Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Exploring Narrative: Telling Stories and Making Connections

Guy Hermann, Mystic Seaport, USA

At the Museums for a New Millenium Symposium in 1995 Bran Ferren Walt Disney's Vice-President for Imagineering, declared: "the web is the greatest storytelling medium ever invented." Ordinarily, I would discount this kind of sweeping generalization. But in attending American Association of Museums conferences over the past few years, keynote speaker after keynote speaker, from Isabelle Allende to David McCullough, has declared "great museums tell great stories." I had always thought (as an ordinary Joe) that museums are here to collect stuff and tell us about it. But the conjunction of technology visionaries and thoughtful storytellers has nagged at me simply because the resulting equation is so simple: If the web is the greatest storytelling medium ever invented, and museums are storytelling institutions, then the web must be the greatest medium ever invented for museums. Figuring out how to actually solve this equation has not been so simple.

In 1992 David Bearman wrote:

museums . . . are primarily in the business of dissemination of information rather than artifacts. The advantage to thinking in terms of information is that it validates the collection of intangibles, such as oral histories, and replicas, as well as actual artifacts; it places museums in a key position in an information age; and it makes it easier to integrate traditional functions of collection, preservation, research and display with the new watchwords, education and communication. (Archives and Museum Informatics, Fall 1992)
This conception of museums as key players in "the Information Age" (a notion itself ratified by a Smithsonian exhibit) has been central to our thinking about what we should do online. We are beginning to see the results with a flood of digital archives, paintings, photographs, manuscripts, what have you. I dutifully call them up on my browser, look at a few items and poke art the corners of the screen with my pointer, and end up wondering "Why is this important to me?" Usually it isn't. I see a collection of paintings, a set of letters, or a series of photographs which has some importance to someone, otherwise they wouldn't be on line, but more often than not, it seems that the mere fact that the items are online is the sole testament to their importance to the world. We are in danger of creating a new fallacy: "I am digital, therefore I am meaningful.' Don't get me wrong, I know digital archives are as critical to our work as our physical collections. But, like our collections, they are only the starting point.

This vision of an information-rich interconnected world is beginning to become a reality. But, even in virtual space, there is more to being a museum than simply having and showing a wide collection of objects, even if the Internet finally lets us show every last item we have, oh my!, to a largely disinterested public. While the underlying issues of standards and vocabularies is fascinating, it doesn't address the fundamental issue of what all this means to our "listening audience." A discussion of what it means to be a museum is perhaps a broader subject than I can address in this short essay, but clearly there is more to being a museum than simply having and showing objects or information. This is as true in virtual space as it is in physical space.

What more do museums do? I would suggest that primarily we tell stories. We tend to trivialize the whole notion of stories as something for children's bedtimes, or perhaps for the locker room, bar room, or the front porch depending on where we are in life. Stories may well entertain. But stories are also what knit us together. Stories give us the culture we try to preserve with cultural heritage initiatives. Preservation, research, and scholarship are critical, but what we remember are the stories: Romeo & Juliet, Homer's Odyssey, the Canterbury Tales, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Monica and Bill. The Bible doesn't inspire because it is has the facts, it inspires because it is a series of compellingly told stories about a consummate storyteller, some of them told over and over again. Our stories are what stay with us even after the artifacts are gone. The shroud of Turin is powerful because it might be part of a bigger story. But the story is there even if that artifact is a centuries-old fake. Stories give us emotional connections to each other, to our shared culture, to other cultures, and to artifacts. Without their stories, artifact collections and their related online exhibits may be intellectually important, but they are emotionally meaningless. They don't answer my fundamental question: "Why should I care?"

Not that we don't use stories in museums. Museums use stories all the time. We just call storytelling interpretation. We happen to be real short of interesting approaches to interpretation on the Web. While there are some excellent interpretive projects, most of our efforts have an oddly 19th century World's Fair industrial revolution feel to them. Our responses are: "look at the size of it!" "Isn't that amazing!" "How do they do that?"

Lisa Roberts, in From Knowledge in Narrative, carefully documents how museums have gradually evolved (at least from an educator's perspective) into places where we come to see exhibits which place objects in a narrative context, the exhibit explains how an object is part of a larger story. The transition to this approach has allowed museums to reach broader audiences. But the number of stories a museum can tell in this fashion is severely restricted by competition for gallery space, by publication budgets, and by a compelling desire to show as much of the "real stuff" as we can.

