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Idea small Chapter 1: Museums Tell Stories

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Museum Views

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Museums Tell Stories

Museums Tell Stories

In the past, a Museum or exhibition was a collection of paintings, artefacts, instruments. A Museum was like an encyclopaedia: a large number of items that you could browse through, in any order. 

In recent years this has changed. Museum professionals now want to tell stories.  Each exhibition is a story, a Museum is a collection of stories.  


Ultimately, storytelling is a marketing trick. Everything these days tells a story: products, food, clothes. Museums just follow this trend. But it is also because stories help visitors understand what they see. A story can provide context. A story can  help people remember. 


Museums and exhibitions use their exhibits and displays to tell their stories.

Sometimes the story is very obvious. The name of the Museum or the exhibition will tell you what the story is about. In other cases, visitors have to use the displays to recreate the story for themselves, or to create their own personal story.

In some cases, visitors and community members are asked to contribute to the story: materials such as photos, objects, or their personal stories. This is called a 'participatory' or 'community centred' approach.  You can read more about this further down on this page.

"Working with communities has been central to museological and historical practice at the Migration Museum. Key to this has been our Forum community gallery, which has hosted over 120 different communities over the last thirty years. The Forum provides a space where community groups mount their own exhibitions within the institutional frame of the Migration Museum, while providing a community perspective.

In recent years we have been focusing our work with communities or groups which are emerging, or which have previously been under-represented. Communities work with curators to identify the message they wish to transmit and the stories they wish to tell and curators aid in organising design, media, and presentation, as well as co-creating public programs to increase community reach."

Corinne Ball, Curator, Migration Museum, 2020

Further reading: 

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Selecting a Story

Selecting a Story

Some stories just need to be told. The main task for Museum professionals then is to decide how to tell this story and what  they need to tell this story: what materials, people, what format and  maybe: in what location.

Other stories follow from the materials that a Museum has in its collection or in storage: paintings or artefacts from a certain period or exhibits that have not been shown for some time. Exhibits are selected, grouped according to a theme, a story is developed around that theme, and exhibits are added or removed to tell the story even better.

Six Questions

According to Museum professionals, six questions can help you develop a story for an exhibition, for programming, fundraising and for social media:

  1. Who is the story about?
  2. What point of view are you taking?
  3. What goes wrong? We find stories interesting and engaging because the main character encounters some sort of complication or obstacle. This might be a practical challenge or an emotional one.
  4. What events will you share to move the story on?
  5. What details will you share?
  6. How does the story end?

(Source: Anna Faherty, July 2019  https://www.museumnext.com/article/why-do-stories-matter-to-museums-and-how-can-museums-become-better-storytellers/)

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In the past, Museums told their stories from the perspective or point of view of the majority culture. Often, from the personal perspective of the curator: an expert who knows a lot about the topic of the story and about the objects and materials that are on display.

This has changed. Now, Museums more often take the interests and needs of the visitors into account. Not: what does the curator want to tell about this object? But: what does the visitor want to know?

Museums now also take the perspective of the original owners, makers or users of an object into account. The story - or the information panel attached to the object  - is not told by an 'all knowing' expert, but by a person who can tell the story from  a first-person perspective: I was there, I have seen it with my own eyes, used it, experienced it. 

"New relationships between museums and source communities based on more democratic, empowering and egalitarian principles and practices have been established in recent years.

However, it can be argued that many museums continue to establish and maintain one-sided relationships with communities through which research (for curatorial purposes or to inform education or audience development initiatives) is undertaken to address topics and questions decided upon by the museum.

Thus, when consulting or conducting research with disabled people, questions might be framed primarily around museum-oriented concerns (what do you know about this object in our collections?) rather than through a more open and equitable agenda which begins with the priorities, interests and concerns of the disabled person."

Heather Hollins: Reciprocity, accountability, empowerment. In: Re-Presenting Disability, Activism and Agency in the Museum, 2010

Further reading:

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