The Digital Storytelling in Museums workshop was a three-day gathering of museum professionals, hosted at the Tenement Museum in New York City. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), who funded the workshop, approached the Tenement Museum the previous year with the concept of partnering to convene and facilitate a discussion around digital storytelling. This discussion—spanning from before, throughout, and beyond the workshop—specifically focused on the use and affordances of digital storytelling as distinct and different from more traditional storytelling within museums.The Tenement Museum contacted me (Kate Haley Goldman) to serve as the evaluator for the workshop, focusing not on the logistics of the workshop, but on the conversations during the conference, the understandings that emerged from our time together, and the impact on the participants as they returned to their institutions. This report summarizes the main themes and ideas that emerged from the workshop, as well as recommendations for moving forward. I crafted this report from multiple data sources: applications to the conference, post-workshop reflections and interviews from each of the attendees, and observations and conversations at the workshop itself.The NEH and the Tenement Museum laid out a series of goals for the workshop:
- Define digital storytelling (or create multiple definitions)
- Generate a shared vocabulary
- Examine digital storytelling on a variety of platforms in different content areas, discussing how the attributes of digital storytelling can enrich museum practice
- Support institutions in their exploration of digital storytelling, specifically in the development of their projects
The Tenement Museum designed the workshop agenda around Dr. Amelia Wong’s framework on digital storytelling, exemplar case studies from New York City, and in-depth discussions with participants immersed in the field. The team at the Tenement Museum, headed by Dr. Annie Polland, Senior Vice President of Education, put out a call to the museum community for participants to submit applications to attend. To be considered, applicants needed to be working at a museum or historic site and needed to describe a digital project they were currently working on. Twenty participants were eventually chosen to participate, from applications numbering more than three times that number.
The structure of the workshop was broken up into the following main components:
- 1) Prior to the workshop, participants each selected an object from their personal lives that reflected an element of their own migration stories. These objects and the corresponding stories were uploaded to the Tenement Museum’s online digital reservoir of migration stories, a web-based project called Your Story, Our Story (http://yourstory.tenement.org). During the opening of the workshop, participants each gave a brief description of their objects (with the Your Stories website onscreen in the background showing the object) and how it related to their lives. This component not only served to help introduce the participants to one another, but forced them to tell a personal story and confront some of the issues around what makes up a story. Such issues included how to relate to an object in a compelling way and how to wrestle with difficult personal material.
2) In addition to the Your Story, Our Story introductions, participants each prepared a seven-minute lightning talk to give others an overview of the digital projects they were working on. Some of the Lightening Talks were given the first day, and due to time constraints, some were moved to later in the workshop. While participants understood the need to rein in the schedule, overall they felt that delaying some of the presentations slightly handicapped some of the conversations they could have had during the conference.
3) An initial framing of the concept of digital storytelling by Dr. Amelia Wong, described in detail later in this report, set the stage for the discussions to move forward. Amelia also conducted a series of exercises later in the workshop to foster thinking about the domains of storytelling, digital, museums, and the overlap of concepts, skills, and questions therein.
4) In the evening of the first day, artist Laurie Anderson gave a talk for workshop participants, focusing on the challenges of creating digital stories in museums. Most participants were familiar with at least some of Laurie’s work and aware of the caliber of her reputation, and yet the session was an unexpected delight. Anderson was not only intelligent, engaging, and funny, but exceptionally insightful regarding the challenges of digital storytelling in museums—from technology failure at the worse possible moment to projects museums partially develop then sideline, to working with curators to create a shared vision. Participants were unprepared for how closely her description of the challenges within her work mirrored the challenges in their own work.Following Laurie’s private keynote for the workshop, there was a larger public program at the Tenement Museum featuring Anderson. Workshop participants were allowed to attend for free, and some but not all did so. The public program was focused on the late Lou Reed’s film called Red Shirley, about his aunt. “Red Shirley,” as activist and Jewish immigrant Shirley Novick was known, was interviewed by Lou about her life’s work as she approached her 100th birthday. Laurie and several others were on a panel discussion focused on Lou’s relationship with his aunt, his conception of the film, and the impact of her life.
