A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

Object Stories: Rejecting the Single Story in Museums

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Early in 2012, I came across a particularly inspiring TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” quoted above, warns that if we tell or hear only a single story about a people or culture, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, and all of those stories matter and deserve to have a voice. As I was listening to Adichie’s transformative words, I immediately thought about museums and the cultural power they have historically possessed to tell a single story—the single story. As museums continue to adapt to become more relevant in the 21st century, they have also been struggling with whose stories to tell, whose voices can participate in that telling, and how much power can or should be handed over to our communities to tell and share their own stories.

Since first listening to Chimamanda Adichie’s talk almost a year ago, I have experienced an exciting career and life transition as I moved from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon, to become the Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. And these issues of power, voice, storytelling, and community engagement are central to one of the Museum’s most widely expanding educational projects, Object Stories. Launched almost 3 years ago, this project begins to address the need for museums to reject the single story, to create and share a multiplicity of stories around its collection, and to bring the meaning-making process of storytelling into the galleries. This post provides a much-needed spotlight on the Object Stories project, and I will definitely follow-up with future posts that reflect on the further challenges and successes of this exciting work.

Explore more than 1000 stories through the Object Stories website, objectstories.org
Explore more than 1,000 stories through the Object Stories website, objectstories.org

The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project was recently featured by EmcArts and ArtsFwd in their ‘Business Unusual’ Contest, and I’m very proud to say that we won the contest with a broad base of support from across our community (the Mayor of Portland even gave us a shout out, along with dozens of other cultural organizations across Oregon). Originally posted on ArtsFwd.org, the text below was created through a full team effort from the Education Department, including Stephanie Parrish, Amy Gray, Danae Hutson, Jess Park, Betsy Konop, and especially my amazing predecessor Tina Olsen, who passionately led this project from its inception to where it stands today. As a team, we are pushing this project to new areas and breaking down boundaries inside the museum as well as both locally and globally.

• • • • • •

In light of the challenges of the 21st century, institutions across the globe are reassessing their strategies to be more relevant in the lives of their communities. Framed by this larger discussion, the Portland Art Museum began to rethink how we relate to our audience. We questioned the role of the public as mere consumers of information and strove to diversify the populations that we serve. In doing so, we uncovered that both the Museum and the public needed a catalyst for active participation, personal reflection, and meaningful ways to rediscover works of art in the collection. It was out of this larger, ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born.

Launched in March 2010, Object Stories invites visitors to record their own narratives about personal objects—whether a piece of clothing, a cherished record album, or a family heirloom. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, this project aims to demystify the Museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities – while continuing to highlight the inherent relationship between people and things. Nearly one thousand people from throughout Portland—most of who had never before set foot in the Museum—have participated as storytellers in this project.

How Object Stories works

A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.
A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

Current visitors to the Object Stories gallery encounter a recording booth, where they can leave their own story, as well as a central table with two touchscreens that enable them to browse, search, and listen to hundreds of collected stories about personal objects and works from the collection. On the surrounding walls, guests find a rotating selection of museum objects that have been the subject of recent stories in concert with portraits of community members posing with their personal objects.

The Museum has also produced a series of Object Stories that brings out personal perspectives on selected objects in the permanent collection, with recordings of the voices of museum staff, local artists, and cultural partners. This stage of the project has added a personal dimension to visitors’ experiences and their interpretation around works of art in the collection.

Change in organizational approach, a new culture of dialogue

This overarching shift in the Museum’s relationship with our audience is the culmination of a series of other changes away from “business-as-usual.” The internal process of developing and implementing Object Stories has encouraged the dissolution of long-established departmental silos, the growth of new partnerships with community organizations, and the confidence to experiment with a formative approach to programming that incorporates audience feedback.

A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.
A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

Before the launch of Object Stories, the education departments of the Museum and Northwest Film Center partnered with Milagro Theatre and Write Around Portland to develop community-generated prototypes that led to the existing recording process and prompts. This prototyping phase brought in staff from across the Museum—as well as local design firms—to challenge our assumptions of who could and should hold authority in these decisions about content and interpretation within the museum. While more work has to be done to build upon this internal culture of dialogue and collaboration, this project has successfully led to a shared understanding of the value of representing community voices and displaying public-generated content on gallery walls.

A new platform for community collaboration

Since 2010, the Object Stories concept has essentially evolved into a comprehensive educational platform for engaging audiences and forging community collaborations. The Museum has since extended Object Stories into a multi-year partnership with area middle schools that involves in-depth teacher professional development, artist residencies, and multiple visits to the Portland Art Museum that culminates in students’ own personal “object stories.” Further success has brought the Museum into a new international partnership with the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, and a more locally-focused proposed Object Stories project with the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland. These outreach efforts will also bring the storytelling process outside of the Museum through a new mobile iPad application currently in development.

Big impact with room for growth

The biggest shift and impact caused by Object Stories is the changing viewpoint of diverse audiences, who now see the Portland Art Museum as a place that invites the voices and stories of its community and welcomes the public in this act of co-creating content. As the Museum continues to integrate the Object Stories initiative into its growing educational programming and interpretive planning, we will no doubt discover new challenges, as well as exciting opportunities.

We’re super excited about where this project has been and where it is going, but I wanted to end with some open questions to invite your thoughts:

  • In what ways does storytelling and personal meaning-making enter the fabric of your institution?
  • What are some challenges to having these types of projects enter the ‘mainstream’ of museum planning around visitor experience and interpretation?
  • How can museums do a better job to design and support opportunities like this for visitor and community voices to enter the galleries?
  • And, finally, a big question that is very much on our minds: what is the next step for projects like this?

Please post your thoughts and questions below, and add to the ongoing conversation. You can also learn more about the thinking behind Object Stories by reading Nina Simon’s interview with Tina Olsen at Museum 2.0.

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.

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6 thoughts on “Object Stories: Rejecting the Single Story in Museums”

  1. To me the great thing about a project like Object Stories is this key theme of multiple stories. As museum practitioners, it is sometime difficult to see the position of power and authority we are in as we display objects. Every decision we make inside these museum spaces is a piece of some story being told. I think it is a powerful message for museum guests to see their own stories featured at the museum. This interactive exercise will go a long way to make museum guests take ownership and feel a sense of pride when visiting their local museum.
    As a Docent Program Coordinator, I stress storytelling and meaning making with the docents at my institution. This fall we incorporated some drama based instruction techniques in our docent curriculum and the docents have had great results in the galleries with tour groups connecting their lives and personal experiences to the artworks.

  2. Andrea — I totally agree that bringing visitors’ own stories into the galleries is very empowering. We’re finding that is especially true with students, who have been working with Object Stories through a multi-visit program and recording their own stories.

    Since the Object Stories project began, the Portland Art Museum has been working with its docents on the teaching and learning strategies associated with storytelling and personal meaning — and it is super exciting to hear that you are implementing similar techniques, including drama and theatre. Any specific strategies that you have found to work the best? I am always a huge fan of kinesthetic & bodily learning, and also a sponge when it comes to the various strategies people are using in museums.

    1. The docents here at the Grand Rapids Art Museum have had great success with audience in role (where they ask the audience to pick a character in the artwork and tell his/her story), and soundscapes (here the docents asks members of the group to pick an element of the artwork and make a sound to describe it, after 3 or 4 people make their sounds individually we put them all together to create a soundscape). I love both of these techniques because they allow for multiple stories, and personal meaning making for our guests.

  3. Hi Mike–have you seen any change in how other PAM exhibits are planned and conceptualized as a result of the multi-vocal and participatory approach of Object Stories? …or is Object Stories seen as THE space where this type of participation occurs?

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