Some thoughts on storytelling

I also wrote a recap of the AAM 2014 storytelling session at the PEM blog, with some more of the thinking behind storytelling in museums. Check it out!

Museums are like crack

As follow up to my post on our storytelling session at AAM, and Judy Rand’s “Waiting for Eileen”, here’s the second of the stories that were told.

Museums are like crack
by Catherine Hughes

Hello my name is Catherine and I’m a museum addict. No one told me that working in museums is like smoking crack. No one wants to admit it because what does that say about them. No one wants to tell you that you’ll want to do it so bad, you might end up broke, because you’ll practically work for free. You’ll be willing to forgo great benefits, work nights, weekends and holidays. Like meth addiction, you may even lose your teeth, because you can’t afford to go to the dentist.

I came into museum work not by design or desire really. Like many others, I came in through the back door, which is fitting as back alleys are where all good drug deals are made. I was not driven by a childhood epiphany in front of a diorama or a dinosaur. I had no particular affinity for history or science. In fact, by young adulthood I had developed a fairly serious science/math phobia and had convinced myself that I was incapable of comprehending either. I was a theatre person. That was my identity. I was not a museum person. At least not yet.

My road to addiction began with an audition for a series of theatrical happenings that I’d heard about at the Museum of Science in Boston. I knew the theatre director and wanted to work with him, and it paid, basically a dream job for an actor. I think in fact that I only made the second cut of actors. He was hiring a group of four, and I was hired to replace one of the original four. It was an innocuous beginning, but that first 2 month contract began my inevitable slide into museum junkie.

We performed a short vaudevillian piece in pairs inside the huge brand new Omnimax projection booth for people standing in long lines waiting to see the movie. We also entertained crowds and got them engaged with an enormous polarized-light collage on one wall. We were well received. The manager extended our contracts, and we began a sort of open ended run. That’s really how it starts. It starts small. It feels good, it’s fun, there’s no stress. Museum internships are like this, a gateway drug into museum addiction. Each intern thinks they’ll only be there for an 8-week semester, but then they can’t stop. Before they realize it, they’ve agreed to collect data for a new NSF funded project at wages below the poverty line. It’s only for a year, they tell themselves.

Before I knew what was happening, I was visiting other museums and checking out what they did. If I went to a new city, I scoped out the museums. I began meeting with other museum junkies in meetings, Museum Education Roundtables. I began reading about museums. I started writing about the work I was doing. I couldn’t get enough, which led me deeper into my addiction, so much so that I eventually had to get a master’s in museum studies.

Soon I was performing in various shows within the Museum of Science. A key moment for me was playing Ada Byron King, countess of Lovelace, for a Women-in-Science exhibition. I think I can probably blame Ada for getting me truly hooked. Playing her solidified my transformation, shifting my identity, from a theatre person to a museum theatre person, a hybrid.

Ada was a 19th century mathematician that many attribute with writing the first computer program in 1843. She was also the daughter of Lord Byron, and inherited parts of his colorful personality. Playing her before crowds of visitors who had never heard of her and knew little of women’s place in 19 century science was intoxicating. I couldn’t get enough of visitors’ surprise at learning her story.

Each new show we developed held similar kernels of unknown information, surprises and satisfyingly complex dilemmas to share. I did a play about the social and ethical implications of fetal-tissue research. I danced and sang in a play about the Brazilian Rainforest. It may not have been Hamlet, but each performance we did still grabbed an audience. And each time an audience responded, I felt that dopamine rush.

I got a huge high from visitors who wanted to talk after a show, even if what they wanted to do was argue. It was the emotional buzz I sought. The fact that visitors could respond emotionally to a 20 minute play about science – that they could laugh, or cry, get angry or feel moved, truly amazed me. My favorite story about a visitor interaction after a play is this. I’ve recounted it numerous times, like any good addict relating and reliving a fantastic high. I was performing a play about the sinking of the Titanic. It was a crazy comedic one-person piece in which I played a host of different characters, including an albino crab who lives on the wreck and knows everything about it, but which also contained a sharp indictment of humans’ ability to harness technology. After one show, an older Italian gentleman visitor came up to talk to me. He began wagging his finger at me and accusing me, You, you are working magic. You are asking questions you should not ask! And then he grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the theatre and into the exhibition hall, and said Look, look what we have done. We must celebrate it. And I agreed, I said, yes, out here we celebrate those accomplishments, but in there, in the theatre, we question them. We can do both in the museum. This exchange caused all my neurotransmitters to fire simultaneously. My brain exploded. It felt amazing.

