Tips for Telling in Art Museums
© Yvonne Healy
Northlands Journal, Northlands Storytelling Network, IL 2004
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The world famous Detroit Institute of Art offers storytelling in the galleries weekly. Frequently I am invited to perform. Other museums also invite my performances. Sessions are sometimes general. Other times I am commissioned to research and create programs supporting special exhibits. Following are some general ideas to bear in mind for museum telling:
- More is more: Forget architect Mies van der Rohe’s famous advice; prepare 2-3 times as many stories as you can use.
- Vary the type of stories. Include simple participatory tales as well as complicated plots and history because audiences vary greatly. Audiences may include from active itty-bittys through oh-so-serious art students to world-traveled senior citizens.
- Promote a scavenger hunt for items found in stories that also appear in paintings/sculptures after stories end. This promotes prolonged observation. 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).
- Remind visitors to touch with their eyes – not with their hands.
- Make noise. Museums are quiet places where people may not expect to see storytelling. Bring an instrument to help gather an audience. And don’t be afraid to include noisy participation stories. Storytelling – and art – can be rowdy and fun!
- Work historical background into culturally appropriate folktales to provide depth without lecturing.
- Avoid standing 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, nudes will be discovered by ages 8-14. Example: NYC Museum of Natural History has a hallway where bronze nudes 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.
- Choose stories to reflect the content or culture of origin of artwork. Some programs I’ve designed are:
- Tales of the Lowlands coordinates folktales and legends of the Netherlands and Belgium with a Rembrandt exhibit. Stories include my adaptations of “Katya’s Dream”, Tyle Ulenspiegel tales, “Legend of Kinderdyke”, and a personal story “Lost in Amsterdam”, etc.
- Ballet and Beyond celebrates 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”, and my versions of “Girl Who Wore Too Much” and “Conejito” by Margaret Read MacDonald told with permission, etc.
- Ancient Voices uses Egyptian and Babylonian as well as Greek and Roman myths to highlight classical art and sculpture. Stories include my adaptations of “Isis and Osiris”, “Descent of Inanna”, “The Albino Alligator”, a personal/myth blend entitled “The Island of Green Sand”, “King Midas’ Golden Touch”, etc.
The most important thing to remember is that the storyteller speaks for the artwork. Many children on field trips and many adults may have never previously visited an art museum. They may feel like fish out of water. Storytelling provides a bridge to the exhibit content and can color the visitor’s approach to art museums both that day – and in the future.