Tag Archives: storytelling

From the Radio to the Museum: Storytelling, Listening, and Radical Empathy

Written by Beth Maloney

What can museums learn from approaches, models, and practices in other fields? How are we continuing to frame and define empathy and relevance in museum programming? Are we doing the research, making the connections, and learning from what else is out there?

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I love good storytelling on the radio – whether listening to NPR as a child in the back seat of my Dad’s car, pulling over to a parking lot to catch the end of StoryCorps, or indulging in a podcast while I fold laundry. I love a good story; it’s partly why I love history. Last month, I attended a live event about Out of the Blocks, a documentary series on my local NPR station. The pieces began to fall together for me and I started considering this radio program in relation to dialogue-based museum programming.

Out of the Blocks is a program from WYPR 88.1 FM in Baltimore, Maryland. Based on the simple concept of sharing the stories of people living on one block in Baltimore, radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick create a series of episodes that present captivating narratives of real life. After interviewing everyone on one city block, they edit together interviews into one hour of radio that is lovely to listen to – opening perspective, building empathy and understanding. The show and podcast are well worth checking out; it’s truly amazing to hear interviewees share stories and see how editing, soundscape and production buoy those narratives.

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However, it was the live event that really got me thinking. On stage, in real time, Baltimoreans whom Henkin and Patrick interviewed spoke about the project. Interviewees shared their first impressions of Henkin and Patrick, talked about being interviewed and, most movingly, what it was like to hear their own stories and voices in the final program on the radio. In front of a sold out auditorium of listeners and fans, many of them shared that it was both frightening and empowering to experience what eventually aired.

In his opening remarks, Henkin described the show as an experiment in radical empathy – the idea that everyone has a story that is worth telling and that the process of having people intently listen to that story feels good – it makes you feel like you matter. Producing this show is intensive and involves selecting a block to focus on, meeting and building relationships with everyone on that block, conducting hour long interviews with each person, editing all of those interviews into one episode and building the musical backdrop that amplifies and supports those stories. In the end, Henkin shared that he imagined each block as a mosaic of experiences and stories and, indeed, the city of Baltimore as a larger mosaic of those city blocks.

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What’s the museum education connection?

Hearing from speakers at this live event, I was reminded immediately of some of the previous posts on artmuseumteaching.com about conversation and dialogue-based programming and institutional empathy in museums. Dialogue-based programming is not new to museums. Whether we are engaging in gallery and object-based discussion using techniques like VTS and facilitated dialogue or hosting thematically focused programming like Science Museum of Minnesota’s Talking Circles, Missouri History Museum’s Mother to Mother program  or Lower East Side Tenement Museum Kitchen Conversations, dialogue is central to our work. With this in mind, three points struck me immediately in Out of the Blocks:

  1. The deeply specific and site-based nature of the work
  2. The collaboration between documentarian and sound artist
  3. The relationships built through the process – between the producers, interviewees, neighbors and a broader community of listeners

In late September, I visited two major history museums in town with a friend– the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the Maryland Historical Society. In the galleries, there are glimpses of the “Baltimore mosaic” Henkin described, visible in the form of a personal object with a particularly evocative story behind it, a student curated show featuring photographs of the process of historical inquiry and research, or an exhibit designed as an immersive environment – transporting one through theatrical techniques to a different time and place. Yet, there weren’t nearly enough of those provocative and arresting personal stories that tether historical events to the experiences of real people.

When we teach in history museums and exhibitions, we sometimes get caught up in the intoxication of historical documents, artifacts, objects and buildings to the detriment of the emotional, personal, story-driven voice of those who experienced a place or event. Sometimes this may be because it’s hard to find voices, particularly of those not present in the historical record. And there is a sense of the need for “neutrality.” But even if we can’t necessarily “interview” people who are long gone, we as a field benefit from a continuous reminder about the power of visceral, real stories from real people – especially in the face of larger interpretive narratives that address the history of organizations, nations and institutions. There is power in specificity, and scaled, personal and connective stories.

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Ideas I am walking away with

Here are some reminders and lessons I’m taking away from Out of the Blocks:

  • Relationship building. It takes a long time to create an episode of Out of the Blocks (about 8 weeks). The commitment to interview everyone on one block, each person for an hour, takes time. And there is also time spent hanging out and getting to know the people on that block. This may be part of why interviewees feel comfortable sharing their stories.
  • The power of storytelling and the importance of transparency. The power of storytelling isn’t new. But at the Out of the Blocks live event I was reminded of how powerful it is to know the “backstory.” Hearing directly from both producers and interviewees added depth, nuance and made clear that the project was meaningful to everyone: the producers and the interviewees.
  • The notion of sharing and listening as radical empathy. There is power to both sharing stories and having them heard. As staff at institutions and cultural organizations, we need to remember both pieces – dialogue is both talking and listening.