By this time, obviously I was drinking the koolaide along with smoking crack.

Soon I was leading others into addiction by forming a non-profit called the International Museum Theatre Alliance. I became a dealer. I enabled newbies by writing a book about the work. I traveled to conferences spreading the word. I was almost missionary in my zeal to attract others to the fold. I did not tell people what would happen if they started. That they wouldn’t be able to stop their museum addiction any time they wanted. I’m only now coming clean.

I finally hit rock bottom. I decided I had to get a PhD.

When I was done with my dissertation, I thought maybe I’d had enough of museums and I could put that pipe down and teach. I thought academia offered new hope for me. But after teaching college for a year, I relapsed, and went back to museum work. Now, like many functioning addicts, I take my daily dose just to be normal, so I’m able to work. You’ll have to excuse me though. I’m starting to get a bit jittery, I need another hit.


Catherine Hughes 

Waiting for Eileen

As follow up to my post on our storytelling session at AAM, here’s the first of the stories that were told.

Waiting for Eileen by Judy Rand


It was SO cold that winter. Drafty apartment. Wind blowing in from the bay.


Time to light the heater.

The open-flame gas heater.


I had a diagram from the gas company: “How to Light Your Old Heater.”


 It doesn’t look anything like MY old heater.

Turn valve A to B.
Wait, there is no B. There’s some loopdeloop thing here.
Push down on lever C. I don’t see a C.

I know GAS is going to come RUSHING out of this pipe at me—here? Here? !!!


This isn’t gonna work.
If I light this match, I’ll blow us all up.

And by us, I meant…me.

Two-bedroom apartment, but I was living alone.
Just me and my secret.
Nobody at work knew it, but I. Was shy.

Too shy to knock on a neighbor’s door to ask for help.

I was terrified of parties.
When I go….IF I go…to a party, I hide in the bathroom.
(Luckily, I don’t get invited to many.)

I look at the heater.

                   (What could I do?)

I put my parka on.


And I wait.
I am waiting for Eileen.


Eileen was a science writer who lived two hours north, in San Francisco.
She’d come down for meetings at the aquarium. We worked together.
When meetings ran late, she’d stay over at my place. (Why not? I had a spare room.)


Eileen was amazing. She knew how to fix things. She knew how things work. She fixed my kitchen faucet. She fixed my clock!


She LOVED figuring things out. (Best of all: I wouldn’t even have to ask.)


“Gee, it’s getting cold,” she said when she arrived that evening. “Would you like me to light the heater?”


                                  Yes! Thank you! I am so grateful.


I sound like an idiot, right?Actually, I’m pretty good at my job.
I’m not shy at work. I have great ideas. I’m a PASSIONATE visitor advocate. I speak right up. And I have to!

“It’s this new TEAM,” I tell Eileen.

The Designer and I don’t see eye-to-eye.

I want visitors to FEEL the ocean.
What’s it really LIKE down there?


- The Designer’s  in a whole ‘nother world.
Circles, systems, networks. Stuff you can’t see.
He keeps shooting down my ideas.

- The Fish Person is quiet. Very quiet.
Fish people are like that. They go diving in the kelp forest, it’s quiet.
Nobody talking.
They’re like that in meetings. Nobody talking.
(What are they thinking?)

The 3 of us are deadlocked. We can’t agree.


 “Too bad there’s no way to fix that,says Eileen. “A workshop maybe.”


WORKSHOP! I’ve got one next week!

Not about teams. About visitors’ learning.

But maybe I can bring back some proof.
Convince these guys to see things my way.



