Museums are places where we learn about our past and imagine our future possibilities. Yet many museums struggle with finding ways to not only connect to visitors, but to inspire them.
At Museum Hack, we know that storytelling is a key to overcoming this challenge. There are many ways that museums can tell better stories – and not just during tours.
We recently spoke with Frith Williams, Head of Writing at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. She spends her days focused on how to create innovative narrative experiences that inspire audiences to love and learn from museums. Frith shared with us why writing and storytelling are vital to museums, and gave us some unique insights into how museums in New Zealand compare to those in the United States.
MH: Tell us a bit about your position as Head of Writing.
Frith: Sure. I head a team of eight motley but enormously talented writers – poets, theatre and TV writers, short-story writers, an ex-radio producer, a digi specialist, and people who’ve worked in educational publishing. It’s amazing to have that spread of skills – it means we can cover lots of styles. Today, all their emails to each other were haikus.
We’re part of Te Papa’s wider interpretive crew, which includes subject experts, designers, multimedia producers, educators, and public-programme specialists. We work with this team to craft the storylines for different experiences, set the text approach, and write the content. Our focus is on exhibitions, but increasingly that means scripting for multimedia experiences.
We’re always looking for the ‘way in’ for the audience – what’s going to grab them, and move them, and leave them wanting more. The intriguing, surprising, unexpected, unseen. The most important question we ask: ‘Why should I care?’ You can’t ask that too many times – I know you Museum Hackers feel the same.
MH: Exactly! That’s our central tenet to all the experiences we craft. What is the benefit of having a team dedicated to writing?
Frith: I think having a professional writing team makes a huge difference to how visitor-friendly and successful Te Papa is. It’s really a recognition that creating content for exhibitions – for three-dimensional space, where visitors are on their feet and easily distracted – requires special skills, as does working in multiple media, and across disciplines, and for a really broad audiences. Our collections span history, the natural environment, and art, and bringing all that into a cohesive, powerful experience can be challenging. Normally, we work from briefs from our experts, but in art, often from curators’ drafts. Whatever the process, it really helps that our content creation is centralised, so the same standards apply across the board.
The decision to use professional writers goes back to when the National Museum and National Art Gallery merged in 1998, forming what we are today. Te Papa’s goal was to be a really different sort of museum – a really community-oriented, accessible, creative museum, and one with a strong narrative focus.
MH: Do you feel Te Papa has become that? What advice do you have for institutions seeking to become community-oriented, accessible, and known for creativity and engagement?
Frith: I think we’ve done incredibly well, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve. We’re the most visited museum in Australasia – visitation was 2.3 million last year if we include touring shows. That’s not bad for a country of just 4.5 million people! We get great satisfaction ratings and just had our highest numbers of visitors aged 16–24 since opening – those ever-elusive millennials.
But our cultural reach doesn’t yet match the demographics of our community, so we know we need to work on making Te Papa even more of a community hub. We also want to get more creative with our exhibition development processes, involve our visitors and communities more as active participants – not just passive receivers of knowledge – and bring in other creative partners. Those final few points count as advice too!
MH: Speaking of success, what was your most successful exhibit ever – and why do you think it was so successful?
Frith: That’s easy – Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War, which explores a failed WWI campaign that still holds real significance for New Zealanders. And talking of creative collaborations, that show was a partnership with Weta Workshop (of Lord of the Rings fame). It’s just hit 700,000 visitors in one year, so definitely our most successful exhibition ever.
Sir Richard Taylor was the Creative Director, and he really pushed us. Everything we did was aimed at taking visitors on an emotional journey and honouring the soldiers’ stories – huge life-like models of eight New Zealanders who were there, an immersive design and soundtrack, and their voice, because we wrote in the first person – from the soldiers’ perspective – not in a conventional curatorial voice. It’s given us the confidence to experiment much more in the future.
MH: Last year, you traveled to the United States to explore museums. What was your experience like? (What do U.S. museums do that differs from New Zealand? What insights did you gain?)
Frith: The trip was absolutely amazing – just having that time to think and talk and explore. Everyone who works in the sector knows how hard it is to get that when you have endless deadlines to meet. I really have to thank Fulbright NZ for giving me the opportunity, and Te Papa for letting me go. But it was also really intense. Totally non-stop.