5) Key to the design of the workshop were the four case studies of digital projects presented during the workshop:
- ShopLife, a digital table experience created by the Tenement Museum and Potion Design, presented by Annie Polland and Philip Tiongson, Principal at Potion Design
- MetKids, a storytelling application developed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and presented by Masha Turchinsky, Senior Manager of Digital Learning and Senior Producer, Digital Media at the Met
- Connected Worlds, an immersive digital space that the group visited onsite at the New York Hall of Science, with debriefing by the Director of Exhibit Services, Michael Cosaboom and Producer Geralyn Abinader
- New York at Its Core, an exhibition still in development for the Museum of the City of New York, presented by Sarah Henry, Deputy Director at the Museum of the City of New York, with design partner Jake Barton of Local Projects
Other components of the workshop on various days included:
- Group subway trip to far Upper Manhattan to visit the Cloisters, the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Presentation on social media at the Met by Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer
- Presentation by Masha and Bill Doyle on using Twine to create budget-friendly choose-your-own-adventure style stories
- Tour of the Cloisters with Nancy Wu, Education Director
- Dinner at Tasty and Spicy, a Chinese restaurant in Flushing
Framing Digital Storytelling
Melding American Studies, psychology, cognitive theory and narrative discourse, Dr. Amelia Wong’s presentations on storytelling were a central component of the workshop. Participants all referred back to her framing when discussing their ideas of digital storytelling, their own digital storytelling projects, and the field at large.
Amelia made a case for why storytelling is so critical, how it is essential to the human experience. Cognitive studies show us that the human mind will create stories about even random actions and interactions in order to make sense of what happens. This process creates a memory structure and spurs empathy. We use story to begin to know ourselves and to create sense out of disorder. Amelia points out that in museums, storytelling has been a safe way to deal with emotions.
In this framing, a story itself is, at its most basic, an event or sequence of events involving entities that are usually, but not always human. Stories can also be about inanimate objects, subatomic particles, deep-sea life, or whole cultures. Stories are typically arranged in a series of events to have an effect on the audience. Events on their own don’t mean anything. Classically, this series of events is arranged in what is called Freytag’s triangle, a series of events ordered into five phases of the dramatic arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. This structure is often subverted in various ways in individual stories, though it remains difficult to build tension or bring a story to the climax without some form of rising action. Similarly, while some stories exist without a central problem to solve or a central tension, those remain the exception rather than the rule.
As Amelia described, stories are inherently manipulative, as is any interpretative technique. All content within museums is interpretative; choices are made about what to include and what not to include. We never see stories directly. They are always mediated, whether it be by technology, by narrator, or by artifacts. Stories are a reflection of both the storyteller and the audience.
All storytelling is a performance—the way the words are put together, the choice of the events, the selection of what emotions and facts to highlight and what to leave out. When you hear a story on the radio, on television, or in a podcast, you can hear the interviewers’ voice, their intonation, their presence. In a newspaper story, the storyteller is somewhat more removed, relegated to a byline. In a museum, the storytelling is frequently invisible as the person or collection of people telling the story is not physically present. The narrator is implied but absent. (The Tenement Museum is unconventional in that sense. All explorations of the Tenement Museum are done with a tour guide and educator who tell stories of the inhabitants and their communities.) The goal of stories in museums is for visitors to take in the stories, to reflect and wrestle with the stories, and to infuse elements of those stories into their lives and their worldviews. As Amelia says, “We know stories are working in museums; if when we give them away, audiences make them their own.”
What emerged as the definition of digital storytelling
One of the central questions of the workshop and the corresponding discussions before and after the workshop was to create a definition of digital storytelling. Initial definitions, as detailed through the applications, focused on digital as a tool.
As one participant noted, digital storytelling is not just narratives encompassed in a digital format, such as in a Kindle, but stands as a product not available in traditional storytelling:
“Digital storytelling is the creation of a narrative in a digital space (such as a website or virtual reality experience) or using digital tools (such as a cell phone camera or visualization software); digital storytelling exploits digital technology to create something (a product or an experience) that otherwise could not exist using more traditional storytelling methods and tools (i.e., an e-book is not digital storytelling).”
This sense that digital storytelling is something in addition to traditional storytelling also noted that digital allows storytellers to incorporate elements and push boundaries they might not otherwise push, as this participant mentioned when applying:
“Digital technology allows the conversation to be multidirectional, multisensory, and integrated into many other digital platforms.”
Within her initial presentation at the conference itself, Amelia noted she is not an advocate for the term “digital storytelling” as “it is technologically deterministic. It foregrounds the medium, giving the word a lot of power within the storytelling.” Initially, the term “digital” was important as the availability of digital tools opened up storytelling to the public. Individuals could collect their own oral histories through videotaping, create their own radio shows through podcasts, and share with audiences through YouTube. This new freedom through easy access to the tools for both the recording and sharing of stories has profoundly changed who could be a storyteller. We are truly in an age changed by the potential of digital tools, so perhaps “digital-age storytelling” is a more appropriate moniker. Amelia went on to say, “We’re not yet quite sure of the impact of the word digital on the storytelling, though we know it is having an effect.”
