by • 18 Oct, 2015 • Expositions, StrategyComments (2)15147

Museums, stories and the collective process to engage the largest possible audience

Netflix know the exact moment you get addicted to any of their series. For House of Cards, it’s episode 3; for Mad Men, episode 6. This knowledge will help Netflix in the future tell stories that stick even better. The research reminded me of work Seb Chan did when still at the Powerhouse Museum, where he was able to understand visitor behaviour in exhibitions thanks to wifi tracking and other tricks. Such insights help design exhibitions that tell the most impactful story.

Much more than by their collection, museums are defined by the stories they tell. Erik Schilp defines museum entrepreneurship as the creative and strategic process with which one effectively and sustainably translates a story to the largest possible audience (emphasis mine).

Clearly, to reach the largest possible audience the story of a museum goed beyond its exhibitions, and designing and telling the story is the responsibility of more than the exhibition designers and tour guides. Storytelling is a process involving creative and strategic considerations. Successful museums tell a consistent story across a range of media, tailored to different audiences, in everything they do.

An example of such a museum is the Museum of Broken Relationships. Their story of relationships that went wrong, reaches its audience through its permanent and travelling exhibitions, but also through their merchandise (erasers!), digital presence, community, publishing activities and even their cafe. They’re a brand that tells a consistent story to its many audiences.

Storytelling is a difficult art. Although research like Netflix’s can show us what worked, it’s hard to predict what will work, especially across cultural boundaries, different demographics and the time span of museum strategies. Hollywood producers can make use of expensive algorithms that take into account thousands of factors to predict the success of a movie. Yet, generally speaking, in such case data analytics does not tend to outperform the hunch. (And I do not know yet of similar algorithms for museum stories and strategies.)

For me, this means storytelling should always be a collective process to look for the story that best fits the purpose and specifics of any institution. In Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull described how they shape such processes at Pixar. It’s a tough process and it requires a lot of guts, but Pixar’s successes show how this can help tell stories that everyone hears about. These processes shouldn’t be limited to the creative team either. First of all, because everyone is creative when given the right tools. More importantly, because telling a story to as many people as possible is a task for as many people as possible.

‘Story’ is the first of eight themes of the Museum Edition of Cards for Culture. The theme deals with all the ways in which you can tell your story, from exhibitions to education to publishing. When you use the cards in any of the suggested gameplays, they help you discover and design the impact of your story on the other elements of a successful and sustainable museum strategy. You can do this alone, or in a collective process with your team and other stakeholders.

Cards for Culture – Museum Edition is developed by Erik Schilp and me and designed by Robin Stam. Support our campaign on Kickstarter before Sunday 22 November 2015, 11:59pm CEST and be among the first to receive a box with 100 high-impact cards for strategy development in museums.

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