Museum Storytelling

Museum Storytelling

by Yvonne Healy

© 2005, Yvonne Healy. All rights reserved.
The Storytelling Report, London Museums Hub, London, U.K. 2005.

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Each Saturday, the Detroit Institute of Art offers storytelling in its galleries. The DIA has one of largest, most significant art collections in the USA maintaining its position as one of North America’s premier cultural institutions for over a century. Sharing old tales surrounded by the Old Masters or amid the evocative images of modern artists is a multi-sensory delight enjoyed by listeners and performers alike. Audiences are filled with people hungry to expand their cultural horizons and grateful to rest tired feet in a comfortable chair. Science, history and other art museums also frequently invite storytellers to perform.

Museum exhibits typically engage visitors’ spatial, natural, and logical-mathematical intelligences. The more ways a museum can pique the visitor’s interest, the deeper his experience will become. Storytelling provides a way to enrich the visitor’s experience by stimulating the linguistic, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences. The chants and rhythmic gestures of participatory storytelling engage the bodily-kinesthetic and musical intelligences.

Storytelling programs in museums may focus on stories with a general appeal to suit the tastes and ages of those present at that specific time. At other times, storytellers are offered commissions to design specific programs in advance which support special exhibits. Tellers who are commissioned to create a specific piece dialogue with the event planner to pinpoint the museum’s mission, the goal of the specific exhibit, the focus audience, the time of day and year when it will be performed, and the physical attributes of the performance space. Use this time to clarify whether the artist or client holds the copyright on the created material. The storyteller’s research for such a commission will be deep and accurate since museum staffs and visitors will be well-versed in the subject.

Museums may have one or two regular tellers or may select from a roster of numerous tellers on a rotating basis. Asking the museum directly for the name of the programming department allows the storyteller to discover the specific requirements for acceptance as a museum performer. Typically, a storyteller wishing to be considered for the museum’s roster submits a brochure and references to the Department of Education, Events, Special Exhibits or Programming. Frequently museums may be limited by grant requirements to employ only those artists included the state artists roster. Individual state art and humanities departments distribute national and state funding for the arts. This provides the storyteller with further incentive to create a professional and responsible identity in her presentations, references and promotional materials.

The larger the museum, the less predictable is the audience make-up. The current trend in science museums focuses on the interests of children. These museums are highly interactive and visitors respond very well to information presented in story form. In addition to producing performances, science museums sometimes hire storytellers, theatrical artists or filmmakers to both develop programs and to train docents to present exhibit information in an entertaining manner.

Following are some general ideas to bear in mind for telling in museums gleaned from years of storytelling in art, science and history museums.

  • More is more: Forget architect Mies van der Rohe’s famous advice that “less is more!” With the unpredictability of audience make-up, museum storytelling requires preparation of three times as many stories as you will have time to tell. Vary the material in repeated shows; after all, the guards and docents are listening, too.
  • Vary the type of stories. Prepare simple participatory tales as well as complicated plots and history because listeners have vastly different tastes.

The chairs in front of you may seat intensely active pre-schoolers, Gen-X-Y black-garbed art students, and world-traveling senior citizens – at separate performances or simultaneously! My anecdotal observation is that art museums attract a larger proportion of adult listeners than do science museums and historical museums vary widely. In an art museum, a single program might include one story to physically engage children aged 3-6, one story with a complicated plot and classical references for educated adults with the remaining stories geared to older children and to general adult listeners.

  • Display information on local storytelling events and clubs. Display flyers and information for guilds and storytelling events as well as your own cards. Many adults discover storytelling for the first time in a museum setting. Use your position to discretely advocate for the art of storytelling.
  • Promote a scavenger hunt. Items found in stories may also appear in exhibits or artworks. Encourage your listeners to seek them after stories end. This promotes prolonged observation of museum displays. Things sought can be non-representational (e.g., “blue that has yellow in it”, or “squiggly lines that look like numbers”) as well as representational (e.g., animals, clothing, person kicking another person in the rear).
  • “Touch with your eyes – not with your hands”is excellent advice to share with your audience in an art museum. The museum staff appreciates such a supportive reminder. Many visitors become excited by the visual stimulation offered in museums. In their excitement they reach to touch, unaware that the oil from fingers can damage priceless antiquities. Science museums which are designed for more interaction by children still may appreciate the reminder to follow the exhibit signs for the correct way to touch an exhibit.
  • Make noise. Museums, like libraries, are traditionally quiet places where people do not expect to encounter animated storytelling behavior. Take advantage of the element of surprise. Storytelling is valued by museums for bringing its laughter, music and vibrant spirit to otherwise ‘hallowed halls’. Bring an instrument to gather an audience like the Pied Piper. Include noisy participation stories. Storytelling – and art, history and science – can be rowdy and fun! Come to the museum for a wild and crazy time!
  • Work historical and scientific background into culturally appropriate folktales to provide depth without lecturing. Kendal Haven’s many works including Marvels of Math and Women at the Edge of Discovery, Norma Livo’s Celebrating the Earth and Of Bugs and Beasts among numerous others, True Tales from America’s Past published by National Storytelling Association, and microfiche archives of local newspapers provide material for breathing life into science and history. Children’s biographical picture or chapter books also provide springboards for you to create your own historical stories.
  • Choose stories to reflect the content or culture of origin of artwork. Some commissioned programs I’ve create are:

    Tales of the Lowlands coordinated folktales and legends of the Netherlands and Belgium with a Rembrandt exhibit. Stories include my adaptations of “Katya’s Dream”, Tyle Ulenspiegel stories, “The Legend of Kinderdyke”, and a personal story “Lost in Amsterdam” among others.

    Ballet and Beyond celebrated an exhibit of Degas’ dancers with stories from classic ballets and participatory folktales with dance as a theme. Stories include my versions of “The Firebird”, “La Sylphide”, “The Weeping Lass” and both “The Girl Who Wore Too Much” and “Conejito” by Margaret Read MacDonald’s Shake It Up Tales.

    Ancient Voices includes Egyptian and Babylonian as well as the expected Greek and Roman myths to highlight classical art and sculpture. Stories include my take on the myths “Isis and Osiris”, “The Descent of Inanna”, “The Birth of Mercury”, “Romulus & Remus”, “The White Crocodile”, a personal story/myth blend entitled “The Island of Green Sand”, “King Midas’ Golden Touch”, and Aesop’s Fables.


Follow The Golden Rule:

Never, ever ever stand in front of nudes. Few stories are more interesting than snickering at nudes to certain 8-14 year-olds.

Corollary: no matter how small and distant, all nudes will be discovered by anyone aged 8-14.
Example: NYC Museum of Natural History has a hallway where bronze nude statues are completely browned with the patina of age. Completely darkened that is, save for the nipples which gleam gold from the polish of repeated touches by passing school groups

Final Note:

The storyteller speaks for the artwork or exhibits. Many children on field trips and many adults may have never previously visited a museum. This is especially true for art museum field trips. These visitors may feel like fish out of water. Storytelling offers a bridge to the exhibit content and colors the visitor’s approach to art museums both that day — and all the days of their lives.

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