Should exhibits tell stories?

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:


Abraham Lincoln studying law by the fire.


Mary Todd Lincoln with her dying son, on the night of Lincoln’s inauguration.


Lincoln’s coffin.

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.


Diorama of a debate about the Emancipation Proclamation


Placard explaining the perspective of one of the men present, Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith, who “supported the Proclamation only because he thought that, as a result, all Negroes would leave the country.”


Placard explaining the perspective of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who “felt that this document did not go far enough to free the slaves.”

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.




26 thoughts on “Should exhibits tell stories?

  1. This is fabulous. I read it quickly and will now savor it slowly. So good of you to raise this issue. I am also interested in the intersection of exhibitions and on-line marketing as so much is being written in that world about the importance of “story.” Methinks it is a different meaning of the word.

    More later, just wanted to give a shout out AND ask if you would like to be on the show to discuss this with me later this month.


    • Carol, I am honored. I would love to discuss this with you if I can do so as an interested museum professional and not an expert on this particular topic – one of the things that held up this post for me is my interest in the way stories work, and the way other media work, and my inability to digest that entire field of information…

  2. Hi Rebecca,
    Thank you for raising a very important question for our field. Much of my experience with storytelling comes from years of evaluating the science theater program that was directed by Catherine Hughes at the Museum of Science in Boston. In this case the actors were the storytellers, always with some involvement from the audience. These plays were usually created as companions to exhibits on a variety of topics ranging from the Brazilian Rainforest to the Human Genome Project to the work of Leonardo da Vinci. In a paper that Catherine and I wrote reviewing our 10 years of evaluating science theater (Ten Years of Evaluating Science Theater at the Museum of Science, Curator, 44(4) 2001) our big take-away was that story telling allowed the museum to present complex and nuanced ideas to visitors that would not have been possible in a stand-alone exhibit, and that, in fact, visitors were able to express views that reflected that complexity. Piaget makes the case that gaining knowledge is not possible without an affective component – and similarly when we are emotionally engaged there is cognitive gain. Learning, at its best, feels good. I believe that creating a context like a diorama, or a puppet show or walk-in environment can be a great way to help bring in both the affective and cognitive domains with the potential to lead to deeper meaning – and as with anything we do, sometimes the way we strive to create these contexts or stories is more successfully done than others

      • I am so glad to hear that. It is why I think there is so much power in wrapping our ideas around a story. If done well, the context can really create long term memories and meaning making.

    • Lynn, I love the thought, “Learning, at its best, feels good.” I completely agree. But I do want to note that this is a very different connection between learning and emotion than the idea that strong emotions help us learn.

      Programs are a fantastic platform for storytelling. And, as you point out, there may be moments in exhibits – a walk-in environment, for example, that is part of a larger exhibit – that use stories effectively. And the beauty of programs is that they can engage the analytical and the emotional, either by having multiple components or by working hand in hand with existing exhibits.

      Storytelling is PERSUASIVE. It presents a reality that we immerse ourselves in. It is very difficult to be simultaneously immersed and analytical. At its best, it works well for “hooking” people, making them interested in learning more.

      I would be curious to hear examples of exhibits that explicitly use storytelling as their primary component that also effectively help visitors understand complexity.

      • Rebecca,
        This is a wonderfully fascinating conversation and really makes us all ponder exactly what we mean by storytelling. I think this discussion is bringing out a range of thoughts on that. For me, I think about narrative and context as part of what I look for in a storyline. One example of an exhibit that I think employs storytelling is Natural Mysteries at the Museum of Science in Boston. I was a co-PI on this project.

        Natural Mysteries was about 3,000 sq. feet. The main exhibit components consisted of four immersive environments based on specific sites recreated give visitors the experience of exploring the natural world. These included a one-room schoolhouse, a New England woodland, a beach in Kauai and a site in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. What I liked about this design is that each environment was an actual place with a story of its own. There were “mysteries” created for each environment and visitors were encouraged to explore the environment to figure them out. For example, in the one room school there was a question of what year was it was used last. However, we also found children in the school holding their own class, or at the beach environment, making connections with their own experiences at a beach. This exhibit inspired conversation among visitors and inevitably more stories. In a small component, a Chinese Herbal Apothecary, we found visitors gathered around sharing their own experiences of different herbal remedies. We also created “Wall Stories” which were wall panels with tactile elements built in that presented different people or cultures associated with the collections. The context of the whole environment allowed visitors to see all the pieces that connected to each other to make the site be what it was – ie, the lichens on the school house that could be used to date a tree that had grown into the front entry or the saguaro cactus that was changed over time by all the different animals that lived in it.

        The four environments ringed a central area that had open storage for collections including library tables and shelves of books for all ages of visitors. It was another way to connect stories to the collections.

        I am not sure if this meets your criteria for storytelling – but I think it does fit with my focus on context and narrative form for presenting information and involving visitors.
        Thanks again for opening up such a fascinating forum.

