Introducing The DSMuse Grid

By: Annie Polland, Ph.D.

Executive Vice President, Programs & Interpretation at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

What do a virtual reality experience on a battleship, a Boston Chinatown user-generated story and a video game on the refugee experience have in common? All fit under the umbrella of digital-age storytelling, and were avidly discussed and analyzed, along with fifteen other projects, at a recent NEH-sponsored workshop in Minneapolis. And now, as we try to share the best practices and questions generated at the workshop with the broader field, all the projects have been plotted on a digital-age storytelling grid. The grid, we acknowledge, is analogue, and does not provide a magical key to digital-age storytelling. But it is, we hope, a tool that helps tie together a range of museum projects of various scales, ambitions and from a range of institutions, to help us discern patterns. Above all, the grid attempts to show the relationships between projects, and as such, could become a platform for shared inspiration and best practices.

A word, first, on storytelling. Before we get to the digital, we found that a universal sentiment at both conferences was the desire of museum staff to devote time to storytelling. What are the elements of a good story? How do we learn to trust ourselves as storytellers? What kind of practice methods would help us hone our skills? On another level, much time was spent on how to craft “the story” to explain your project and find institutional buy-in. Thus storytelling—both with regard to content itself as well as the pitch of a project—emerged as a central, preoccupying concern that could not be ignored, even at a conference specifically devoted to digital storytelling. Digital-age storytelling projects rely tremendously on the more traditional field of storytelling, and museum staff seek guidance and time to cultivate storytelling skills. They are the bedrock for the digital-age projects.

Indeed, we are drawn to digital-age storytelling not from a desire to play with what Laurie Anderson terms “technological gew gaws”, but because the intermingling of storytelling and digital enabled us to tell more complex stories. We picked up on our last conference’s articulation of the “superpowers” of digital storytelling, how it provides a sense of immersion, the weaving of multiple viewpoints or perspectives, the ability to move along various points along a timeline, and participant driven, interactive experiences [for more on this, see Kate Haley Goldman’s meticulous and engaging report].

Having articulated WHY we are drawn to digital, we then spent more time thinking about HOW to do digital. Amelia Wong specified three specific story formats: 1) story as a structure for the experience as a whole; 2) storytelling as a technique in a traditional project 3) a platform for story collection.

Then we merged our WHY with HOW, to create a grid, making the superpowers the rows, and the story formats the columns. Pre-workshop, we used the grid as a tool to help us plot participants’ projects in the grid, and create working partnerships and working groups around [squares]. And in reviewing our work, we tried to see whether similar questions/dynamics arose around said [squares].

We started to see the projects as a whole, and see where we might derive inspiration from similarly-formatted projects, or projects that had adopted a specific superpower. In turn, looking at projects in the field help us hone our own projects. Well done projects tend to focus on one, or perhaps two, of the superpowers. There is something liberating in realizing that one’s virtual experience that of course takes on the superpower of immersion, does not mean one should play with the superpower of moving along a timeline.  Similarly one’s storytelling collecting project rests on multiple perspectives, not a sense of immersion.

In another sense, though, formats helped move individual projects along, letting us see where we currently were situated, but also where we want to be. The Tenement Museum’ Your Story Our Story fit distinctly into the third format, as a platform for story collection. Yet we want to move to “story as a structure for the experience as a whole,” and that entails curating larger stories from the user generated content. Thus, the grid can help us think about our projects in relation to others in the field, but also motivate us to articulate our goals for what we want our projects to be.

The grid, and more importantly our work and conversations around the grid, helped us better recognize that digital-age storytelling is not a one-size-fits-all-project or definition, but rather a 3-D tapestry of projects, with an array of patterns…There is no recipe for a digital storytelling project, but rather a wealth of formats and superpowers that help us tell our collective stories…

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