08 May

What can museums learn from Podcasts and Public Radio?

I must applaud AAM for turning their keynote mic over to the Moth Radio Hour, produced by PRX and Atlantic Public Radio.   Three storytellers came up to the stage, one after the other, and spoke about their life.  Each was clearly carefully chosen to match the museum professional audience.  One spoke about confronting her preconceived notions of success prior to entering into a life in the arts.  Another spoke of his weird and wonderful tenure as chief docent and caretaker of the Poe house in Queens, New York.  And, a third spoke about how connecting with a particular viewer reawakened his love of performing.  None of these stories were specifically about museum practice.    But, all were clearly chosen for the way they would resonate with the work of museum staff.

The whole experience made me wonder. What can the Moth teach museums?

Make your choices of stories appear seamless: I would guess that the producers had many storytellers to choose from.  They clearly chose these three became of the way they worked together to create a cohesive package.  But, this was not an overt thing.  It wasn’t like the producer said show will be first talk about understanding personal connections to careers in the arts; second, taken about institutional (and personal connections) to the community; and finally, the role and importance of the viewer/ visitor.  Rather than explaining this structure, they just let us experience the stories.  And, then afterwards, we as viewers are allowed to create our own meaning and extrapolate our own structure for the program.

Get down to business: None of the storytellers prefaced their stories.  They wove their introduction of themselves into the story at hand.

Let one event, or one moment, be the core of the story: Rather than exploring a whole epic saga, each storyteller developed their content around one clear, distinct core.  One talked about her experience in a studio class, another about a few months in a particular job, and another about a single performance.

Speak Small but Communicate Big: While the stories from the Moth were bounded in their scope, they really functioned as metaphors for bigger ideas.  In other words, these big themes were embedded in the story—and this is what made those stories resonate later.

Hook it up: Each story started somewhere, took you down an interesting road, and then arrived at a conclusion that basically brought the story full circle.  In other words the introduction was hooked to the conclusion in a satisfying way.

Make it personal: Each storyteller had a different style.  They each really spoke from their own personality.  Rather than making excuses for being Southern or a Geek, they made this an asset in their storytelling.

Start Strong:  Each storyteller caught our attention from the beginning.  They knew that this was the make or break moment for the audience to check out or connect, and they really put work into making the introduction matter.

Crescendo: While you have to start strong, then you need to modulate your presentation.  There has to be quieter moments, and then finally you need to build up to your final, satisfying conclusion.

Control Yourself: Each speaker had his talk memorized—but it didn’t seem memorized.  You got the feeling that the storyteller was in the moment, telling this story for you (rather than just offering a boring canned presentation.)

Prep and Prep again: The MC mentioned that the producer really worked with the storytellers to get them to work in the Moth format. In other words, don’t think that the content will matter to your audience if your performance sucks.  If you choreograph a wonderful experience, that makes the method disappear, then your audience will really understand (and even remember) your content.

This is the second in a series of posts considering museums and storytelling.  The first is here.

07 May

AAM 2012 Recap

Rather than create a play by play recap of the annual conference, this post highlights broad strokes of the event.

On Museums:

  • Museums are holder of the public good.  Programs should showcase public value.
  • Museums should create memories for visitors. 
  • Museums are community based and community responsive. They are public utilities.
  • Museums serve 55 million kids nationally –annually!
  • Arts and culture are the heart, soul and conscience of society


  • Create community of visitors through experience that leverage their shared interests and the museum’s strengths.
  • Develop and employ partnerships with other institutions around desires to reach particular visitors. 
  • When using visitors as partners to develop community events create a culture of mutual respect between visitors and staff. 
  • There is not a simple 1+1 equation between community building events and fundraising. 
  • Target market—go where your visitors are to get the message out.  Or even better, invite someone from that community to help you develop the program and then market it.
  • Develop communities within your institution. Brainstorm in selected, though not siloed, groups.

Fostering Connections to Visitors:

  • Understand that each visitor community (casual visitors and teachers) have their own vocabulary and culture.  Own that and then come to a common language. 
  • Don’t assume that everyone wants the same thing. 
  • Understand what your audience wants before developing your program, while running your program, and after your program has completed.
  • Similarly, know the digital habits of your target audience and make sure your digital plan targets the right audience
  • Awareness of your museum can be an important and viable goal for your programs.

