Five Essential Ingredients for Museum Digital Stories and Narratives

Museums are among the greatest storytellers of modern times, so why is storytelling with digital media so complicated? After all, storytelling (digital or not) is still storytelling, but the new flavors of tech are leading to big digital flops in the kitchen. Isn’t there some sort of recipe we can follow?

essential-ingredients-1My master’s project, “Beyond the Story: Approaches to Digital Storytelling and Narrative in Museums,” had me on a mission to identify the critical requirements museums must make to employ digital storytelling or narrative in their institutions. My project untangled confusing definitions, presented new narrative models and engagement strategies, and explored interpretive planning. From case studies at the Computer History Museum and Autry Museum of the American West to my own participation at a Story Center digital storytelling workshop, I compared stories from 15 different institutions that utilized digital media. I discovered five essential ingredients these “digital recipes” call for… so let’s get shopping!

The Team

The first ingredient is the team. The core team for a digital storytelling workshop typically includes a project or program manager, two workshop facilitators with filmmaking and editing skills, and 9-10 workshop participants. Differently, the core team to create narratives for an exhibition includes representatives from exhibitions, curatorial (content expert), and media. Teams can include interpretive planners, archivists, or editors. To be effective, there needs to be a focus that the entire team can agree on.

Museums need to have well-established relationships and they must build in the time to find the right people to use. Some museums, (49ers Museum and Reagan Presidential Museum) contract outside vendors with ‘mad skills’ (Cortina Productions) to be a part of the creative process. Relying on an outside vendor takes a passionate partner with a strong knowledge base.

The Plan

Second is the interpretive plan. This is where the museum defines their audiences and aligns their stories with the museum’s mission. Museums then select the main stories they want to share (Run Away). Finally, they decide what kind of audience engagement to facilitate by considering who, what, where, why, when, and how. The mix of media needed, themes, subthemes, and storylines are all decided upon within this process of discovery (Curt Lowens: A Life of Changes). The components of an interpretive plan are audience analysis, management objectives, media descriptions, message elements and evaluation. The plan is the digital recipe’s ‘secret sauce’ of success!

The Story

essential-ingredients-3The third and most essential ingredient is the story itself. Effective museum storytelling (digital or not) is focused around a clear point of view. In a best-case scenario, the story presents something new that hasn’t been told before. It captures the audience’s attention by being relatable and humanistic. Great stories or narratives reveal something personal and surprising. They are designed to draw you in and give you an “ah ha moment.” A fun example is The Lower Eastside Tenement Museum’s Auction Counter’s Shop Life Tour Stories. Visitors can trace the stories of historical merchants through objects that are brought to life through amazing Potion graphics.
Whether stories originate from digital storytelling workshops, oral history interviews, documentaries, journalism, or are a part of an interactive, we need to remember that it is the story that is important not the digital media. The focus should always be on getting good stories and assembling the stories well. Check out SFMOMA’s interpretive gallery.

The Message

The fourth ingredient is the message. It takes time to create authentic stories that build trust with people. Learning styles, levels of knowledge, and different interests all need to be taken into consideration. Museums should know the purpose they want the digital stories to serve as well as the messages they want to convey. Messages are powerful ways to create connections (Crossing Fences), support learning, empower audiences, or humanize the interpretive space. It is best to offer variety with different entry points for different audiences. Decisions should align with the heart of the story and the core ideas.

The Product

The final ingredient is the digital product, which needs to adhere to highly professional production standards. Museums should use established film and video techniques and rely on people with skills. Relevant footage, interviews of notable people, music appropriate to the tone of the subject matter, and high production values are all crucial. The product should have both visual continuity and approachable language. An effective and well-edited digital product engages and invites the visitor to learn more (Object Stories).

The best policy is to keep storytelling reflective and iterative. Include different perspectives about the key messages all along the way. Be open to new ideas and constantly strive to improve the final product. Continue to ask the important questions: Does the story open up new avenues for dialogue or learning? How memorable is the story? Does it transform the audience in some way? Build in stages for feedback and perfect your stories so that your audience is hungry for more.

– Mardi Maxwell is a graduate of John F. Kennedy University. She holds an MA degree in Museum Studies with a dual focus in Education and Collections. Museum affiliations include the San Jose Museum of Art, Triton Museum of Art, Oakland Museum of Aviation, and Los Altos History Museum.