What’s different about US museums? Three obvious things. The amount of money available and the private funding model. The gobsmacking diversity of the sector. And the pretty big gap between tradition and innovation. I think that’s what struck me most. I encountered lots of really exciting, bold work, particularly in the digital realm and within education teams, but it was harder to find museums that were really accessible and innovative throughout, perhaps because, on the whole, the interpretive decision-making rests with subject experts, especially in art museums.
I think we need to explore more collaborative content-creation processes, and take a holistic view of the visitor experience, if we really want to attract more visitors.
MH: What was the most memorable experience during your trip?
Frith: Well, I loved being based at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum with Seb Chan, Micah Walters, Pam Horn, and their wider team. They’ve been doing some great stuff. And I loved talking with so many interesting museum-ers around the country – everyone was so generous with their time and knowledge.
When it comes to memorable museum experiences, I have a few favourite spots alongside Cooper Hewitt: Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, Connected Worlds at New York Hall of Science, the immersive multimedia experiences at Minnesota History Museum, Peabody Essex Museum’s cross-disciplinary work, Museum of Jurassic Technology, City Museum in St Louis, American Visionary Art Museum, Corning Museum of Glass … actually, I could go on and on!
I did a lot of thinking about memorability. What struck me was that I hardly remembered a word I read. The really powerful experiences were the physical, social, or creative ones, which matches research into what makes content memorable. The immersive WWII D-Day experience at Minnesota History Museum stands out. And detour.com is doing some great audio storytelling in different communities. Oh, and of course my Museum Hack tour!
MH: Where do you think the future of museums – and museum storytelling – is headed, especially in relation to our increasingly open access to knowledge?
Frith: Good question. And yes, in this world in which information is available anywhere, any time, I think our role needs to shift radically – from simply providing information to inspiring wonder and reflection and debate.
We’re no longer the vital source of information we once were – Google has that covered, though we definitely need to make our objects and stories more accessible within that digital world. But what stories will resonate in the museum – in this real, physical, social, creative space? What can we give people that they can’t get elsewhere? Real stuff, real stories, real people. What sorts of perspectives and voices will transport them? How can we give them an experience that’s surprising or uplifting or challenging or fun? That shifts them out of the humdrum of daily life? A journey.
I think we need to ask these sorts of questions, and place those powerful immersive experiences more at the core of what we do, rather than as add-ons. And I think paring things back is a big part of the answer, because people are overloaded already. Swamped.
Choice is an interesting one within this context. It’s easy to become obsessed with offering people choice at every available moment. And sure, we do need to support people to personalise their experiences – by helping them pinpoint what’s of interest to them, and allowing them to voice their responses and ideas – but I think there’s a huge amount to be said for ‘filtering out the noise’ too, and providing something more directed. Something that sort of ‘holds’ you.
MH: What can we do to be pioneers of the future, rather than followers?
Frith: You ask some big questions. In part by working with our communities as active partners, but also by pushing the audience – having a creative vision, and being ready to experiment and fall on our faces from time to time. And that’s where our creative partners come in again too, because they’ll have ideas we haven’t thought of.
Also by being prepared to stand up and say, ‘This is the type of museum we are’ – we have to have an opinion about that – ‘and we’re going to confront these controversial topics, and we have a role to play in shaping the future of our society and environment, and heck, we’re gonna have some fun while we’re at it.’
The idea of being pioneering is interesting in itself. Maybe being first isn’t the really important thing. Maybe inspiring the audience is, whether we’re the first to do something or not. If another museum has already done something innovative that works, why not draw on that? And if others are inspired by what we do, fabulous, because we’re all trying to achieve similar goals after all. We’ll all be pushing each other along.
MH: One final question. Why are museums f***ing awesome?
Frith: Because they’re full of surprises and magic and f***ing amazing stuff with endless stories to tell. And for me, personally, because I get to work with so many passionate, creative people who just want to bring those stories to life. And because there’s always so much I don’t know. How much time do you have?
Our thanks to Frith Williams for the opportunity to learn about her work and discuss museums. You can contact Frith at frithwilliams.com.
Do you work for a museum? Do you have a program that is successfully engaging new audiences? We’d love to hear about it! Send us a quick email at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more about our workshops, presentations, and museum consulting work.
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