Stories, Games and Media:

  • The process of social media and crowd sourcing is what fulfills the mission not the product.
  • Create stories for your visitors.  Stories can make the collections relevant to the visitor.
  • Bring your community into the museum to tell their own stories, so that they can feel like they contribute to your museum culture.
  • Games can create meaning for visitors—often those with a great story. 
  • No all gamers are alike!  
  • Simple and clear can be essential to a good story or game. 

What were your biggest takeaways?

05 May

What can Docents Learn from a Sunday at Church? Storytelling for the Galleries

On one cold snowy Saturday, I found myself sitting on a hard wooden pew while doing some mental algebra.  I was reading a wedding program and assessing the priest’s style with the hope of counting the minutes left before I could escape this country church.  While I certainly shared the joy of the congregation of the nuptials in progress, unlike the vast majority of those assembled I had not been raised in this faith.  Over the years, the celebration of the mass held my attention best in the moments of physical performance when doctrine is made active ritual.  The liturgy, likely the moment when the believers feel the greatest flourish of faith, is often lost on me.  I say this more to set the stage for what happened on that Saturday (and certainly not to offend any faithful amongst you.)

In the last decade at the museum, we have offered fewer and fewer lectures.  We are not alone.  The national museum culture seems focused on interactivity in information dissemination in order to remain relevant for our visitorship.  How do we make things more interactive? When we bring in national and international scholars, we often prep them to give their talks in a way that suggests that visitors need to feel connected and entertained.  In other words, we are suggesting, if in a round about way—don’t lecture.  In the same period, we have also offered many fewer paid lecture series for adults taught by staff.  Instead, members of the museum can attend university courses as auditors; many of these classes are discussion-based.

And, then finally, but certainly not least, how has gallery teaching changed?  Over the years, we have tried, in some cases actually accomplished, to make the gallery experience interactive.  Interactive in this sense means that spoken interaction is the main means of distributing content.  The lynchpin in this is facilitating spoken interaction, something that seems almost antithetical to the raison d’etre for some docents.  Docents often join the corps to share information, for didactic or self-serving reasons.  This desire to share often manifests itself in unstructured, and unmediated, verbal spew.  Reformulating this into something that visitors will enjoy can be hard.  Having hard won specialist knowledge, docents can be reticent to metaphorically give up the glory of the “stage” to stand alongside the unknowing visitor proletariat.

This takes me back to that moment when I sat in a church as an unknowing congregant.  The priest stood up to speak his liturgy.   I can vividly remember the basic elements of the lecture that a woman and man in marriage must obey each other and this pair is the central building block of society.  Even as someone who doesn’t necessarily hold those tenets true, I found the lecture compelling.  The priest had no notes.  He began to speak with us about faith and community.  Here was lecture at its best.   The whole talk was well thought out.  Its cyclical structure meant that the conclusion brought the introduction to the satisfying whole.  The priest made the public feel welcome not only through his body language but also his verbal language.  He never once used a term that I as an uninitiated didn’t understand.  And, most of all, the lecture could be understood on many levels.   In essence, a good lecture is a story with a clear point and broad appeal.   Basically the priest spun a good yarn.

I really believe that the popularity of Tedx and the Moth indicates that people are yearning for good stories.  Story Corps keeps people in their cars listening to NPR long after they have arrived at their destinations.   Museums as caretakers of the public collections are ideal places for stories. Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories is a direct relative to Story Corps where visitors share their feelings about the collection.  Along with visitor stories, the Met’s Connections staff speak about one topic, like White.   Storytelling in the museum context could go even further. 

This brings me back to docents.  Leading spoken interactivity can be difficult.  It places the leader in a position of appearing you aren’t in control.  You have push people to take ownership of the experience.  You have to willingly and repeatedly cede the floor.  (Of course, this is leadership at its best, but that is another post.)  But, also, for so many docents, this is not what they want to do.  They want to give gallery talks, i.e. they want to talk.  They want to impart information they have learned.  They want to lecture. 

So, this brings me to an issue I have been  thinking about recently.  How can you teach your docents to tell powerful stories?  Or said, differently, how can you transform your docents desire to lecture into the ability to tell a compelling story?  And for what audience would docent stories be best used? After all, just as in that country church, the goal for gallery events is that everyone feels connected and learns from the experience so much that they come back next week.