Amelia further noted that the term digital refers to too many different mediums to be consistent or useful in describing how a digital story should look or feel. She noted that, while it is clear that digital has an impact on our capacities and the shape of stories, to date no single set of motifs has emerged in approaching digital into story.
No single definition emerged during the discussion
While no single definition emerged during or after the workshop, there was also little disagreement on the core concepts within the idea.
Participants tended to define the digital element of digital storytelling as a tactic rather than a core element that changes the storytelling. For example, one participant noted:
“My definition of digital storytelling will continue to evolve as new tools become available and as users’ familiarity with and expectations of these narrative forms develop. At its broadest, I think digital storytelling is a set of multimodal and multisensory tactics, some high-tech and some low-tech, in support of a strategy to ignite a user’s imaginative, emotional, and intellectual engagement with information.”
Another element introduced through the use of digital within storytelling is the participation and agency of the visitor. Becky Hansis-O’Neill describes how this level of choice and motion can deepen the connection between the material and the audience:
“Using digital media such as virtual reality, augmented reality, or digital games in a way that requires the audience to participate for the story to move forward and be told properly. Human choice—such as where and how to look, listen, or feel a sensation—is a huge advantage of digital storytelling over traditional digital media, such as movies and photos. This advance allows artists, educators, museums, and scientists to connect with their audiences in drastically new ways.”
As Amelia elucidated, the term “narrative” technically means the act of telling a story. Linguistically speaking, there is no difference between narrative and story in terms of to what extent one is rooted in fact versus fiction. In journalism, reporting the story is clearly an act of non-fiction, an attempt to unbiasedly portray the relevant facts and context, with multiple points of view.
Natural History Museums and other STEM-based organizations wrestled with the context of the word “story” in a different way than historical or art-based organizations. Within a science context, the word story is often mentally attributed to fiction—a tale, an anecdote, a myth. Assertions not supported by science are labeled stories. In contrast to the journalistic context, terming a science-focused concept a story is dismissive. If an exhibit is described as telling the global climate change story, for some, that has different connotations than presenting the global climate change narrative.
In addition to the different connotations of the term story, participants noted that perhaps science-based institutions had more restrictions on their crafting of stories. As one participant noted:
“Amelia talked about communicating a story but not filling it in all the way, so visitors are able to construct their own gaps. I think [that] is key in an art museum. Whereas some places, maybe a science museum, you really can’t leave some gaps.”
Initially, the workshop team hypothesized that there might be give and take over the vocabulary around digital storytelling—the terms we use for framing, comparing, and presenting our stories. Instead, the participants embraced the terms proposed in Amelia Wong’s initial explanations of storytelling. The increased specificity lent precision and added a depth to the discussion.
Does digital storytelling differ from other forms of storytelling? Reviewing the data from this group, the answer would be no, not specifically. Participants often mused on whether the modifier “digital” was needed since the storytelling remains constant. For example, in Ed Rodley’s definition of digital storytelling, he pushes back on the idea that digital should be a key element:
“Like Wong, I find the term to be unhelpful and overly deterministic. Storytelling that takes advantage of the affordances of the digital realm is ‘digital storytelling,’ but it first has to be ‘storytelling.’ Storytelling is a way into the world. I think the most important thing “digital” storytelling has to offer that other media forms don’t is its ability to gracefully allow nonlinearity to coexist within the framework of ‘the story.’ Digital storytelling, done well, is a scaffold to allow really deep exploration of a subject.”
Stories broadcast on National Public Radio are not “audio stories,” and articles in a newspaper are not “newspaper stories.” Storytelling spans across so many formats, and while stories told via virtual reality are in a more novel format, the essential form remains the same. Many conversations occurred on whether “digital-age” storytelling would be more appropriate as a term. Digital-age storytelling would signify that digital brings added capacity and potential to our forms of storytelling. Over time, this potential would be reimagined and reincorporated into storytelling until the novelty is gone, until it is simply part of storytelling. Reminiscent of the term “industrial age,” while we as a society still benefit from forms of mass production, these attributes are enmeshed within everyday life, and we no longer name those elements as industrial age.
The participants were explicitly asked, “Is digital storytelling what we’ve been doing all along as the work of museums, or is this a new
role in museums?” There was a divided perception on whether digital storytelling is new or how we’ve always approached museums, but in an evolved vocabulary. “It’s been active, maybe without a name for years, because any dynamic organization is always thinking about how do you use tools that are available…It’s just that layering is more sophisticated now because of those technologies.”