  3. Thanks for providing some great examples to prompt discussion, Rebecca! It seems like a complicated issue because there is also lots of discussion around how emotional experiences can deepen attention, learning, and the solidification of memories:

    Dolan, “Emotion, Cognition, and Behavior,” Science (2002)

    Hinton, Miyamoto, & Della-Chiesa, “Brain Research, Learning and Emotions: Implications for education research, policy and practice,” European Journal of Education (2008)

    Click to access Brainresearch_learning_and_emotions_Hinton.pdf

    The interconnection between emotion and cognition is clearly complex, and certainly negative emotions can overwhelm an experience and detract from learning. I think that your example of the slave auction diorama is a reminder that it’s important for Museums to recognize the innate power they have to manipulate emotions (through the unique resources of authentic objects and immersive experiences) and to wield this power with respect and care. But I don’t think we should steer away from embracing the learning potential of tapping into the emotional resonance that our objects hold, particularly when they are presented within multi-layered narratives that support visitors in examining their own personal responses.

    • Thank you for sharing these links, Maggie! While I was unable to access the Science article, I did skim through the Journal of Education article. It is my understanding that the authors are arguing that emotions are important in terms of learning motivation, and in particular, schools need to be careful about emotional situations that cause fear and negative associations with learning. I don’t think (and again, i skimmed) that it is arguing that cognitive learning occurs because a strong emotional response is engaged?

      A friend who is a cognitive psychologist has promised me some more related articles, and I am happy to share them when he gets them to me!

  4. Reblogged this on Erik Champion and commented:
    and the conclusion parallels a major issue for me in game-based heritage, too many games don’t allow or want people to think too deeply.Can you play and ponder simultaneously?

    • I am currently studying Game Design and this is a beautiful comment that has made me think very deeply about game design and how games are made. We should not strive to make passive players.

  5. Your posting asks and raises a lot of questions . . . just like the best museum exhibits or historic site interpretations :-) I like to think about museum exhibitions like books or other written work . . . even like a piece of art. Just like those, museum exhibitions are someone’s creative work. They’ve assembled a group of facts, or objects, or animals, or uniforms, or stamps, or photos, or artworks, and they’re presenting their “stories” about the significance and meanings and larger messages that have to do with that display. It may affect you intellectually, emotionally, physically, or in any other way . . . to a large extent, that’s the point . . . to get you to feel, and experience, and understand. All of us learn in different ways, and each museum person would tell a story differently, so there HAVE to be as many different ways of telling those stories as there are different museums.

    For me, that’s what makes visiting different museums and historic sites fun, and keeps the study of history (I’m a historian) fresh and engaging for me, as well. There’s no one book that’s ever truly “the last word” on any topic, and there’s no exhibit that’s ever “the last word” on some subject matter, either.

  6. A great post, Rebecca. I also appreciate the points raised in the comments, above. Lots to think about, with no one-right-answer (which is exactly why your ending is perfectly appropriate).

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  8. Rebecca, thank you for creating an opportunity to discuss the meaning behind the buzz of storytelling. A couple years ago I suggested including the term “story” in an educational mission for a museum I worked at and the knee-jerk response was “we don’t want people to think we tell stories, we tell facts.” I certainly believe that museums should be doing more than telling facts, but this comment caused me to think a little deeper about what a story really is (character, setting, and plot) and what the alternatives are (lists? informational texts? an essay with a thesis? persuasive writing?). Should museum exhibits be structured as stories? Similarly, I’m going to have to think more about whether I agree with you that a “museum exhibit has an analytical function.” More likely, I think that museum exhibits should utilize whatever structure meets their particular goals. The more diversity in exhibitions techniques and objectives, the more people will connect with them.

    I do wonder how you define “cognitive learning.” I remember Falk writing a lot about the learning that happens after a museum visit has occurred. Perhaps the learning and emotional response don’t have to be simultaneous? In a quick google search, I found the article below where he writes, “We can think of memories as the visible part of the iceberg that is learning.” And, that “Things that had high emotional content for the individual” were often remembered. I’m sure there is a lot more to unpack here, but you’ve definitely raise many questions for me.

    Click to access John_Falk_Understanding_museum_visitors__motivations_and_learning.pdf

  9. Great post, Rebecca! As I was reading it, I kept thinking whether by “story” we mean an emotional fairy tale or whether it could also be the presentation of facts, in a structured way (start – middle – end), like a story, and with the intention to engage the other person emotionally and / or intellectually (although I don’t think the same story would work for everyone). Museum Hack tells stories, full of scientific content, but always adapted to the needs and interests of their audience. As these are museum tours and not written text, they really have the possibility to adapt. I can think of exhibitions, though, where things were revealed to me through simple text. I remember once visiting an exhibition on Einstein and going through it bery fast, until a friend called me back and told me: “look at this, this explains how the microwave works”. I had paid no attention to the exhibit and the text, but all of the sudden that friend made me realize there was a “story” there… I am not sure whether I am clear in what I wish to say, I believe we need to be clear about what we mean by “story”.