I fly off to DC.

Dr. Bernice McCarthy. Learning Styles in Museums, at the Smithsonian.
(I know it’s probably gonna be participatory. That’s the new thing.
                                          That’s OK. I’m gonna sit in the back and take notes.)


Bernice jumps right in.

There are 4 learning styles, says Bernice. They’re actually steps, or stages, on a learning cycle that all of us go through when we learn something new.
But each of us has our own favorite place we like to dwell on the cycle.


Each person has their own favorite learning style.

#1s   Imaginative Learners

(1s are immersive. They seek personal relevance.
They’re people people, says Bernice.)

#2s   Analytic Learners want the facts.

Lots of curators are #2s, Bernice tells us.


#3s are Common Sense Learners.

They ask “How does it work?”
They’re the engineers of the world, says Bernice.
(Sounds like my friend Eileen!)


  #4s, the Dynamic Learners

ask “What if I try it?” They like to jump in and do it.


Bernice divides us into groups.

#1s over here.      #2s here.     #3s there.      #4s—yep, already there.


Each team’s going to come up with an exhibit scheme.

 I look at my worksheet: points on a graph. I’m a 1.

Imaginative. Yes. Immersive. Yes.

Wait a minute…did she say “People People?”


I look at the #1s. The People People.

They’re waving to me, warmly.
This is going to be awful.

Three minutes in, I am happier than I have ever been.


The #1s love every idea I have. I get them, they get me.
These people are brilliant! (Where did they come from?)


Bernice calls “Time!” Each group presents. “How did it feel?” she asks.
Everyone from every group says “Amazing. Great! Not like my team back home.”

Then Bernice scrambles us. This time we’re mixed.

1,2,3,4.  1,2,3,4.   1,2,3,4.

“Same activity,” she says. “Come up with an exhibit scheme.”


Three minutes in—crap! This is just like my team back home!


Crazy Designer Person killing my ideas. SHE wants cladistics.
Systems! Stuff you can’t see. I do my best to keep it real.

Bernice calls “Time! “How did it feel?” she asks.
Everyone from every group says “A LOT more conflict. Just like my team back home.”


Then each group presents its scheme.
They’re better.Markedly better.
                                More vibrant in every way.

Bernice says it’s proof.
When a 1 works with a 3…when a 2 works with a 4…your opposite learning styles ensure the strongest results.Your strongest collaborator is your opposite number.


If, Bernice says, you can manage not to kill each other.


Ohhhh. Oh!
Is that why my Designer drives me crazy? (I must drive him crazy too.)
                        We’re opposite numbers?
But wait. Eileen is a 3—I’m sure of it! I love Eileen!


WHAT IF…what if…the next time the Designer comes up with a crazy idea,
a how-does-it-work idea, I look at him….and imagine it’s Eileen.
Imagine Eileen’s head on Designer Person’s body.


This could work!

What we’d do together WOULD be better if we didn’t kill each other.


This one idea—‘opposite learning styles’—changes my work-life. Forever.



BACK HOME Friday, the apartment’s warm.  
Team meeting is good.  


One problem.
I’ve been invited to a party.

The Fish People party.
It’s going to be quiet.
Everybody standing there holding their beers. Noooobody talking. They’re waiting for their one talkative guy—John O’Sullivan—to arrive.
Shark collector, big, fun-loving guy. Got a story for everyone.
Until John-O gets there, it’s going to be QUIET.
(Makes it hard for me to hide.)

End of the year. I have to go.
I drag myself over to Gil’s house. (Yes, a Fish Person named Gil. This is a true story.)


Gil answers the door. He looks morose.
“Gil, what’s wrong?” I ask, stepping inside.
“John-O can’t make it,” Gil says. (Oh no!)
                                                             Everyone’s quiet.


I’m ready to retreat—but then I feel this strange….warmth…come over me.
Like I felt surrounded by my #1s.


I say to myself, “You. Are. A. PEOPLE person.”
“Gil needs warmth. Help Gil out.”


