This is a post I have been trying to write for a long time – over a year. I’m still struggling, so bear with me.
There has been a great deal written over the past few years about museums and storytelling. Storytelling was the theme of the 2013 Annual Alliance of Museums conference. In a 2014 post from the Antenna Lab blog notes that one of the ideas promoted at the 2014 Museum Ideas conference was that “The museum experience is all about storytelling.” One of the keynotes from the 2014 Conference of the Association of Midwest Museums was Mike Konzen from PGAV speaking about “how to select and tell stories through museum exhibits.”
But stories are a particular way to organize the world. They generally demand an emotional, rather than intellectual, response. The British classicist Eric Havelock argued that oral storytelling required both the storyteller and the listeners to identify with the story and its characters: It was only through this identification that stories could be absorbed and remembered. Novels, stories, and even some newspaper articles derive their power from evoking an emotional reaction in the reader. I recently had a conversation with a friend who noted that after reading a novel she could often not remember all of its content, but she lived for a while with the feelings with which it left her.
The problems and advantages of storytelling are, for me, exemplified by the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Here are three very different snapshots of the museum:
1. Storytelling as Kitsch
Much of the visitor experience at the Lincoln Museum is walking through rooms with life-sized dioramas, such as these:
There are wonderful galleries in the Lincoln Museum – for example, rooms of letters from Civil War soldiers, and fascinating political cartoons. But I am dismayed by these dioramas. Instead of helping the visitor understand a historical moment or the complexities of an important historical figure, they work to render Lincoln a two-dimensional heroic figure. These dioramas capture my basic fear about storytelling: At its worst it simplifies rather than complicates, makes history into a soap opera that the visitor can relate to rather than shedding new light, or making one think.
2. Stories Evoke Emotion
This summer, I discussed museums with some of the teens volunteering for the PlayHouse. One said that her most profound museum experience was at the Lincoln Museum, where she saw the diorama of a slave being sold at auction. (I do not have an image of the diorama that I am legally allowed to post, but it can be viewed here.)
For this teen, this was such a powerfully sad experience that she never wanted to return to the Lincoln Museum. We had a long discussion about whether museums should make you feel sad. No, she said – they should just be fun. Yes, said another teen – they should make you learn things, including sad things.
Storytelling is an excellent way to make people feel, but it not always an effective way to make people think or learn. On the one hand, this emotional response was powerful and memorable. On the other hand, it did not lead her to ask new questions, or pursue her own Civil Rights agenda, or read further about slavery, or the Civil War, or Abraham Lincoln. The experience lived in her as its own moment, set apart, memorable but not generative.
3. The Anti-Storytelling Moment
I have a favorite diorama in the Lincoln Museum. This diorama depicts President Lincoln and his advisers debating whether or not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Placards around the figures share the perspective of each of the men at the table, offering complex concerns regarding the passage of the Proclamation (does it go far enough? will it be perceived as a sign of Union weakness?). In this room, the visitor is asked to contemplate the eight or nine different perspectives represented.
The room makes visitors think. Perhaps not everyone who supported the Emancipation Proclamation did so for the right reasons, and those who opposed it might have done so because they thought the country could do even better. In a room with eight people, there are not two sides, there are eight. It makes you wonder about the stories of these eight men, but it does not tell those stories.
Perhaps this is a form of storytelling. One that complicates rather than simplifies. One that uses story to hook the visitor, and then abandons the form of a story in order to raise questions and empower the visitor to engage with the difficulties and intricacies of arguments being made in 1862.
The Anti-Conclusion Conclusion
I am not convinced that visitors, or people, can have a powerful emotional response and simultaneously build or use cognitive and analytic skills. (A very un-thorough google search turned up this, supporting my claim.) And while a work of art might make someone cry, and a dinosaur skull might fill someone with awe, museums have, for the most part, taken it as their responsibility to help people understand these objects, and think carefully about them.
The problem with my claim that storytelling is problematic for museum exhibits is that it is based in the idea that storytelling depends on emotional response, and therefore suggests that I think emotional responses in museums are wrong. I do not. But I do think that the museum exhibit has an analytical function, and that this function is compromised when it is driven by storytelling.
That’s a terrible, weak way to end a blog post. But I do not yet have a more powerful statement to make, because I am still struggling between the power of the story, and the responsibility of the museum.