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The Importance of Storytelling

Ask someone affiliated with a small historical society about what they do, and most will say they collect and preserve local history. Ask them why, and they'll say, "because it's important." But ask them about the stories they tell, and you may get looks of confusion and panic. Why? Because local historical societies and museums still follow traditional practices established more than 100 years ago that don't incorporate storytelling.

Inside the Castle at the Smithsonian, late 19th century.

The first history museums --as we know them-- were created when wealthy Victorians donated their collections of "things" -- new discoveries as well as artifacts of other cultures, places, and times -- to universities or governments, who, in turn, built facilities where the items were put on display. The photo on the right (top) shows what it meant to "be on display" at that time: the items, often hundreds of them, were lined up on shelves or in cases with a small card that identified them, and left at that. On one hand, visitors could gaze in wonder at newly-discovered items yet to be identified and imagine possibilities. On the other hand, visitors were supposed to view the rest of those artifacts with a sense of their own cultural superiority, and bemoan the failings of great empires where cultural developments once rivaled their own, modern accomplishments.

Typical local history museum today.

This approach to showcasing "the past" remains the traditional plan used in most small museums like the one shown on the right (bottom); however, the "parade of artifacts", as I call it, is no longer enough to attract and grow audiences. Visitors today want more; they want to read and hear the stories that make the items relevant to them. They need to know why they should care about an item, a building, or even the organization itself. To meet that need, historical societies and museums must make changes in the way they present their collections if they are to successfully engage visitors.

So, what does storytelling look like? Maybe something like this:

Photo text exhibit w graphics and artifacts

Or this:​

Storyboard exhibit w artifacts

​Or something as simple as this:​​

Simple exhibit

Storytelling can take a variety of forms. I'd be thrilled to help you develop yours.


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