What is Digital Storytelling good at?
The speakers, including Amelia Wong, and the advisors laid out several potential thoughts regarding the potential of digital stories. Amelia noted in her initial presentation that while no set of motifs has emerged for approaching digital into story, digital storytelling allows us certain capacities. To date, Amelia posits these capacities have centered on three different traditions of digital storytelling. (See Sidebar.)
For Philip, digital-age storytelling could be defined as having the following characteristics:
Philip and Annie’s presentation emphasized digital storytelling as an interaction between author and audience, telling stories that could not be told well in analog formats. Using an example of the visitor journey currently being built for the new 103 Orchard Street exhibition, Annie and Phillip talked about the visitor journey as progressing through a modified narrative arc through see, work, network, decide, disrupt, and then discuss. This arc emphasizes the visitor’s own progression through the narrative as a key design framework for the process.
Phillip echoed Amelia in discomfort with the term “digital storytelling” as there is no clear sense of what the digital is conveying in that moniker. He reflected on the lack of terms like “TV storytelling” or “paper storytelling.” Instead, he and Annie focused on understanding your own institution, its values, and centrality of the story to be told at that institution. They emphasized the need to test and adapt stories with visitors during development, and to consider what elements of a particular story, if any, are amplified by using digital to tell it.
What is Digital Storytelling useful for? Participant Reflection
Multiple projects focused on the wish to provide a more immersive sense of participation within a historical or cultural moment. For example, Silvina Fernandez-Duque’s idea focused on how to build a game highlighting the plight of refugees, the obstacles in bureaucracy. By making choices in a narrative context, Silvina asks whether can students better understand how complicated it can be to leave one’s country. Inspired by the game Papers, Please, Silvina posits that the game environment, if focused on the current plight of Syrian refugees, would make the choices and difficulties of refugees more present.This theme of a sense of presence can be expanded to an institution’s need to show something unseen or inaccessible. For example, Elaine Charnov from the decommissioned aircraft USS Constitution discussed how to make her institution more fully available to the public. Currently, 66 percent of the USS Constitution is unavailable to the public, thwarting efforts to show the visitors the larger space. Her project will create a 3D scanning project, the first step toward building an augmented and virtual reality environs of the sick bay and engine room within the USS Constitution.2. Multiple voices and diversity
Another reason the participants were exploring digital stories was an attempt to move beyond a singular perspective on history or art. As Amelia noted in her original framing at the beginning of the workshop, one of the critiques of museums’ use of storytelling is the tendency to present a “grand narrative”—an overarching sense of historic progress, lifting ever upward with the triumph of the values of Western civilization.Struggling with the lack of diversity or representation within a more simplistic grand narrative, multiple institutions expressed how their exhibitions and artifacts were presented without the full range of voices involved in that history. By layering digital stories and physical artifacts, the content had the potential to be more nuanced, more complex. Alex Bortolot from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) outlines his challenge in this description of his project:“’The Many Voices of Colonial America,’ MIA’s ca. 1770 Charleston Dining and Drawing Rooms, came from the … home of Col. John Stuart, who served as Superintendent of Indian Affairs within Britain’s southern colonies and was also an owner of enslaved Africans. Stuart’s relationship with his Native counterparts was complex: he had been adopted by the Cherokee chief Attakullakulla before assuming his administrative role, and his descendants identified as Cherokee and became leaders of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Charleston’s relationship to the trade in enslaved Africans was also multifaceted. Rice was the staple crop of the area, and Carolina landowners sought the specialized knowledge of enslaved Africans from what was then called the ‘Rice Coast’ of West Africa, a region in which rice cultivation had been established and perfected over thousands of years. Ironically, white landholders openly acknowledged and valued the intellectual capital of these West Africans, even as they perpetuated a vicious and dehumanizing trade of forced labor. For over 80 years, the rooms have been interpreted as late 1700s interiors featuring Chippendale and Federal-style American and English furniture and objects, and the above history has not been addressed or even acknowledged. I am working with a team of curators and educators to reinsert the African and Native American presence in these spaces.”Alex described how the inclusion of multiple voices to diversify the story is not simply a matter of slapping digital content onto physical collections, but a process, one of sharing the act of co-creation, ownership with the community. As he noted, “One thing I got out of the workshop was that if we wanted to do it in a way that involved our partners very strongly, we would need to develop that frame or that point of view collaboratively with them.”