I start telling Gil a penguin story. (It’s funny.)
I see Freya smile. And Peter.
The party warms up. I tell another story.


And THAT moment changes my life-life. Forever.
I DO care about people—not just visitors.
I DO have love to share.
I don’t have to hide in the bathroom, scared.

Thanks for coming to the party. It’s great to see you all here.

© Judy Rand, 2014

Telling Stories about Storytelling @ AAM 2014

One of the highlights of my AAM 2014 experience (and the source of the most dread), was the storytelling panel that Seattle-based exhibit planner Judy Rand and I organized. AAM included a “storytelling” format this year in the call for proposals, and we thought it’d be interesting to put together a session that wasn’t the usual “people sitting behind a table talking while the slides went by” kind of presentation. Judy suggested we explore the power of storytelling based on the model of The Moth Radio Hour. I suggested the theme of “The thing I wished they’d told me when I started in museums” and we were off!
A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating... and a rug and plant.

A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating… and a rug and plant.

Over the next few months, we expanded our roster of speakers to include Catherine Hughes, Director of Interpretation at the Connor Prairie Museum and Nina Simon, the Executive Director from the Museum of Art and Science in Santa Cruz. Catherine’s an actress, Nina’s a former slam poet, and we knew they’d rise to the challenge of telling compelling stories within pretty rigid time limits. Judy and I, both more writers than speakers, had more to worry about. Coming up with a way to tell a compelling story is very different than writing a compelling story. Writing for the ear is, for me, much harder than writing for the eye. I don’t think I ever spent as much time practicing a conference presentation, cutting and tightening, as I did for the eight minutes I was alone in front of a room full of my peers telling my story.
The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

In the end, depsite the angst it caused me, it was a great session. The stories we heard were amazing. Judy told us of her intense shyness in public and of the revelation of taking a personality test and finding out that it classified her a “people person.” Catherine described her love of museum work as an addiction and drew out a number of very funny, if slightly disturbing, analogies between her career path and an addict’s. Trust me, it was good. Nina told the story of her struggles as a new museum director and what it means to really be an activist instead of just talking about it.
Judy sharing her story with the audience.

Judy sharing her story with the audience.

When we asked the 200-odd people in the room to pair up and tell each other a 2-minute story, the noise level was deafening. Instead of having the usual question and answer session at the end, we invited audience members to come and share their stories with the audience. It was great.  Here are the handouts we made:

Our Storytelling Resources handout

Our 2-minute storytelling activity handout

I wrote about my own story over at PEM’s blog, and that prompted me to get this recollection down, and to include Judy’s and Catherine’s stories as well, in future posts.

Now back to editing CODE|WORDS essays and trying to write my own!

The first CODE | WORDS essay is on Medium!

And so it begins…

I am very excited to announce that Michael Edson’s “Dark Matter”, the first CODE | WORDS essay, is up on Medium! I invite you all to go give it a read and join us in a series of stimulating discussions on the intersection of digital technologies and museum practice.

Real transformation ain’t easy

So, here I am in Seattle at the American Alliance of Museums conference, and I’m not finishing my presentation. Instead, I’m getting very excited for the first couple of CODE|WORDS essays, which should launch this week! The introduction is already on Medium if you haven’t seen it. It’s been a long haul, but we’re starting, and I’m very excited to read what our friends have to say. Just talking to the authors has been enriching and good exercise for looking at things from fresh vantage points.

Getting out of the “business as usual” mindset is never easy, but vital for thinking about how museums should organize themselves to best fulfill their missions in the current century. It’s an evergreen topic that I wrote about extensively a couple of years ago in the Museum from Scratch series.  There I wondered what would a born-dgital museum look like. Who would work there and what would they do? The whole idea was to step outside the usual strategic planning model that takes the current organization as the starting point and suggests chenges to that structure. Great for incremental change, not so good for dramatic, systemic change. Two recently published reports lend their support to this idea, and are essential reading for anybody interested in museums and the future.

