Museum Stories #1: A Definition of Storytelling

You might not know it, but you have experienced storytelling long before you learned to write. Don’t  believe it?
“Once upon a time, many years ago”… any bell ringing now?
The beginning of a fairy tale, an imaginary adventure, a story –  exactly. The person telling you such stories was performing the magic act of storytelling (by the way, have you ever managed to fall asleep before you had heard the whole story? I honestly never did).

There’s been a lot of discussion lately on the topic of storytelling – in many different fields. Its strengths and weaknesses have been fully explored and emphasized, although it is, basically, a very simple matter: it’s all about telling
», as stated by Gianluca Fiscato.

It has been brought under the spotlight from the world of marketing, corporate communications and advertising, when even some large companies have come to realize that the brand, the “name” of a renowned company is not enough anymore. People (do not call them consumers anymore!) wanted stories.

To give some examples: have a look at the last Christmas commercial by Apple, or the two campaigns by P&G for London 2012 and Sochi 2014.

And it’s Italian the recent television format conceived to highlight our skills in writing and telling stories. Although, now that I think about it, who’s been using storytelling as its strength – and for  a very long time now – it’s the National Geographic, in its documentaries. When talking about a species, a race or an ecosystem, what they do is choose a specimen (or a pair of any animal), “humanize” it and then tell us its story-life – beginning to end – through  its diet, its social relationships and its approach to death. Is this storytelling? Of course it is, and even of the best type.

Then, given that museums preserve tens of thousands of stories just waiting to be told, what else do they need to start doing the same?

storytelling #1«It Could Work!»

Nothing. Theoretically, they aren’t lacking in anything.

They have the stories (their collections); they have the “microphone” (all the available digital tools, from social media to blogs); they have the audience (the millions of users of the web). What they lack is a bit of courage to get up from the chair and start ‘telling’.

But why should a museum start engaging with storytelling?

According to Gary Carson, because it is the only chance for salvation; because

«stories are the sine qua non of popular history. […] Because storytelling is a powerful medium through which passes the modern learning
» [Carson G., «The End of History Museums: What’s plan B?», in The Public Historian, 2008]

Hence, the basic purposes of storytelling are to spread and facilitate a new way of learning, and to create long-term involvement in the public. Obviously, there is not just one way to do storytelling, we could – roughly – identify three of them: – “direct” storytelling  (the museum tells about itself) – “indirect” storytelling  (visitors tell about their experience); – “participatory” storytelling  (virtuous mix of direct and indirect).

photo credit: Profound Whatever via photopin cc

photo credit: Profound Whatever via photopin cc

In most cases, this last solution seems to be the most effective, mainly because

«people are tired of listening to the monologues of so-called experts, they want to be part of a community and to get in touch with their peers to share experiences, knowledge and skills

» [G. Carson, 2008].

The museum would act, therefore, as a primus inter pares. In addition – by encouraging the public to record, produce, shoot and share its experiences – it  would allow individuals to create personal stories and connections with the museum, and the history it represents.

And Now? What’s Next?

We have learned that stories can be very important (vital, indeed). But stories, as such, are not enough to interest and engage the public.
Our stories must be well written, well organized and compelling.
If you succeed in creating intriguing stories, and tempt the audience to participate and share its experiences, great things can happen.
But according to you – what makes a story fascinating and engaging?

Well then, stay connected – more is coming. ‘Till then, #svegliamuseo!

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