What if we applied the same intensive techniques Henkin and Patrick use to interpreting our historic buildings, sites and spaces? What if in the same ways they interviewed everyone living on one city block during one moment in time, we “interviewed” everyone who lived in one place through time –the people who occupied the space before a building was built, the people who built the building, the people who worked in the building, renovated, occupied and used a space in different ways through time, and the people who are there now, in the neighborhood.  In this way, we might get closer to addressing the mythology of the “period of interpretation” as Frank Vagnone writes in his blog and the Anarchist’s Guide of Historic House Museums, co-authored with Deborah Ryan.

At one point in during the live event, Henkin shared that he and Patrick have been asked about the agenda for this series. What did they want to get out of this? What were they hoping for? Their response has been that there is no agenda but that if there were one, it would be to just show up and listen. What would it look like if museums just showed up and listened? What kinds of exhibitions, programs, partnerships and relationships might materialize? What can we in museums learn about programming and story from this kind of work? What examples of similar approaches in museums, libraries, at historic sites have you seen? Let’s amplify them.

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About the Author

BETH MALONEY works as an independent consultant, bringing educational expertise to museums and cultural organizations in the form of curriculum and program development, interpretation, visitor experience planning and professional training. In addition to partnering with a wide range of museums and historic sites, she teaches undergraduate courses that explore museum work and learning through the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University. Former Board member and Past President of the Museum Education Roundtable, Beth serves as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education. For more information and to be in touch, please visit www.bethmaloney.com.

Header Image: Photo by Wendel Patrick. Aaron Henkin conducting an interview for “OUT OF THE BLOCKS,” 2012, photo courtesy the artists.

Photos included in this post are by Wendel Patrick, used courtesy of the artist.

Sharing Authority / Sharing Perspectives: Native Voices

Written by Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum; and Deana Dartt, Curator of Native American Art, Portland Art Museum

In 1989, the Portland Art Museum brought together a group of about twenty people to discuss the museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Native American Art. Gathering in the museum’s basement, the group included museum staff, art experts, anthropologist and historian James Clifford, and a group of Tlingit elders accompanied by translators.  Objects from the collection were brought out one by one, presented to the elders for comment with the expectation that they would tell museum staff about how each object was used or by whom they were made.  Instead, as Clifford recounts:

“the objects in the Rasmussen Collection, focus for the consultation, were left—or so it seemed to me—at the margin. For long periods no one paid any attention to them. Stories and songs took center stage” (“Museums as Contact Zones,” p. 189).

Rather than providing historical details and context that could be easily converted into research files or didactic labels, the session brought forth voices, songs, dances, ongoing stories, and lived experiences that challenged the museum with alternative perspectives on these objects as well as a potential way of decentering the museum’s authorial voice. Instead of envisioning ways to bring these voices and stories into dialogue with the collection, the Museum bid the group goodbye and archived the audio and video footage of the consultation.

Twenty-five years after these ‘conversations in the basement,’ the Portland Art Museum is actively working to re-address many of the issues around interpreting its Native American collection. This post highlights a new interpretation project—being prototyped as part of the museum’s Object Stories initiative— that has gathered stories from Yup’ik tribe members in southwestern Alaska to share these voices and stories directly with museum visitors both online and in the galleries.

Object Stories

Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.
Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.

Framed by larger challenges facing museums in the 21st century, the Portland Art Museum has been involved in a broader process of rethinking how it relates to its public audience and exploring strategies to be more relevant to its community. It was out of this ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born in 2011. Since its inception, Object Stories has evolved into an educational platform for engaging audiences and bringing community voices into the process of interpreting the collection.  By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, Object Stories aims to demystify the museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities.  This initiative also allows the museum to explore how new media and other technological innovations can contribute to more genuinely inclusive engagement with audiences and communities.

Scholars have questioned how a museum’s voice might be changed from monovocal (single voice, often an institutional “voice from nowhere”) to a more polyvocal (many voices, without much sense of hierarchy).

“In this scenario, museums are encouraged to give up some of their control and their authorial voice to allow the public or specific communities to speak for themselves and be heard in a public space.” (“One Voice to Many Voices?”, 164)

Connecting Collections with Communities: Yup’ik Stories

Early in 2013, education and curatorial staff at the Portland Art Museum collaborated with Alaskan artist and photographer Katie Basile to record a series of “object stories” with native Yup’ik elders, artists, and youth. During several visits to the southwest Alaskan communities of Quinhagak, Kotlik, and Bethel, Basile captured stories from these individuals that reflect upon objects of personal significance as well as selected Yup’ik masks and dance wands from the Museum’s collection.  For this project, Basile used a new iPad app designed for the Object Stories project to allow for recording stories outside the walls of the museum.