‘Bolt-on’ digital strategies vs digital ‘transformation’

The first is a Forrester Research report titled “the State of Digital Business 2014″. In it, the author says that a majority of CEOs favor ‘bolt-on’ digital strategies over digital ‘transformation’ and that overcoming this mindset is going to be a key factor in businesses success in the coming years. I reckon the same will hold true for museums.

The study itself is obviously a paid product, but Jessica Davies at The Drum summarizes some of the key findings of Nigel Fenwick, who polled 1,591 senior business leaders in the UK and US. Fenwick finds that the disconnects between the marketing and technology sides of businesses are wide neough that they signal a “digital strategy execution crisis” in many companies. Sound familiar, museum folks?

Some key takeaways:

A Bolt-On Digital strategy will Not Be enough In 2015 and beyond:

While marketing has been the principal driver of digital initiatives up to 2014, going forward firms must take a more comprehensive approach to digital transformation and avoid simply bolting digital onto the existing business.

CMOs Must Partner with CIOs To Transform Toward a Digital Business:

Digital business requires both digital customer experience and digital operational excellence. Without the CIO as a digital partner, chief marketing officers (CMOs) will tend to approach digital as a bolt-on approach to customer engagement.

CIOs must embrace digital as a core technology imperative:

CIOs must shift their focus toward systems that support the firm’s ability to win, serve, and retain customers. Digital technologies are central to this shift. The ability of the technology management team to embrace digital will shape the future of the CIO.

Innovation and the New York Times
The really, really big news though comes from the newspaper industry and the leak of an internal 96 page strategy report commissioned by the New York Times that frames the challenges of disruption on legacy institutions better than anything I’ve ever read. It’s a long read, but well worth it. Obviously an internal document, it lays out the kinds of turf battles, internal confusions, and working at cross-purposes that happens in any big enterprise. Really, read it!

Joshua Benton at the Nieman Lab wrote a great synopsis of the report that’s a good starting place, especially for unpacking some of the insider language that the report uses. Benton calls it “one of the key documents of this media age. It’s an astonishing look inside the cultural change still needed in the shift to digital” It’s that important.

I’m still going through with a fine tooth comb, but here are some of things that have leapt out at me.

Pg 4

That means taking more time to assess the landscape and chart the road ahead, rethink print-centric traditions, use experiments and data to inform decisions, hire and empower the right digital talent and work hand in hand with reader-focused departments on the business side.

Pg 5

It should be stated explicitly that there is no single transformational idea in this report. Transformation can be a dangerous word in our current environment because it suggests a shift from one solid state to another; it implies there is an end point. Instead, we have watched the dizzying growth of smart phones and tablets, even as we are still figuring out the web. We have watched the massive migration of readers to social media even as we were redesigning our home page.


Audience Development is the work of expanding our loyal and engaged audience. It is ahout getting more people to read more of our journalism. The work can be broken down into steps like discovery (how we package and distribute our journalism), Promotion (how we call attention to our journalism) and connection (how we create a two-way relationship with readers that deepens their loyalty)

Pg 32

A list of best practices for experimentation
• Launch efforts quickly, then iterate. We often hold back stories for publication, as we should, because they’re “not quite there yet.” Outside our journalism, though, we can adopt the “minimal viable product” model, which calls for launching something in a more basic form so that we can start getting feedback from users and improve it over time.

• Set goals and track progress. Every new project should be launched with a specific goal and metric for success. In many cases, our main goal is high-quality journalism. But readership and engagement are usually important, too; All managers should be clear on what a new initiative is aiming to accomplish. Editors in charge of experiments should track their progress in real time.

• Reward experimentation. Currently, the risk of failing greatly outweighs the reward of succeeding at The Times. We must reward people who show initiative, even when their experiments fail. Share lessons from both successes and failures.

• We need to do a better job of communicating our digital goals, and sharing what we know about best practices to achieve them. No project should be declared a success, or shuttered, without a debrief on what we’ve learned, so that we can apply those insights more broadly.

• Kill off mediocre efforts. To free up resources for new initiatives, we need to be quicker and smarter about pulling resources from efforts that aren’t working. And we must do it in a way that is transparent so that people understand the reasons behind the decision, so that they will be willing to experiment again.

