What story are you telling?

May012017

The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield famously said, “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.” I, on the other hand, went to a Canadian Museum Association conference panel discussion and there was no fight, no raised voices, nor anything even slightly controversial. But the outcome was surprising. While others listened to discussions of trendier subjects like “engagement”, I think “Museum or Monuments? The How and Why of Memory in the Public Realm” might have been the conference’s most important session. Under the guise of talking about the distinctions between monuments and museums, this was a more philosophical discussion about the central role dialogue plays in the museum brand: telling stories and sharing ideas. The topic du jour may be engagement tactics, but CMA members still have to come to terms with the fundamental need to tell really good stories.

Monuments and museums offer two forms of storytelling: the former proscriptive, the latter interpretative. Monuments are open public spaces where people go to experience an authentic story. They get to see something, maybe touch something real, but what they are connecting to–what they are learning–is a one-sided telling of an event. The monument opens the door to learning, but it isn’t a place for dialogue.

Museums, on the other hand, don’t want to be advocates forcing a particular point-of-view on visitors. Rather, they want to be seen as educators exposing people to a diversity of perspectives so they can help create better-informed citizens. In his 2010 book, The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand writes that academics at universities and museums are essential to helping advance our society by “investigating subjects [others] cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.” It is their job, he feels, “to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask.”

There’s a lot to be said for branding one’s organization as a facilitator. When people need to be part of a serious conversation, they should be turning to the museum as the place to interact with leading ideas. Telling a diversity of stories, being a place for dialogue–being a focal point for discussion–and launching important public conversations are part of the leadership for which museums want to take responsibility.

Mind you, that isn’t how they’ve been seen; Canadians have not been good storytellers. Panel moderator Gail Lord made a wry dig by asking, “What type of country takes 150 years to tell its story in a continuous way? We are finally shaking off our colonial shackles.” John Young, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, says, “our public memory is very much a work in progress.” He feels we don’t know the full extent of our stories–some are just emerging as we expand our scope. His “new” museum exists to convey a sense of our journey and our identity in human rights. To that end, fostering dialogue will be critically important “for shared identity” and it will be how the museum stays connected with audiences.

Similarly, Stephen Quick, Director General of the Canadian War Museum, says his museum doesn’t exist to tell a one-sided story about conflict. Rather, he wants the War Museum to “be a beacon for thought and dialogue” so we can understand this country and each other. It’s that dialogue, he says, that will, over the next ten years, enable the museum to fulfill its role “to help Canadians understand their history and their place in the world.”

To the extent the panel had a dissenting voice, it came from Mark Kristmanson, CEO of the National Capital Commission. The NCC isn’t about dialogue, but it is a storyteller. Kristmanson is a monuments man who believes the proscriptive story hooks people, gets “events into our consciousness” and leads people to inquire further. For each opportunity a person has connecting with an authentic space, he challenges his team to consider “what is the takeaway message? What do we want people to learn?”

Kristmanson’s question is vitally important; whether you’re advocating a certain point of view, or curating stories and moderating discussion, you still have to ask: “What do we want people to learn?” People are looking for leaders who will tell them what they need to know. Telling a story–or facilitating the telling of stories–generates a sense of leadership; it creates a credible narrative that persuades people to believe that a museum is worth staying connected to, and worth supporting. If our cultural organizations want to help Canadians understand this country and each other, and they want to be a focal point for discussion/dialogue, museums better start telling and broadly transmitting stories in ways they aren’t at present.

There can be downsides, of course. The CBC followed a proscriptive approach with its The Story of Us, a docudrama that tried very hard to be politically correct and inoffensive. But some groups feel their part of the story was underrepresented and they’re condemning the drama as offensive, a well-intentioned but expensive failure.

This led Globe and Mail columnist Yves Boisvert to conclude that it is impossible to tell a cohesive story about Canada that both succeeds and is inoffensive.

Perhaps he’s right that our society is too diverse to knit into a single storyline. That doesn’t mean telling the Canadian story is impossible; it would have been far better to conceive The Story of Us differently, more like PBS’s documentary series American Experience. That show doesn’t pretend to tell a linear and cohesive story because that isn’t what the United States story is about. Its tagline–“Where we’ve been, Where we are, Where we’re going”–indicates that American history is an important lens through which to view the American identity. But rather than telling a one-size-fits-all story, the show revels in telling a fragmented story; the series tells individual but unconnected episodes from the past that, if lined-up, tell the story of the whole. In this diversity-embracing approach, everyone’s story can be told.

It’s trendy right now to agonize over how to engage people. The problem cultural organizations are having is that we’re now miles beyond conventional storytelling; the ground has shifted. Not only do you need digital mechanisms tethering visitor and museum to remind people of your leadership and to nurture ongoing interest in your work, but smart organizations are now tailoring their content to meet the specific interests of specific customers, and predicting what their customers want to see before they’ve even asked. Welcome to the age of personalization.

The bottom line is you shouldn’t worry so much about how to engage people. In the race to new technology, it’s easy to forget that engaging people’s attention is all about the story we tell. What is really important is figuring out what you have to say. If you can’t do that you can’t entice people. Are you a proscriptive storyteller or a facilitator of dialogue? Figure it out. Start a conversation, expand your sense of place and keep people connected.

Rob Ferguson is a bv02 branding and content specialist–a writer and editor who focuses on helping clients understand “who are we?” and the impact their unique ideas and content have on developing identity and extending brand awareness. Rob is helping us develop strategic and authoritative narratives, and will inspire bv02’s dynamic team of storytellers, content creators and producers through the process of developing new digital experiences for clients so they can effectively and actively engage stakeholders in the lasting purpose of their institution, showing them to be distinctive and uniquely worthy of support.

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