As part of the larger initiative to generate knowledge and interpretive resources with the Native community in the public spaces of the museum, these Yup’ik stories have been exhibited in the Arctic Native American Art gallery through an iPad listening station adjacent to their related objects. Bringing together personal object stories and collection-based stories, the museum is offering visitors a layered and nuanced learning experience as the Yup’ik tribe members share their personal and cultural perspectives. The organic, first-person narratives presented here allow for an emphasis on individual Native voices and begin to disrupt the stereotype of a “community voice” that assumes a single “Native” way of being, thinking, and art-making.

The content developed during this pilot Yup’ik storytelling project has proven so meaningful that the Museum plans to expand the model to targeted communities, utilizing the connections and expertise of Native artists to record community members’ stories as part of the Object Stories initiative. First-person narratives by origin community members will then be available to museum visitors through iPads, online collections, and other digital strategies.

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Alaska Native artist Drew Michael, whose stories are featured as part of this project. Photo by Katie Basile.

Bringing Back the Story

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art, Portland Art Museum.
Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art, Portland Art Museum.

In 1989 (pre-NAGPRA), the Portland Art Museum was bold and progressive, if only somewhat ethnocentric, to secure NEH funding to bring Tlingit tribal members to the museum to help the institution tell a more meaningful story of the ancestral objects as it redesigned the Native American galleries. While motives were pure and collaboration was intended, the museum stood between the objects and the stories. The museum attempted to serve as the bridge for the visitors between the ancestral object and the descendent storyteller. However, the stories and objects out of context required much more interpretation than time allowed, so the tapes sat idle with museum staff clueless about any connection to the collection the stories were intended to enliven. Museums have continued to mediate the connection between story and object. We hope to step out of the way.

Object Stories allows people to bring story back to objects disembodied from their cultures and their people. We hope that through this work we can reunite the ancestors with (while introducing museum visitors to) the energy, language, and living traditions of Native people. Initiatives like Object Stories have the potential to transform museums from “sites where knowledge is transmitted to passive audiences to potential forums or contact zones where new voices and visibilities are raised and new knowledge(s) actively constructed” (Viv Golding, Museums and Communities, 25).

In many ways, the Object Stories platform challenges the museum, its audiences, and its communities to consider the complex types of exchange and dialogue that might occur with its collections beyond the traditional experience of passive, didactic looking.  This platform is enabling us to facilitate, and then share, the dialogue between the maker and the viewer and through a process of shared authority and unmediated connection may transform the way museums see, utilize, and present Native American art.

Real is a Thing That Happens to You: Tracking a Theme Through the AAM Annual Meeting

“Real isn’t how you are made.  It’s a thing that happens to you.”

public domain image of the Skin Horse from Velveteen Rabbit
public domain image of the Skin Horse from Velveteen Rabbit

This year’s American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting wrapped up in Baltimore last week, but I’m still wrapping my mind around some of the ideas that came up in sessions and lively discussion (in person and via the Twitter hashtag #aam2013).  Although the official theme was “The Power of Story”, I walked away thinking that another fitting tagline could have been the above quote from that classic of children’s literature, The Velveteen Rabbit, shared as wisdom from the Skin Horse to the titular lagomorph.

The idea of realness and how that matters in a museum context was on people’s minds throughout the conference, enough that it had a whole session dedicated to it on the first day.  “Is It Real? Who Cares?” brought together a group of museum professionals to engage the room in debate over some knotty questions.  Before you get excited for a recap of that session, I’ll clarify that I wasn’t there.  But they’ve set up a Tumblr that’ll give you some ideas of what you missed, and the handout includes some of the questions that may affect your thoughts about realness.

They ask some great, substantial doozies:

  • Does authenticity of objects matter more or less to different visitors?

  • Can display context render real objects fake or make fake objects seem real?

  • Is the object rendered more real because it’s rare or one-of-a-kind?

If I were feeling more academically-minded, here’s where I’d drop some quotes from Walter Benjamin’s seminal The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction about the aura that a real object has due to its very realness, but I’m only feeling academically-minded enough to use the word “seminal” and bring Benjamin up in the first place.  Besides, he wasn’t speaking at AAM, so I’ll move on.

the mug whose breaking set Rob Walker wondering how stories make us care more about objects, or, as it says on the project’s website: “O.G. S.O.”, photo used with permission from Rob Walker.
the mug whose breaking set Rob Walker wondering how stories make us care more about objects, or, as it says on the project’s website: “O.G. S.O.”, photo used with permission from Rob Walker.

