The power of stories—whether telling our own, listening to those of others, or building them from our imagination—has a deep connection to human development and learning. Telling stories allows us to learn about ourselves, but it is also an act of “mutual creation involving interactions and understanding between teller and listener” (1). For museums, storytelling can tap into personal, cultural, and family-based dimensions of learning that have the potential to create more meaningful experiences.
During a recent advanced institute organized by the CoLab and National Writing Project sites in 3 states (Piasa Bluffs Writing Project at SIUE, South Coast Writing Project at UCSB, and Gateway Writing Project at UMSL), a multiprofessional community of educators experimented with storytelling as a way to engage with a 1932 mural by Mexican artist David Siqueiros—now in the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The hard-hitting subjects depicted in the mural connect with the realities of Mexican politics at the time, with Siqueiros delineating the cause and result of the corruption of the administration of Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles [more information about the mural can be found through the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s online resource]. This quite somber and personal mural by Siqueiros seemed to lend itself to a more personal form of exploration, so we engaged with the piece through a series of strategies that included various forms of storytelling — creating stories with words and sharing stories with our bodies.
After spending time looking at the mural and navigating the architectural space in which it exists, our group of teachers and educators were asked to focus in on details within the piece and create a series of quick sketches. We then spread our sketches out across the floor for everyone to explore, and individuals were invited to select one sketch (not their own) that they might connect with a meaningful story. Those sketches then launched each person into writing a story informed by a close study of that drawn response, adding words directly on top of the sketch. Here are some excerpts from those stories:
P: “A woman who has seen much – who endured much and who is still open to what life has to offer. She opens her hand, gesturing for those who will give to her, a sensing that life has come today in the form of men with guns. She can hold her own in the face of those things that may seem as if they could cause harm. She holds her knee to her chest and it brings comfort to her. She feels stable and centered while around her she is surrounded by a man who frowns, who has, without emotion of any kind, shot his neighbor as directed. She has witnessed the death of others not once, but many times….”
S: “The sun now shines on part of this street. Most people, most faces are still in shadows. Later today, later this year, later this century, the light will shine on the whole village, allowing the whole world to see what we all wish could have stayed covered up or better yet, could have never happened.”
Story-writing became story-telling as participants verbally shared their own stories with each other in small groups, working together to select one “critical moment” from their stories to explore more deeply. Each group wrote down their selected “critical moment” on a sheet of paper, and we then moved down to the sidewalk to physicalize these moments through Image Theatre exercises [read more about Image Theatre in the Teaching Tools section].
To launch into this process of bodily learning, I selected a couple of volunteers to model a technique called “body storming”—the physical equivalent to brainstorming. In “body storming,” participants are invited to silently (communicating only with physical gestures or facial expressions) and rapidly create a series of body shapes or group poses in response to a prompt. For this exercise, I invited each group to body storm the “critical moment” pulled from their stories. Groups spread out along the sidewalk adjacent to the busy State Street that runs in front of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and they explored their stories through this theatre and movement strategy. After they body-stormed through their ideas, each group was asked to build a single movement composition to perform for the entire group.
To create a space for the performances, we all formed a circle around our new public “street theatre” venue here in Santa Barbara, interrupting the flow of pedestrians (several whom stopped to peek at what we were up to). Each group shared their group pose or movement, and I jumped in to play the Joker — a concept coming directly from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed that authorizes the Joker and spectators to make changes to the performance. In this strategy, spectators become “spect-actors,” according to Boal, and they are empowered to transform the performance in a variety of ways. For these group performances, we invited “spect-actors” to add themselves to the group pose, change something about it, or make new connections beyond the group’s story (to people’s own lived experiences, for example).
After each group shared their performances (and were subject to the wild card actions of the Joker and “spect-actors”), we returned up the steps to the Siqueiros mural for final reflective writing and processing. After engaging our bodies in new ways, this gave participants some time to allow their minds to let the experience soak in and reconnect with the visual images that sparked our creative explorations. The stories we had explored, envisioned, and enacted as a community of learners brought Siqueiros’s images into our own professional and personal lives … and brought our lives into the faces and stories of that powerful mural.
1. C. Abramson, “Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool in Higher Education,” Education 118 (1998), p. 441.