April Antonellis highlighted her work at the National Park Service with 63 tribal partners and indigenous youth on a website about the War of 1812. April spoke to the challenges of co-creating with many partners of differing views and a lack of trust in federal institutions. Kristin Bayans also spoke about partnering with indigenous communities in an exhibition called the Art of Resilience that she and others at the Portland Art Museum are developing. Kristin spoke about working with a community to tell an overarching story about Sealaska Heritage Celebration while continuing to tell the story and honor the work of individual artists. All of these efforts are working to translate the complex, multi-voiced sweep of history into something physical and tangible.
As one of the workshop participants noted:
“Our collection suffers from that common problem of it. It’s very white and so on. We don’t have a terribly diverse history. We’re trying to pull out those threads more and tell all their stories. I think digital could be [a] helpful way for us to do that because it’s going to help us get at some of that complexity and just some of that breadth as well.”
“Most important element for me was a lot about bias, and framing, and [the] reusing of certain types of narrative, and changing narratives.”
Inclusion was a key element of the discussions on digital storytelling, including making digital stories more accessible to those with disabilities. Going forward, this thread should be explored more deeply, including direct conversations on the uneven distribution of accessible digital stories. As digital stories often incorporate multi-sensory experiences, there is unrealized potential in raising awareness and the proliferation of accessible experiences.
3. Telling more complex stories
In the example in the section above, Alex described the increase in the depth and complexity of MIA’s presentation of colonial America through the layering of the African and Native American voices where they had not previously resided. With those voices, not only did the story include a more diverse and representative portrayal of colonial America, it also became far more complex. Many other participants articulated a similar element that digital storytelling enabled their practice. Stephanie Arduini spoke on Richmond’s struggle to move forward while acknowledging the confederate past, and her work to integrate the different stories within their flagship exhibit within the American Civil War Museum. Phillip and Annie described how the use of the ShopLife Table allowed them to represent different vantage points on that content, incorporating more individuals than an analog treatment could have handled.
Reflecting on this complexity, digital storytelling in museums perhaps embodies, or draws from and then adapts, some of the elements that Amelia described in discussing transmedia. If a museum is not telling a single story, but the interweaving of multiple stories, is it drawing from a concept of transmedia storyworlds, where entering into the narrative and experiencing it from multiple vantages bring a richer understanding, even if that understanding lacks a single arc or a distinct beginning and end. Visitors assemble their understanding through the elements they engage wit
h and how they weave together those complexities.
4. Moving from listener to participant
Compelling immersive experiences, partially driven by new technological affordances are proliferating within the cultural sphere, pushing us to reconsider the role of the audience. In the famous immersive theater production Sleep No More, audience members rove the multi-floor building, happening upon individual scenes from the play Macbeth. The audience, wearing masks to make them anonymous, crowd around actors, wander the set, and are incorporated into scenes. Similarly, in Connected Worlds, an immersive digital space at the New York Hall of Science, visitors become the architects of the environments, creating and destroying the ecosystems.
Kimberly Guise notes that in digital storytelling, “users, not just content creators, can create individual landscapes and have agency in digital creation. Users are collaborators in digital storytelling—not just passive listeners.”
5. Timeline shift
Participants also endeavored to use digital to facilitate a progression through a timeline, to allow visitors to move back and forth within stories set in different times. As Elaine Charnov stated in her initial definition of storytelling, “Digital storytelling has the potential to engage the visitor in nonlinear time, which opens up many new ways of experiencing a story.”
In another example, Lisa Fischer spoke of her need at Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation to build parallel stories within their site at Historic Jamestown to show both the 17th-century history and the current story of archeology at the site, without losing visitors in this transition. This project will build a 3D model of the Jamestown fort to show the fort during different time periods. Lisa and her team are working on solving one key issue: “How do we have two narratives 400 years apart and connect these stories?”
What was the impact of being at the Digital Storytelling Workshop n participants and projects
I conducted interviews with each of the participants approximately a month after the Digital Storytelling workshop, to examine the short-term impact of participating in the workshop. Most participants had reported on the workshop to their colleagues. Some had distributed written notes about the workshop and their impressions. Others made formal presentations, including to the boards of their institutions. While the longer-term impacts are still yet to emerge, there were definite short-term impacts across all of the participants.
I asked participants to reflect on their personal definitions of digital storytelling in the initial application for the workshop and again at the end of the workshop itself. Finally, I asked them during our follow-up telephone interviews if their definitions had changed. The majority of participants held to their initial definitions, with little shift in ideas but an increased comfort and specificity with the language of digital storytelling.
