The Importance of Scaffolding, Storytelling, and the Visitor Experience (Case Study: The National Civil Rights Museum)

Carly Syms - Team Lead for Marketing & Customer Service

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We believe that great storytelling is the backbone of successful museum tours. As we’ve discussed in previous case studies, the right story can transcend someone’s preconceived notions of what a museum experience can be. Engaging storytelling has the potential to transform your visitors from museum skeptics into lifelong patrons.  

While the content and delivery of your stories are important, there is another crucial element to successful storytelling on museum tours that often goes overlooked: timing.

Equally as important to how you tell stories is when you tell them. Even the best story at the wrong time can become a bad story, and risks alienating the audience.

Think about it: the climax of a good novel doesn’t happen in the first ten pages. And if it did, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact. While each chapter may detail its own sequence of events, they all work together to hook and engage the reader over an extended period of time.    

We apply the same concept on our tours with a principle we call scaffolding: the deliberate and strategic timing of stories and activities for maximum engagement over the course of a tour. Scaffolding allows us to design our tours holistically, with an emotional sensitivity that invites the visitor to come along instead of tugging on their arm between each stop.

Scaffolding is particularly important for museums that feature challenging subjects. When done correctly, visitors are empowered to co-curate their tour with personal connections and an appreciation for your museum’s collection and significance. But when scaffolding fails, visitors are overwhelmed, uninterested, intimidated and it’s hard to get them back.

Outside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN

It’s a tricky balance, but it pays off. We recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee to help them maximize audience engagement using scaffolding and storytelling.

How Do You Tell Stories In An Emotionally Charged Space?

The National Civil Rights Museum is located in the Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. The museum recently went through a major renovation, which gave them the opportunity to add film, interactive media, and oral histories to their exhibits.

The museum already had a robust touring program and strong in-gallery interpretation; their struggle was making that information accessible to their audience in an emotionally charged space. “

“People always come to the Civil Rights Museum, and it’s a lot of information and emotions get riled up.”

The National Civil Rights Museum naturally deals with challenging subject matter, which can potentially be intimidating and overwhelming to visitors. However, if it’s presented in the right way, challenging subject matter can also be the catalyst to meaningful, lasting personal connections between your visitors and your institution.

In other words: the stakes are higher, but the bonds can be stronger.

Museum Hack facilitator Harry Einhorn worked with Noelle Trent, PhD., Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education at the National Civil Rights Museum to craft a customized solution in making their live experience more accessible.

The Lorraine Motel, the historic site where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated

Breaking Through Emotional Barriers With Strategic Storytelling and Scaffolding

Engagement is a negotiation, and it only works if both parties are bought in.

That’s why a major focus of this training was on scaffolding — scaffolding gets people comfortable with opening up and participating in new and different modes of experience they may not be accustomed to. By gradually implementing higher and higher levels of engagement throughout the tour, the visitor lets their guard down, becomes more comfortable, and actively joins us in rewriting the expectation for their museum experience.

But while scaffolding may seem simple on the surface, it takes hard work and careful planning to pull off.

Engagement needs to start low and gradually ramp up throughout the tour, unfolding in a way that contextually makes sense, keeps the visitor engaged, and most importantly, remains impactful. This way you can showcasing the historical significance of your collection while also creating personal connections with your visitors.

Scaffolding can be thought of as a ladder, and each engagement—step—needs to be close enough to its surrounding engagements in terms of what it asks from the visitor. You wouldn’t ask someone to go from step 2 to step 50 in one giant lunge, because that would be impossible.

This is hugely important because the progression of engagement increases comfort between the visitors and the guides, and the climax of engagement is finally accomplished once the tour has reached the top step of the ladder. But you can’t force it, or try to do too much too fast. Scaffolding is best achieved through a combination of careful planning and trial and error.

What the National Civil Rights Museum Said About Working With Museum Hack

We strive to make sure our work with museums is a world class experience, and we are humbled by the incredible institutions we’ve worked with.

About his work with the National Civil Rights Museum, Harry said,

“This was an incredible and challenging experience for me– it felt really good to use the storytelling skills I’ve developed through Museum Hack to work with such a crucial and historic place.”

What did The National Civil Rights Museum have to say about their experience? Check out this testimonial video with Noelle Trent, PhD., Director of Interpretation, Collections, and Education.

Want Help Maximizing Audience Engagement at Your Institution? Find out more about our Audience Development offerings here. 

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