• Plan for “version 2.0″ and beyond. Often, the resource plan for new projects stops at launch. As we learn from readers about what is working and not working, we have to continue our efforts to refine and develop our new initiatives.

• Make it easier to launch an experiment than to block one. At many companies, people are able to test ideas on a small percentage of users with mid-level approval. Elsewhere, you must write a memo about why an experiment should not happen in order to block it. Our journalistic standards always need to be protected, but tradition alone shouldn’t be a justification for blocking experiments.

Pg 47

We need to explicitly urge reporters and editors to promote their work and we need to thank those who make the extra effort. Interest in and aptitude for social media should not be required – just as we don’t expect every reporter to be a great writer – but it should be a factor. And we need to help journalists raise their profiles on social by sharing best practices. Our journalists want maximum readership and impact but many don’t know how to use social media effectively. Content promotion needs to become more integrated into each desk’s daily workflow.

Pg 58

To become more of a digital-first newsroom, we have to look hard at our traditions and push ourselves in ways that make us uncomfortable. Too often we’ve made changes and then breathed sighs of relief, as if the challenge had been solved. But the pace of change is so fast that the solutions can quickly seem out of date, and the next challenge is just around the corner.

Reading this and looking back at the Museum from Scratch posts lead me to scribble a bunch of questions as I was reading the Times report. These are in no particular order, but I need to get them written down so they won’t get lost.

  • Why don’t we treat Internet access as a utility? Whatever the FCC says, it’s like water and electricity and needs to be as ubiquitous and as essential to the building functioning.
  • Should there be an IT dept that functions like current ones? Nobody tells you how to file your papers, why should they tell you how to file your docs? Ppl will take care of ther own devices.
  • Why don’t we treat the digital artifacts of the work (email, files, etc…) as being worthy of being collected and preserved?
  • How do we recoginze the people who we serve? In modern born-digital musuems, the engagement economy exist for both onsite and online visitors. Programs will have to encourage deeper levels of engagement and connection w the museum. Visitors will be encouraged to become closer to the museum and rewarded as they do.
  • How do we make the value statement pervade everything we do, and make sure everyone knows it?
  • How do we make audience engagement part of everybody’s job? There’s a great urban legend about an AMerican president visiting Johnson Space Center during the Moon Race and asking a janitor what he was doing. The jnaitor allegly replied “I’m helping send a man to the Moon.” That’s the kind of place we strive for.
  • How does continuous professional development occur and become a performance metric for staff?  “How have you improved?” and “What have you learned?” shouldbe questions we should be asked.
  • How do we make the ladder for staff development is clear for as many as possible?
  • How do we bake time for reflective practice into the institution?
  • How do we keep what’s important safe, and let the rest of it be somebody else’s worry? The cloud is nice, in the short-term. In the long-term, the cloud doesn’t give a shit about you or your mission. Gmail, Evernote, etc… are great…until they change, and they will, and you won’t be ready. Google is famous for relentlessly pushing new services and then killing them.

More to come! Now back to my presentation…

Expectations & Satisfaction in Gallery Experiences

Ed Rodley:

Boy, am I amazed at how quickly Art Museum Teaching has become a truly multi-vocal, rich resource for new thinking. And this post is by Boston’s own Jenn DePrizio from the Gardner.

Originally posted on Art Museum Teaching:

Written by Jenn DePrizio , Director of Visitor Learning, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Since participating in the 2014 Gallery Teaching Marathon held at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego during the NAEA conference, two questions have been swimming around in my mind:

  • Where do our expectations for behavior in gallery experiences come from?
  • What does satisfaction look and feel like in an art museum experience?

Issues of expectations and satisfaction are part of the work we do each day.  We plan gallery talks, tours, and programs with intention and hope that we meet the needs and expectations of our visitors.  During the Marathon, I participated as both a learner and facilitator in the varied gallery experiences that ranged from using thinking routines to creating poetry to using movement as a way to express personal interpretation of a work of art.  Since that day I have been thinking deeply about…

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