While the definitions of digital storytelling remained fairly cohesive throughout, other questions were raised for further exploration in future conversations:
More interestingly, those who attended reported they had a more purposeful practice back at their institutions. They spoke of using storytelling as a framework in their professional practices and that there was value in taking on a storytelling mindset. Taking on Amelia Wong’s framework, participants articulated the change in their mindsets through precision in language. Here are a few examples:
“In future projects, that’s really where I’m going to be able to share a lot of the resources and most importantly the definitions that Amelia helped us define. We come up with that list of terms. That, for me, was just the biggest take-away from the entire workshop, and I’ve been using those definitions frequently, probably on a daily basis, actually.”
“The breakdown of what is a story versus what is content. That has really made [us] take a step back and re-evaluate what our story is and what we’re trying to tell based on those elements…It’s easier for me now conceptually to look at something and say, that is a story because here’s the narrative, here are the characters, all those very specific breakdown terms. More importantly, to be able to define what’s not a story. That has been really important and really helpful for me.”
Others articulated a transition in practice that was not yet complete, expressed at the time as a new awareness:
“I’m still trying to tease out what that actually means in an application to our work. When are we using storytelling techniques and when is it actually storytelling? I think it came up in different ways of when is it user-generated content and when is it user-generated storytelling? How do those two things pan out? I don’t think I have a good handle on what that looks like yet or what that actually means in practice. I appreciated, again, that kind of mental alarm in my head, so I’m looking for it now in ways that I haven’t been before.”
For some individuals, change in professional practice was expressed as “owning being a storyteller.” One experienced museum professional discussed how they had previously understood the role of museums as to tell stories, but after the workshop, their sense of “owning” being a storyteller and the perspective of accepting their role as a storytelling role changed their work. As another individual commented:
“I was really intrigued by that distinction between collecting stories and telling stories. Often what we do is probably just in that collecting category, unfortunately. I’d like to try and move it into the telling.”
The ownership of the idea of being a storyteller meant explicitly coming to terms with the idea that storytellers tend to be selective:
“Some of the things that especially resonated with me was this idea of really owning that you’re a storyteller and really embracing the fact that you’re being selective. I think museums struggle with that and they want to be really thorough, put all the information out there, or they want to be incredibly objective. I think owning the fact that that’s not possible or even desirable?”
“My biggest challenge in leaving the workshop is how to 1) make space for a multiplicity of voices in an exhibition while 2) imposing some degree of narrative cohesion.”
In her post-conference blog post, Amelia Wong noted that museum practitioners need more support to see themselves as storytellers.
Some participants reflected on the idea that they were not telling stories at all but rather working with collections of stories:
“One of the things that I realized when I was at the workshop was that I wasn’t just telling one story, I was actually telling multiple stories. The multiple stories actually created a larger narrative, and that was okay. I didn’t have to tell one story.”
Participants remarked that the workshop had given access to examples of digital storytelling, making them more conversant within their work. For example, both Connected Worlds and ShopLife served as digital experiences that work for multiple people at the same time. This ability to tell the staff and board, “I’ve seen that, and here are the implications of that approach,” was especially helpful for individuals in smaller and medium-sized institutions. As one participant said, “This definitely gave me increased validation internally of my work.”
At the same time, individuals noted that the case studies were generally large projects with significant budget, with fewer examples of the “small and scrappy.” The one exception was the Twine-based example of digital stories, as shown by Bill Doyle, as a method of trying out “choose-your-own-adventure” style games. Twine is a free digital tool, allowing individuals to create interactive non-linear stories. Participants enjoyed the activity, but wished that, instead of concentrating on creating a feasible story, the activity would have instead focused on the logistical and technical ramifications of digital projects with small budgets.
That said, seeing the large exemplar projects enabled participants to experience and describe ideas and to use these examples as boundary cases—projects that may or may not represent digital storytelling. For example, there were many discussions on whether Connected Worlds at the New York Hall of Science was a digital story or whether it represented an open-ended simulation, or in practice, an experiential environs without an actual story. The collective experiencing and discussing of these cases allowed participants to deepen sharing and reflections, better defining the edges of what they understand a digital story to be. As one participant described:
“The examples we saw on most of the site visits were ultimately not examples of digital storytelling based on the definitions we set up with Amelia. That encouraged conversation for us to have… we were all very full of ideas…There wasn’t really quite a narrative, and there were no characters and ultimately part of it was in control of the users. The user wasn’t telling the story. The user was reacting to things that were happening but not in a cohesive way that ultimately filled in the portion.”
