Digital Storytelling: Top 4 Lessons from “The Museum as a Digital Storyteller”

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Museums and the Web is an annual conference featuring research on—and applications for—digital practices in museums.  This gathering is unique in that a lot of conference papers are presented for free online.  One of our favorites from this year’s conference is “The museum as digital storyteller: Collaborative participatory creation of interactive digital experiences” by Maria Roussou, Laia Pujol, Akrivi Katifori, Angeliki Chrysanthi, Sara Perry, and Maria Vayanou.

Their study looked at how museums can author digital storytelling experiences that are entertaining without sacrificing scientific and/or academic integrity.  During workshops with participants from the Acropolis Museum in Greece, Çatalhöyük in Turkey, and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the researchers learned many lessons about digital storytelling.  The following are our top four takeaways from their findings.

Mobile digital storytelling engages audiences with objects
Digital storytelling, through mobile apps, increases visitor engagement with objects.

Gather the Right Tools

This study used a specific toolkit derived from the Cultural Heritage Experiences through Socio-Personal Interactions and Storytelling (CHESS) research project. First was a plot-based approach to creating stories.  Using various themes, the authors drafted characters and a narrative story; selected specific objects, spots, and paths within the physical museum to illustrate the story; created multimedia enhancements; and ultimately produced a digital narrative delivered through in-gallery mobile devices.

Second was the use of “personas” —  “empirically grounded, detailed descriptions of imaginary people (constructed user models) that are represented as specific individual human beings”.  The authors used personas as a guide by which to experience the museum from different points of view.  How would a child experience the museum for the first time?  A young professional?  A retiree who supported the museum for years?  

Finally, there were theme cards — each offering information about an object or narrative piece, enabling the authors to “draw together seemingly unrelated events into one coherent narrative.”

Storytelling Can Create New Visitor Experiences, and Reanimate Old Ones

The workshops primarily focused on the creation of new narratives—and new visitor experiences—within the museum.  Yet at the workshop with Stedelijk Museum, the researchers found that their model could enhance existing narratives.  They were able to use digital storytelling to “recycle” existing objects, exhibits, and interpretive materials—including information about the museum’s artworks and existing audio/video narrations—into engaging narrations.

Workshop participants discussing gallery strategy
Multiple perspectives create stories that cater to diverse audiences.

Successful Narratives Require Multiple Authors Working Together

In each workshop, the authors were drawn from a variety of different backgrounds.  They included individuals who were experts at either telling stories, fact-checking & providing content, user needs & physical museum design, or creating multimedia. The researchers found that, “Digital storytelling requires synchronous, collaborative work among different departments, even with external experts, which clearly breaks open the traditional institution as we know it.”

And this is important, as it showcased the role that each type of author has to play.  At the Acropolis Museum workshop, the authors included archaeologists, museologists, writers, creative industry experts, and educators.  

One of the archaeologists from the workshop at Çatalhöyük stated that such diverse teams helped them not only craft better stories, but also to enhance their own professional objectives: “It makes you think about experience a lot more… People were saying: ‘Wait, we don’t know that. Do we know that? What do we know? How do we know it?’”

Ethan and Mark storytelling in San Francisco
Storytelling increases visitor engagement, education, and relevance.

Balancing Story with Fact Can Open the Door to New Stories

Museum experiences do not need to sacrifice historical or scientific accuracy to be engaging.  Both in this study, and in our own Museum Hack tours, we’ve learned that storytelling is a tool for the future — providing us a framework for visitor engagement, education, and relevance.  

“As the first, most essential form of human learning, storytelling establishes a universal way of communication; and because it invites audiences to fill in the blanks with their own experiences, it helps to set emotional connections, which can be deeper than intellectual understanding.”

Through storytelling, we connect seemingly disparate objects and facts to learn what they can tell us…and in the process, we find out that there is still so much we don’t know.  This can inspire museum goers, to keep coming back for more stories and more information.  But it can also inspire them to keep asking questions…and seeking answers.  

Who knows?  Maybe the next visitor to walk in your door will be inspired to find an answer to a centuries-old mystery, or make a new discovery that will rock the very foundations of scientific knowledge.  And the stories contained within museums are the perfect place from which to begin that journey of discovery.

 

“The museum as digital storyteller: Collaborative participatory creation of interactive digital experiences” is a presentation and paper by Maria Roussou, Laia Pujol, Akrivi Katifori, Angeliki Chrysanthi, Sara Perry, and Maria Vayanou, originally published on the Museums and the Web website.

Find out about our consulting work with museums, or send us an email to find out more about how we can help your institution with audience development.

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