Beyond Questions of Definition to Questions of Practice

By: Amelia Wong

One thing you learn in graduate school is that there are no real answers. Usually, the best you can hope for is that your first questions lead you to better questions.

Another thing you learn in graduate school is that the marker of a good conference is that you leave with more questions than you came. This is a sign that the conversation has been engaged, focused, deep, and—most importantly—playful enough to have explored an initial set of questions and shown them to be a wellspring of many more.

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Some of the post-its bearing questions from a reflection session on the third day of Museums and Digital Storytelling.

I left Museums and Digital Storytelling with a great deal of questions. Literally. I left with a big pile of Post-its bearing questions created by participants and they’ve been driving my thinking about storytelling with digital media in museums ever since. This is especially great because I’ve been mulling over the question of “what is ‘digital storytelling’” for over two years now mostly in the solitary cavern of my brain. And, while I’m satisfied with my opinion—it doesn’t exist as a particular way to tell stories, but refers to this cultural moment in which diverse experiments are trying to understand the impact of digital media on narrative—there remains the most important question of an academic’s work: so what?

Where does this understanding of storytelling in the digital age get us? Specifically, where does it get us as museum practitioners who want to create storytelling experiences, on-site and online? I think it gets us necessarily beyond focusing on definitions to developing questions related to the actual practice of producing storytelling experiences in museum projects.

That’s my “so what.” I’m pursuing an answer with lots of great fodder from Museums and Digital Storytelling—principally ideas pulled from the reflection session for participants that I facilitated on the closing day. To me, they begin to suggest a set of guidelines or framework for developing storytelling experiences in practice. I’m not very far along yet, but here is an explanation of how I got to this thinking and a very preliminary articulation of where I’m going.

One of the goals of the conference was to begin to ponder a “shared vocabulary” of digital(-age) storytelling. I asked participants to do a brain dump of words and concepts that had been circulating over the course of the workshop. When these were collected, it was clear they could be organized into three main areas of concern: storytelling, museums, and digital. (Stifle the yawn and bear with me.)

Participant Julian Jackson (Milwaukee Public Museum) wondered if a Venn diagram would be useful for mapping that initial round of concepts, an idea that I captured in a messy sketch.

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My sketch of the conversation about storytelling, museums, and digital and their relationships that unfolded in the reflection session.
​Nothing revolutionary about overlapping circles, except that the diagram visualized a conceptual model for museum storytelling in the digital age, one that would involve asking questions that derive from the three contexts of storytelling, digital, and museum, and where they intersect. Here’s what I mean:

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My working mental model for developing a framework for storytelling by/in museums.
I then asked the participants to create questions that would map to these areas. The participants generated 85 questions: 50 in the museum context; 19 in storytelling; and 16 in digital. (Check out the questions in an Excel file created by the workshop evaluator, Kate Haley Goldman, and since modified by me, at the bottom of this post.)One thing was immediately revealing. This exercise came after two full days of non-stop discussion of storytelling and I honestly expected to see more questions in the “story” circle. That there were only 19 compared to 50 in the museum context confirmed to me that museum practitioners need serious encouragement to embrace the role of storyteller as much as we need a practical framework to help us create storytelling experiences. (The 16 questions in the “digital” context was less interesting since the participants were mixed in terms of their professional backgrounds.)

Other things have been revealed as I’ve begun considering the questions. In a rather standard way of approaching qualitative data, the first thing I did was look for commonalities among the questions. I coded each question (as best as I understood it without the benefit of having heard the conversation that produced it) according to the answer it was trying to get. For example, “What is the point of this story?” is concerned with a museum’s strategy. “What are the boundaries of the story world? How big/small is it?” is about conceptualizing the storytelling experience. Thinking about resources is the point of “Will this be built in-house? With vendor?”

I ended up with this set of codes: Audience; Authority; Strategy; Content Development; Resources; Platforms/Distribution; Evaluation. Coding the questions allowed me to see quickly that only one question occurred across the museum, storytelling, and digital contexts: who is our audience? I’m mentally sticking that question in the middle of the Venn diagram, for now seeing it as a sun around which other questions in a practical museum storytelling framework will orbit. It also seems clear that the contexts are hierarchical, which would direct a flow of questions from a focus on museum to storytelling to digital.

To continue to map out a framework, I’ve begun to think about what each set of questions within each context would accomplish in moving a project forward. That thinking is expressed below in the chart and it’s still pretty raw. But, I’m confident these questions are productive ones as they are already pointing the way to a practical framework for storytelling in museums, as well as prompting me to think about how to build storytelling capacity in the museum profession so that practitioners can better own their role as storytellers.

Comments . . . questions? I really hope so. Please share

Amelia Wong is currently the web content strategist at The J. Paul Getty Trust and served as a workshop adviser and presenter. 

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