Another participant commented that the case studies allowed for commenting on the infrastructure needed to support digital projects and to build that case internally for resources. As the participant noted, “This is happening, and we really do need technical support for it.”
When focusing on the status of the digital projects that institutions had brought to the conference, rather than the status of the individuals themselves, less had occurred. The workshop had informed discussions around the digital projects and a larger conversation regarding digital storytelling at multiple institutions, but had few concrete impacts on the digital projects themselves. This lack of directly attributable impact on the projects occurred for several reasons. First, some of the projects were in the conceptual or conceptual design phases, but had not yet centered on narrative. Others may not have received the go-ahead from their institutions or funding in order to even reach the conceptual design phase. Finally, a few of the projects brought to the workshop had been sidelined by their institutions for budget or staffing reasons.
What contributed to the impact of the Digital Storytelling Workshop?
Multiple factors contributed to the impact of the Digital Storytelling workshop. Foremost was the strength of the Tenement Museum as a host. Participants noted the smaller size of the institution and particularly the Tenement Museum’s investment in storytelling as a central tenant of its work. For those unaware, at the Tenement Museum, the museum is only shown through guided tours by educators. Using a combination of stories and questions, artifacts, and documents, these educators paint the picture of life on the Lower Side East of New York through successive waves of immigration. Museum-goers and staff relate to the history through a series of orally told stories. Participants described how each of the Tenement Museum staff had considered storytelling on a deeper level, how storytelling was embedded within their work, and the nuances of using stories as a primary means of interacting with the public. This day-to-day awareness of using stories as the central means of communicating history was apparent in the Tenement staff’s deep level of introspection regarding storytelling.
Coupled with this focus on the story as the primary vehicle for history, the Tenement Museum embodied authenticity. The staff was upfront about their strengths and weaknesses, where they had struggled within implementation, and the evolving nature of their work with the public. The positioning of their role of host as peer, rather than teacher or guide, allowed the staff and participants to explore the material together, without pre-ordained conceptions of where the discussion would lead. Overall, this allowed the participants to approach the material with a sense of openness and community, which allowed the conversation to develop in a rich and non-hierarchical manner.
Another contributing factor of success was the diversity of participants in terms of institutional type and level of experience in the field. The range of participants was noted by multiple individuals as “not just the usual players.” In the words of the participants:
“The fact that it was a very diverse group of museum professionals in really all facets of what our backgrounds were, where we were in our careers, what projects we were working on. That created a really interesting environment to be working these projects because it wasn’t people we might be normally working with…For me, it was very valuable. I think also being one of the youngest in the room too. Probably the earliest in my career. I was sitting around like, ‘When do I ever get to sit in this room?’”
“I really appreciated how it wasn’t all the usual people, people I’ve seen and known before. There were institutions I was unfamiliar with, and the cross-section of individuals made the conversations better.”
Participants did note that, while the room was diverse in types of institutions and level of experiences, and to some extent in terms of gender, it was not a racially diverse set of participants. Participants stated that any future workshops needed to ensure better racial diversity.
The strength of Amelia Wong’s initial presentation defining digital storytelling—along with the follow-up later in the conference on the overlap in museums, digital, and storytelling—provided a language and structure to the conversation. All participants spoke to the concrete, highly useful framework Amelia articulated, and used that framework to describe their own work and analyze others’ work.
The investment of the advisors who were present was noted by the participants. Philip Tiongson, Principal of Potion Design, and Masha Turchinsky, Senior Manager of Digital Learning and Senior Producer, Digital Media at the Met, were enthusiastic and engaged, without pretense or preconceptions. At the end of the conference, Philip offered to have one-on-one conversations with each of the participants to brainstorm on their projects without any sense of obligation. Several participants have sincehad telephone meetings with Phillip from Potion to discuss storytelling and moving forward with their own projects. Phillip was called out by multiple individuals for his authenticity, expertise, and generosity. Participants deeply appreciated his and Masha’s attendance at the entire workshop, noting that it was “incredibly helpful. His enthusiasm was pretty much contagious, but he brought the practicality into this very conceptual conversation.”
Participants also called out the strength of the National Endowment for Humanities as a funding partner, and more than a partner simply in name. Especially noted was Program Officer Tricia Brook’s presence and full participation in the workshop, which surprised and delighted the participants:
“Oh my gosh, she’s staying. She’s not just introducing the workshop. She’s actually staying. Wait, now I’m sitting at table with her. She’s participating in the discussion, she’s not just sitting back, she’s really engaging. You can tell the NEH is invested in this, and Tricia really being there was fabulous.”
