interesting and targeted program of storytelling carried out by the museum conservators and curators. As they say, the name says it all, and this one is simple and effective: “Stories from the Conservator“. Not lessons, nor specialized articles. Stories. What a beauty!

The posts are short, rich in images and written using a simple vocabulary and terms in common use (and obviously all the posts – if not the entire site – are bilingual​​: Danish and English). It is not possible to leave comments to the posts, but discussions, questions and curiosities are easily transferred to the museum Facebook page or to the Twitter profile.

In the same space dedicated to the work and the stories of the conservators, there is also another piece of a great act of storytelling: the video section. In three minutes, the conservators talk about the work they are doing, how they’re doing it and why. No “big words” or technicality, they explain their work as they would to friends at a bar, without ever being trivial. For those who are wondering: yes, all the videos have English subtitles.

To conclude, the museum also has a blog in which discuss more specialized and methodological issues (e.g., “Can grown-ups be tempted to draw right in the middle of an art exhibition?”) in less assiduous ways.

“Participatory” Storytelling – The MoMA

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Screenshot “Inside/Out”

To conclude our review, let’s have a look at the strategic choices of the New York giant among museums.

The Institution – without going into the merits of its economic and personnel resources – has decided to tell its stories and to be told by its visitors. With its blog – “Inside/Out” – (once again, the title is a little masterpiece) the museum aims to bring “what’s inside” the museum, outside, towards the visitors, and to “get into the museum” what comes from outside, from the visitors.

A brilliant semantic choice.

The gimmick does not stop at the choice of a name, or the opportunity to put the inside and the outside of the museum on the same level of importance and connect them on the same platform. It takes a step forward when it comes to the category “Viewpoints”. The first subsection is titled “I went to MoMA and”, and the second “Intern Chronicles” ( and another nice space for all those who want to write about their experience at MoMA has to be mentioned: “Visitor viewpoint”).

There was no better way to give the same importance and the same space both to the opinion, judgment and point of view of the visitors and to the museum employees.

Visitors can give an immediate feedback on their visit with the famous cardboards that are distributed at the museum entrance and on which visitors can write, draw, abstract their impressions (and not only).

In short, online and offline, operators and visitors, all in the storytelling activities by the MoMA is fully integrated to exist – and co-exist – in harmony and coherence.

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Now that we are at the end of this review, I would not want for the wrong message to pass, namely that it is easy to talk about storytelling strategies when referring to two National Museums and a major institution like MoMA.

Because these are only (excellent) examples from which to draw ideas and, even more – let me say –, inspiration. Because these are just ideas about the many possibilities we have to tell our stories. Because these are just some of the many tools we have to tell our compelling stories.
We do not have to reach the same results as the best, but we can (we must) study their secrets.

I’d like to close with a quote from Baricco that each museum operator should print out, frame and revise every single day: «You’re not really screwed until you have a good story and someone to tell it to».

photo credit: crises_crs via photopin cc

photo credit: crises_crs via photopin cc

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