As Roberts explains, Museums have made the transition to narrative interpretation in physical space. The question for us is how do we move out of our 19th century view of interpretation in virtual space and begin to exploit the storytelling potential of the web? How do we interpret these digital objects? How do we provide context? What do they mean to us? What are the emotional connections we can make to them? Why do they matter?

Where in physical space, objects take center stage, even in a narrative interpretation, in virtual space we have far more "room" for story. The object recedes (as should a digital surrogate) and the story becomes preeminent. Except it hasn't happened yet.

Many people have speculated about virtual museums. But seldom do their imaginations stretch beyond the obvious: "Lets put the whole collection online!" "Lets recreate Rembrandt's studio!" "Lets take our exhibit labels and put them on the web site . . . and we could even include an artist's biography or a curator's lecture!" And I am as guilty as the rest! Where is the excitement and drama of a really good physical exhibit? Sure I want to visit the studio. But I don't want to just look in the drawers, I want to DO something there.

But what? Why not let me talk to the artist (or artisan). Better yet, let her teach me, not with some pedantic lecture on color theory, but with a rant about the morons at the academy, or the ineptitude of the other students. Or let him drop a tantalizing hint about his love life. Or let me choose to leave the studio and wander the streets to see what life was like. Or perhaps let me bid at an important auction or buy a sketch from a promising street artist. The tools are all there: immersive 3D virtual worlds, chatterbots, branching plots. All the Internet is a stage and we have yet to become players upon it. We lack a script, a backstory, and a skilled puppet-master. And I am not certain (this week) how we even begin to think about all this. The "Museum as Temple" mentality is not likely to cotton to the "Museum as Theater", but perhaps we can get away with it in virtual space. What fun that would be!

One good model as we begin to imagine a future truly story-centric museum is Janet Murray's book Hamlet on the Holodeck : the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Murray is a literature professor at MIT. Herbook looks at the many new ways we construct narrative (tell stories) inboth physical and virtual space and speculates about where we are headed. Using examples ranging from Star Trek's Holodeck to Tristam Shandy and the venerable Eliza, she links the future of narrative concretely with narratives of the past and present. The future narrative she sees is much more like drama than the largely linear novels we now think of as narrative. Her focus is on fiction, but the narrative tools she describes are equally useful in telling a factual story. Without the constraints of pages of a book or the needs of a mass audience, the author (we will still need authors!) can craft a narrative which responds as individually to each "reader." For an author, this introduces all kinds of problems. For a museum curator or educator it also enables opportunities.

One real opportunity for us is to understand the power of what Murray describes as "threshold objects," physical objects which serve as our entryway to a story, which provide a necessary visceral connection to an otherwise virtual experience. As an example she uses the heft of the controller "gun" in a video arcade "High Noon" shoot-em-up game. The same game played on a home computer with a joy stick is not nearly as compelling. In a maritime museum, a simple rolling pie crimper created by a sailor out of whale bone acts as the threshold object and provides an entry way to all kinds of stories: the whale hunt, sailor's leisure time, home life and family relationships, maritime communities, or perhaps the economy of whaling and its impact on 19th century industrialism. The power of a pie crimper, of a single physical object, to bring a story to life. to vitalize a virtual experience, is perhaps our most important short-term opportunity.

In her conclusion Murray says: "the most ambitious promise of the new narrative medium is its potential for telling stories about whole systems" (p. 280). For a museum, creating a whole system, the complete web of stories which provide meaning to our collections, is also an ambitious, even daunting, promise. But perhaps it is the promise to which we should aspire?

In a discussion last year at the Marshall McLuhan Center in Toronto, we were asked "what is replaced by this new medium?" Steve Dietz suggested "everything but the object." I countered with "everything but the story." I wasn't sure what I meant at the time. Now I am. The Bible endures without any artifacts. We grasp at relics, shrouds, and Israeli excavations, but the tablets, the cross, and the body are gone. The story, however, lives. As the inevitable dissemination of higher and higher quality digital surrogates eventually makes the object irrelevant (and even more precious and thus inaccessible), the measure of a great museum will be how well we tell the stories of our cultural history.

Let me tell you a story....

1999 Guy S. Hermann