Other participants noted that Tricia’s presence built up their trust of the NEH, their understanding of the funding structure, and the NEH initiatives. Participants would like to continue to hear more about the goals of the NEH, its reasons for supporting the workshop, and how the NEH will take this movement forward.
Finally, the small size of the workshop allowed for conversations to unfold:
“Everybody gave me little pieces of wisdom, and I think that being a small group, being only 20 participants… Being that small, you had opportunities to build on conversations throughout the course of the conference. I had initial conversations with people when they were first checking into the hotel, that in a larger conference setting, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to develop later on.”
All in all, the workshop was marked by a collegial and respectful atmosphere, with all individuals engaged in a deep discussion.
Next Steps for the Tenement Museum
During the closing sessions of the workshop, the Tenement Museum team facilitated a discussion on next steps for participants. The idea emerged from the discussion of the workshop participants, hosts, advisors, and funders as the initial members in a larger community of practice on digital storytelling in museums. The term “community of practice” is derived from work by Wenger and Lave. It signifies a group of people who share a profession, craft, or hobby where members share knowledge, resources, and experiences in order to learn from one another and have an opportunity to further develop their craft. Some communities of practice are created deliberately with the goal of gaining knowledge related to a specific field, such as museum practice.
The post-workshop telephone conversations also included a discussion of next steps for the community, created out of the workshop participants and reflections on what role the Tenement Museum should have in fostering and supporting that community.
During the telephone conversations, participants were understandably concerned that the conversation in this newly created community would die off if not supported. As one individual stated, “Right now it’s just this static thing that kind of lives there. How can we make it not?” They encouraged the Tenement Museum to continue in a convening role in order to allow the nascent conversation and practice of digital storytelling to flourish. As one individual said of the Tenement Museum role:
“Communicating out process and understanding where people are with their projects, where some of the road blocks are and so on, so being the facilitator essentially, to keep us in intellectual communication.”
While the participants look to the Tenement Museum for direction and coordination, they realize that is a burdensome task, possibly an unfunded one, and are uncertain that the Tenement Museum “should have this all on them.” That said, it was clear that an institution needed to play the convening role and that the Tenement Museum was the clear choice, given its combination of expertise, authenticity, and trust within the community.
While all participants gave glowing reviews of the workshop, they noted the workshop focused on the exemplars in the form of case studies and discussions around the conceptual elements of digital storytelling. Multiple people noted they needed more “workshopping” time to get feedback on their individual projects and to take advantage of the combined wisdom of the group to advance their practice in a concrete manner. This would give participants needed feedback and a chance to problem-solve over the structural and technical elements of storytelling. One possible reason there was more individual growth and reflection than project-based impacts from the workshop is this lack of concrete brainstorming, design, and technical discussions. While Philip’s post-workshop one-on-one telephone consultations helped support individual needs, they do not take the place of larger group discussions. Should this group convene again in the future, time spent on these needs would be valuable.
Most of the participants are also interested in serving in an active way to bolster the community. They expressed an interest in blogs, webinars, conference meet-ups, and hang-outs, emphasizing a combination of written and “in-person or live” events to grow conversation. Participants also had other specific ideas:
- There was very strong interest in Amelia’s tactics of storytelling as a live presentation or webinar.
- Participants would like to put together/do a panel for a conference. A place for discussion on how to push those sorts of initiatives forward would be useful.
- Many are interested in/also want “meet-ups” at conferences.
- Multiple individuals commented that they would blog if contacted directly and encouraged.
In the post-workshop conversations, I asked participants to reflect on what next steps the NEH should take to support the field of digital storytelling in museums. As noted above, participants remarked how it was clear the NEH was invested in digital storytelling, and Tricia’s presence “made the NEH more approachable as an institution.” As one individual remarked, “Oh yes. She gets what we’re doing. There’s trust there.” Further, participants felt that outlining the grant initiatives of the NEH was highly useful.
Future workshops were one of the key elements participants encouraged:
“We actually walked away with real tools, real resources, professional and otherwise, but just how valuable the actual getting together for a multi-day workshop was. I don’t know if it could be replicated with just paper resources or hour-long meet-ups. It was a very special experience in that they did a really good job of bringing all those elements together and creating a really valuable learning experience for people coming from all different backgrounds.”
Participants counseled that future workshop partners should be chosen with considerable care. The characteristics of the Tenement Museum, as described above, made the workshop effective. Larger and less story-based institutions would not have worked as well. Participants suggested workshops that would have a more concrete focus on moving their projects ahead. They were also interested in a workshop on digital storytelling and social justice/diversity.
 Lave, J. and E. Wenger. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.