Thursday, April 2, 2009

Design Inspiration: Storytelling

During the recent "Creating Exhibitions" conference put on by the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums (MAAM) several sessions, and a talk by author David Macaulay about his process, got me thinking again about the importance of stories and storytelling, especially in design projects and museums.

One thing I'm thinking about is whether it is better to start with the objects or to begin with the stories. I'm leaning towards objects first, since so many BAD exhibitions I've seen seem to have started with a fixed storyline that didn't really lead anywhere. What do you think? Stories or Stuff first?

Another thing I'm pondering is David Macaulay's statement in the Q&A session following his talk that (my paraphrase) "You can't draw on a computer, and you can only really understand something if you can draw it." While the computer is an incredibly powerful tool, one of its downsides is that it can almost effortlessly help us to produce things like renderings and label text (or blogs!) that may have a certain surface beauty without any true depth borne from hard-won understanding and experience. Mr. Macaulay spoke of a whole bookshelf full of failed experiments that he didn't want to publish because they weren't "good enough."

Some of my best encounters with museum exhibitions or art are those in which it was clear that there was something interesting going on underneath, rather than merely presenting a glittery, facile surface.

It's easy to talk about storytelling, but much more difficult to frame a proper story. With that in mind, here are two on-line resources that were suggested during the conference, each with slightly different points of view about storytelling, that can serve as springboards for your own storytelling and design efforts:

The Center for Digital Storytelling is an international not-for-profit community arts organization rooted in the craft of personal storytelling. The Center assists youth and adults around the world in using media tools to share, record, and value stories from their lives, in ways that promote artistic expression, health and well being, and justice.

Stories for Change is focused on the intertwined roles of community and place in storytelling. Their website has some especially good resources to draw upon.

So, what's your story? Or the story inside your exhibition trying to get out? I look forward to visiting the next set of museum exhibitions I see with a critical eye toward the stories inside.

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  1. I share your notion that compelling stories start with substance, not a clever sentence.

    About 20 years ago I started getting interested in play as a fundamental human behavior and found, to my joy, a whole world of scholarship out there - folks who have looked/are looking very closely at the phenomenon. What drove my interest was, in part, what I perceived to be some sloppy thinking (including my own) about something that what turns out to be so critical to how we learn, how we thrive, and how we build community. (AND what connects us so intimately to much of the animal kingdom.)

    In the last year or so I have been similarly attracted to the whole notion of storytelling. We all (in the museum world) use it a lot and usually without being held accountable to what we mean by it.

    I'm pretty sure defining storytelling too tightly runs some of the same risks as defining play too tightly - both being activities demanding a facility with improvisation. At the same time, the need for rigor in our use of either to create great visitor experiences is no less important.

    I prototyped a "Storytelling Bootcamp" at the same conference (at which you played an important role!) as a way to start exploring how we might develop some agreement on what makes a great story and how this cumbersome process of making exhibits might profit from the activity. Much work remains to make the prototype more effective meeting those goals and I welcome your and others' thoughts toward that end.

    Thank you for your post and for prodding more conversation about something so important.

  2. I'd say the object comes first. In fiction story organically comes from character, and in an exhibit, the story comes from the object. The result is generally something deeper and more true and more imaginative, rather than the contrivance of, as you said, imposing a storyline.