Museum experts have acknowledged that “books on a wall,” even when crafted by the most scholarly experts in a given field, sometimes fail to engage audiences. Storytelling, on the other hand, is a powerful way to express humanity’s interpretation of art, science, design, and history to a wide range of museum audiences. Now, “Digital Storytelling” is in the air, upping the ante and promising to enhance these connections, to tell more stories, and, perhaps, allow a more diverse audience to derive multiple interpretations of those stories. Museum professionals feel they should be exploring Digital Storytelling, but what, exactly, is Digital Storytelling, and why do we need it? Is it an app, a website, an interactive, a video? Does it need to span an entire exhibit or can it punctuate and co-exist within a more traditional exhibit? Can it truly prompt different interactions with museum spaces and other museum visitors? And if so, are there best practices that you can use as guidelines? Most importantly, how can museums ensure that their Digital Storytelling enhances humanities themes, in ways that drive deeper engagement, as opposed to distracting from them?
At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, storytelling is our bread and butter, and we’ve used it to bring to life the histories of ordinary, working-class immigrant families. Woven into the family stories are humanities interpretation of the broader contexts our families faced. Events such as the Panic of 1873, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the temperance movement, or the 1869 St. Patrick’s Day parade reach our visitors through the family stories. In creating our 2012 exhibit Shop Life, in collaboration with Potion, we aimed to keep our traditional storytelling while incorporating digital technology. The interactive, in the form of an interactive shop counter, allows our visitors to experience one space in three different time periods, and enables them to directly explore primary sources on shopkeepers from those periods. Shop Life won the Gold AAM Muse award and was critical to the museum’s growth in exploring a new kind of visitor engagement, and to its very conceptualization of space and exhibits. While there is no clear-cut definition of Digital Storytelling as it applies to museums, conversations with museum professionals have emphasized the critical importance of working with the right partners. The very process of creating the digital storytelling exhibit must be well conceived. This is not simply a matter of handing over content to the design team, but it’s a shared, iterative experience in which partners explore the content and experiment with different ways to convey it. Further, formative testing of exhibits allow the designers and curators to assess whether the humanities themes resonate with visitors, and whether visitors enjoy the various aspects and elements of the exhibit.While the excitement over new tools and formats has sometimes led museums to add technology for the sake of technology, we will step back and carefully consider how we use digital media. We take seriously the findings of Dr. Amelia Wong, who commented that, “It is helpful to remember that as much as digital media have complicated storytelling, they have not reinvented it.” Indeed, she argues, to best use the power of digital media and its potential for a spatial dimension and interactivity, museum curators must pay attention to the traditional questions about story and audience.
This panel aims to consider the following: How can museums enhance their storytelling power and their investigation of content through the incorporation of well-conceived digital elements? How do museums leverage their existing spaces and interactivity for digital storytelling? How do museums prioritize and select the right formats (websites/apps/games/interactive installations) to tell their stories?