Museums have always been storytellers. These institutions use their collections as a way to make sense of the past, arts, and culture through interpreting and communicating, and stories play an important part of this process. Indeed, as Leslie Bedford highlights, storytelling is ‘the real thing of museums, that kernel of authenticity that we seek to identify and preserve’.
But what exactly is storytelling? In its basic definition, Jane Nielson describes storytelling as ‘a narrative that creates engagement’. A story is more than a description or a piece of content, stories grab our attention often through a personal or emotionally triggering way that enables us as the reader to connect with the underlying idea. In doing so, stories can be a powerful pedagogical tool which taps into our inner understanding, they help us to communicate and to remember.
Likewise, museums create meaning through connecting objects with the past. This process of storytelling can come in the form of exhibition design, where the exhibit leads the user through a narrative journey and enables them to connect to the works on display on a deeper level. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is an example of how this might work in practice as visitors are led through the house in a specific route using quotes and segments of Anne Frank and her family’s life.
But storytelling in museums can also be from simply displaying relevant cultural artworks and artifacts for visitors to connect with. For example, Makeaba Clay describes the ‘power of storytelling’ during her experience visiting The Phillips Collection where she recalled memories of her childhood by being surrounded by some of her favorite works from the collection. This highlights the agency that artworks can have in provoking past stories of our lives.
In respect, storytelling is a practice of presenting works and provoking different kinds of responses from audiences. But if museums are always creating stories, how do we ensure that our audiences see them?
Digital technologies have been broadly accepted as a way to widen access to museums, whether that is through digitized collections or the use of social media. Likewise, such technologies are a means to broadcast museum stories.
But as a practice, John Hartley & Kelly McWilliam propose that digital storytelling is specifically a workshop-based process where participants are given the opportunity to create their own personal stories using digital media. Object Stories by The Portland Museum offers a case in point. Participants were invited to a workshop to develop their own personal stories which were then created and displayed in the physical gallery using audio visual slideshows. Therefore, this digital storytelling practice focuses on collaborating with audiences and explores new ways of interpreting that are more emotional and personal in nature.
But the idea of digital storytelling can apply to a broader category of approaches that simply uses digital media as a way to communicate or explore a particular narrative. This could include something as simple as telling stories through social media and online content such as The Wellcome Collection in London. Their website has a dedicated tab called ‘stories’ where they connect health, art and human experience through short articles and comic strips. These stories do not always relate specifically to the collection but always focus on the key themes of science, technology and art. In this respect, the use of this additional tab allows the museum to explore beyond the specific works of their collection and animate these different themes in an emotive and personal way.
Similarly, digital storytelling might use specific technologies such as mixed reality and mobile phones to convey a particular message. For example, CHESS (Cultural Heritage Experiences through Socio-personal interactions and Storytelling) was designed to create a personalized experience through a museum exhibition using a plot-based approach and mobile devices. Visitors are guided through the space based on their choices of what they choose to listen to or engage with, which includes a wide range of activities using mixed reality. In this way, the initiative utilizes the locative nature of mobiles to create personalized narratives of the physical museum exhibition. Likewise, the use of mixed reality creates an enhanced experience of the physical works and helps to bring the story to life for the viewer.
These examples showcase some of the core themes about digital storytelling. On the one hand, digital storytelling focuses on collaboration and shifting the focus away from the museum. On the other hand, digital storytelling might focus on using a particular technology to create a more animated experience for audiences. And web3 could offer an interesting contribution to both of these ideas.
For example, metaverses are the digital playgrounds in which to explore and display digital work. Metaverses are also a tool for artists and curators to enhance the idea of role play and storytelling in exhibition design as they are released from the physical restraints of the four walls of a gallery and can produce an exhibition that almost feels like playing an online game.
One case is Forest of Things, an audiovisual fairytale and exhibition created for the New Art City 2022 Festival. Visitors are truly immersed in this pseudo-ecology through sounds and visuals as they wander through the computer-generated multiplayer environment meeting different characters of the forest. Examples such as this highlight the exciting opportunities to explore new ways of storytelling with web3 for cultural institutions. These digital spaces offer no bounds to the way we tell stories with collections.
Web3 is also facilitating collaborative storytelling. Recently described in NFTNow as ‘Media3’, the introduction of governance or decision making rights with the purchase of tokens means that projects can take a co-created approach where the creators and fans have a day in the future of the project and content. For example, The Glue Factory dropped 10,000 NFTs in August 2021 which offers owners the chance to participate in the co-creation and participation of the show. Whilst this example focuses on the creative industries, museums could also engage in this approach to explore new ways of storytelling through exhibiting and even acquisition.
Another example that supports this idea is the Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO). In brief, DAOs are a way for a group of people aligned with the same values to invest and collaborate together through the use of smart contracts and blockchain-based voting. The Muse0 DAO is a collaboration of artists, collectors, and curators from across the traditional and web3 art spaces who together aim to collect and curate art NFTs with a specific focus on collecting from traditionally marginalized artist groups. Anyone can join by submitting a work to the collection and members vote on whether the work is added. Once accepted, the new member gains governance rights which enables them to have a say in future proposed works for the collection. In this respect, the NFT is an access token that gives the member rights in shaping the future themes and overarching story of the Muse0 collection.
In combining these two ideas, museums could also reimagine the stories of their collections by taking a more shared authority approach to governance. The use of DAOs and NFT collections offer a way of creating a community of people who could be part of the decision making process, and ultimately contribute to the types of stories a museum tells through its collections.