  10. Really intriguing thoughts here. Thank you for this post as it is generating me to ask questions about storytelling and narrative in new ways…

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  12. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio uses a lot of storytelling, in many different ways. They also incorporate music into many of the exhibits (another emotional aveune). I found it all very emotional, and I also remembered a lot of what I learned, and I don’t think these two are in opposition. It’s possible that I did not remember particular discrete facts, but the stories and music helped me integrate and understand the experience of African-Americans of that time period.

    If I need to learn calculus or how the heart works, stories probably wouldn’t help, and emotional content might very well distract. But if I want to understand an era, a process, a character, or a mindset, I think playing to emotions is helpful. Perhaps this is different for different kinds of learners.

  13. Pingback: What do Stories do? Act II: This American Life’s “Put a Bow on It” | Museum Questions

  14. I’m coming to this post a bit late in the game, but wanted to thank you Rebecca, for giving us all lots to think about. I agree with your astute comparison of stories at the Lincoln Museum. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. As Lynn Baum, my old friend and colleague wrote already, telling stories is a form of communication that we experimented with in many ways at the Museum of Science.

    In my academic studies and practice since, I’ve continued to try to understand the dynamic generated by stories between thinking and feeling, emotion and memory. There are neuroscience and cognitive studies that suggest the interplay between cognition and emotional response is so key that in order to make a sound decision about anything, input from the emotional center of the brain must interact with and inform cognitive messages. A popular book on this is Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio. It seems in direct opposition to the research you are referencing, but I wonder if they might in fact turn out to be compatible. I think it’s a question of level of emotional response.

    In terms of the efficacy of storytelling in a museum, I remember an incident at the Kentucky History Center that occurred while I was doing my dissertation research of visitor response to plays in a museum. It speaks to the question of whether story and factual information are mutually exclusive. In an exhibition on the history of the area, I observed an elderly male visitor reading text panels when a play’s performance was announced by a uniformed staff person. He politely declined the invitation to sit and watch from a nearby bench. The play about coal mining began and as it unfolded, this man turned occasionally from his reading. He gradually turned around fully to watch from a distance. When the audience was invited to another area to see a second scene of the play, he joined in. This happened again when the audience moved to a third location in the exhibition. Afterward, I asked if I could interview him about his experience. He agreed. We sat down and I asked why he decided to watch. He explained that initially he thought it was just a play, but then when he listened, he realized it was more than what he expected. He was surprised to learn something.
    “I didn’t know any of that. I’ve been a farmer all my life. I didn’t realize coal miners had it all that bad, but I guess they did… The way he got treated, about how, making 80 cents a day. It was more like slavery, wasn’t it?… Like the old boy says, ‘Owe my soul to the company store’.”

    During the interview he also talked about having driven through coal mining towns and having a good friend who had been a coal miner. These points of reference provide insight into how this visitor’s notion of a coal miner’s life expanded from hearing these stories. They connected and added to his experience.

    There’s more to it than this, but a good story can provide a structure on which humans can focus their attention and create empathetic connections in their minds and bodies in order to make meaning. Thanks for delving into this question. I hope my long response has made some kind of sense.

    • I have a similar story to share. When my son, Jess, was in jr high, he and all of his friends were typically homophobic. No explanation or lecture from me changed his notion that gay people were “the other” and deserving of mocking. Then I took him to an exhibition of part of the AIDS quilt (which is returning to Peoria today!), and at first, he paid scant attention to the message, but did enjoy the beauty of the quilt itself.

      Then he noticed a square memorializing a young man who was only a few years older than Jess. Included in the square was a bar mitzvah photograph. Suddenly Jess found his connection, was shocked to realize this person whom he considered “other” was Jewish, just like Jess. He had never before considered that gay people were anything but gay. Now and forever, they were human beings.

      His homophobia left that day, just like that. He even tried to explain to his friends why they should stop calling things “gay” instead of lame or stupid, that being gay was not a bad thing, and to use that word in that context would be to make a point that being gay WAS bad. So the quilt experience enabled him to incorporate the words I had been saying to him for some time, and integrate it all into one coherent concept.

    • Thanks for this, Catherine. Yes, stories are ideal for creating empathetic connections. So how do we simultaneously provoke empathy and offer opportunities for multiple perspectives and ideas?

      I would love to see someone write a paper – a master’s thesis or a dissertation – about the research on storytelling and learning as it applies to museums. If you ever see one that exists please do let me know!

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  16. As an emerging curator, this topic is of great interest to me. I so appreciate the discussion! In fact, my assignment for this week is to come up with an idea as a case study for an exhibition that is non-traditional in its presentation. Either a mood board, an imagined character, a narrative exhibition or perhaps an exhibition that is non-linear in its layout. These are just some examples of course. While I’m still in an R&D-phase, I think I can apply my personal experience as far as my children learning successfully through their formative years. Once I learned to accommodated to my children’s different learning styles, (they are now 22 and 20) their learning “ability” grew exponentially. I believe their learning was both an emotional and cognitive experience, ie. they felt better about themselves because they could grasp the material more fluidly and in turn, they felt better about themselves…and so on. Also, an art-lover myself, I have always been drawn to a wide range of different exhibition styles…that’s was drew me to curating. Thank you for a great conversation!

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