I’m sorry I missed “Is It Real? Who Cares?”, especially because it was the beginning of what became a thematic thread I followed throughout the rest of the conference.  In Tuesday morning’s session, “Significant Objects”, Rob Walker talked with the Center for the Future of Museums’ Elizabeth Merritt about his project of the same name, which started out with Rob and Joshua Glenn collecting thrift store tchotchkes, inviting an array of creative writers to contribute fictional short stories about the objects, and then selling the objects+stories on eBay. You can probably guess the punchline.  The $128.74 worth of knick-knacks sold for $3,612.51.

But did that make those knick-knacks more real?  Would purchasers have paid more if the stories had been nonfiction documents of the objects’ histories (the kind of thing we love to include in museum labels), or was there something special about fiction that drove up the value?

As Elizabeth Merritt put it in that room, there are plenty of stories museums choose to tell about their objects that are factual, but not terribly enlivening or enlightening.

It strikes me that this is part of what’s behind projects like Amuseum Guides or MoMA Unadulterated, unofficial audio guides that offer quirky alternative angles on museums instead of straight facts.  Discover forty-six ways you could be killed by the animals and places in the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History.  Hear what 3-10 year olds have to say about the art grown-ups like to dismiss with that tired chestnut, “A kid could make that.”

Lively!  Fun!  Encouraging people to see museums in a different way, much like the material shared in the alliteratively alluring AAM session called “Magnificent Masters of Museum Mysteries: Narrative Games in Museum Contexts.”  Seema Rao from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Susan Edwards and Rebecca Edwards (no relation) from the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Georgina Bath Goodlander from the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum all shared games they’ve developed that ask players to use museum objects to help move through stories.  The objects are central to the game experience (visual clues often help answer questions that lead to the next step), but the games aren’t designed to specifically teach the player about the objects.

There are lots of great examples of this kind of approach that privileges the visitor experience and makes museums fun (*gasp*).  Amuseum Guides and MoMA Unadulterated do it.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery does it, inserting museum visitors into a fictional story that requires looking closely at the museum’s objects and allows some leeway between the fact and fiction of the contextual, historical information about those objects.  Visitor engagement and careful observation are the goals, not formal learning about the art.  A true experience in the museum that doesn’t rely on real facts to make it so.

installation view of “Mining the Museum”, Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Image MTM 037B
installation view of “Mining the Museum”, Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Image MTM 037B

But how does this sort of true–though not altogether real–experience balance out with museums’ responsibility to offer audiences truthful information?  A central question throughout these sessions, but nowhere more relevant than on the last morning at “Talking About Race: ‘Mining the Museum’ After 20 Years”.  Here was a panel of educators, scholars, and curators talking about Fred Wilson’s 1993 exhibition, “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society, where he re-curated displays to juxtapose objects like iron shackles with elaborate silver serving ware and highly finished wooden chairs drawn like an audience around a post once used to whip enslaved people.

Wilson himself joined the panel and spoke eloquently about what inspired the exhibition in the first place.  He talked about being mad walking into museums and not seeing racially diverse stories represented.  “It made the museum complicit in the evils of the past,” he said.  The idea of provenance came up and was questioned.  How is provenance determined, after all?  Is it who owned a thing?  Who cleaned a thing?  Certainly in most museums, that first one trumps all.  Ownership tells us one part of an object’s story, but it’s far from the whole story.

And so ended AAM with these unresolved issues floating through my head. What makes an object real?  Who determines that realness?  How important is that realness to a museum visitor?  And, maybe most importantly to those of us in the museum field, how can a museum balance out the nebulous concept of realness with an authentic, true experience.

I started with a quote, so in the name of symmetry I’ll end with one.  It’s from “Peter and Alice”, a new play by John Logan that I caught in London a few months ago, and it hits on that careful balance between real and true.  The play imagines the conversation that might have happened between the people who inspired Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and near the end there’s a scene where the real Peter (there’s that pesky word again) is remembering when he first saw Peter Pan performed onstage:

I remember the first time I saw the play. I thought it was all real.  […]

After the performance Uncle Jim took us backstage.  It was a mad bustle, even that was thrilling.  I mean, I knew it wasn’t actually real, I knew they were all actors, and we were in a theater…  But I needed to know if this place existed, if it were somehow true, even though it wasn’t real.  So as the party was going on and everyone was celebrating I wandered onto the stage by myself.  Just me…  How large it was…  I saw the painted backdrop of Neverland.  The pirate ship… the wooden moon…  And I closed my eyes and spread my arms…  And it was true.  […]

For a moment…  Then I opened my eyes and heard the party, and Uncle Jim calling me, and my brothers laughing…  And life went on.

I don’t have neat answers for these questions, but AAM certainly got my mental wheels turning.  Do you have answers?  Thoughts?  Examples of how you find this balance of real and true in your own museum work?

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.

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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.

Reading Murals – Telling Stories

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’s Story Sketch

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.

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

Notes:

1. C. Abramson, “Storytelling as a Pedagogical Tool in Higher Education,” Education 118 (1998), p. 441.