I love a good story. Who doesn’t? It’s how we humans make meaning—we construct narratives to explain and interpret events both to ourselves and for others. Think about the number of stories you tell or hear in a day, even the mundane ones. It’s a way to form and sustain connections with others and to understand ourselves. So I was intrigued to see that this year’s AAM theme was “The Power of Story.” I remembered that the 2012 AAM keynote address included a couple storytellers from The Moth (the tagline is True Stories told Live, and it features everyday people telling very personal stories on stage and is broadcast on National Public Radio). The Moth was one the highlights of the 2012 AAM conference for me, so I was especially disappointed that I was unable to attend AAM this year. But I talked to several people who did attend and read some blogs and, not really surprisingly, its sounds like panelists wove the theme into their presentations in interesting and appropriate ways, (which certainly isn’t always the case with conference themes).
It got me thinking. Storytelling isn’t something I consider on a daily basis in my work, at least not in a literal, explicit way. But the more I think about it, the more I realize storytelling permeates my work in nearly every way and has even become a tool for helping museums think about and define their impact.
To begin with, I am a qualitative researcher. I was drawn to the field as a way to understand the world, in particular, people and groups of people—how they live, experience life, make meaning, and why and how they do what they do. Of course one can study all this through quantitative research as well, but I am interested in the messiness and ambiguities inherent in qualitative research. Qualitative data is narrative, and more specifically, I’ve noticed the best data often results when, for example, an interviewee or focus group participant tells a story to illustrate an idea. And in fact, a strand of qualitative research called narrative research explicitly uses storytelling as a methodology. Stories as data are powerful because they resonate and illuminate truths about the human experience.
Secondly, I was drawn to work in museums because of my love of objects—whether art, natural history specimens, or historical artifacts; to me, objects embody stories. Objects are the physical evidence demonstrating that something was here; something happened here! Objects stir the imagination and stimulate storytelling, whether fantastical stories (just listen to a child explain a work of art) or stories based on interpretation and deductive reasoning. And, based on all my years of conducting research and evaluation in museums, I can tell you visitors feel the same way I do about objects—authentic objects evoke stories for visitors, and as I mentioned earlier, stories are how we construct meaning and connect with others—objects help us bridge a gap between ourselves and another (whether an artist, a dinosaur, or the mysterious person who used this 17th century bed curtain shown to the right).
The final, perhaps more subtle way that stories are important to my work is when we help our museum clients clarify and define impact (as defined by Stephen Weil is “making a difference in the quality of people’s lives”). Randi has written a lot about impact on our blog so I won’t say too much about it here. But I will say that one of the best ways for museums to begin thinking about impact is by telling stories about their work and why they love it. I’ve never explicitly sat down with a client and said, “Okay, tell me a story about your visitors’ experiences.” But invariably, that is what happens when we ask questions to help museums articulate their impact—they start telling stories (and at least twice, I’ve watched the telling of those stories lead to tears). These stories are a starting place for museums to think authentically about the affect they have on their audiences. As I discussed in my previous blog post, Explaining the Unexplainable, it is daunting to sit down and try to articulate impact and outcomes (particularly if you worry about measuring them), but starting with stories grounds you in what’s real and meaningful and can lay the foundation for articulating a distinct and authentic impact statement.