– By Mike Konzen, principal and chair
Doug Nickrent, one of our lead exhibit designers, asked this question recently. Doug has a knack for asking challenging questions, and he usually has a point. This particular question hit home with me.
Have you ever visited a museum that seemed to be missing something? It may have amazing artifacts, clever interactives, compelling subject matter, and important messages to impart. But the museum’s delivery somehow fails to strike a chord with the visitor. Are they telling an engaging story?
Of course, there are many excellent examples of wonderful storytelling in museums. Anyone who has designed a museum exhibit knows the challenge of making the experience compelling to diverse audiences. I believe that effective storytelling is one of the most powerful tools in creating compelling museum exhibits.
Based on this observation, we decided to conduct a study on storytelling and the impact it has on visitors called Storytelling: It Can Change Your Mind. Our research referenced studies in psychology, neuroscience, and social sciences. We reviewed the thoughts of some of the best storytellers in literature, cinema, and art. We also drew from the decades of experience of our talented staff. The results are compelling.
Storytelling is an ancient form, extending back many thousands of years. Many ancient societies told stories before they had the wheel, often as a means of survival. Mythologist Joseph Campbell has identified a “hero’s journey” in every culture that he studied; this is a tradition that resonates today with Tolkien’s Ring trilogy, Star Wars, and just about every Disney movie ever made. It’s no wonder that our brains are hard wired for stories.
From researchers at Washington University, we learned that hearing a story engages more parts of the brain than almost any other task. Bullet point facts activate only one part of our brain: the language decoding center. A story lights up areas all over the brain.
In split-brain studies, when the left hemisphere is presented with bizarre behavior that is directed by the right hemisphere, it acts like a guilt five-year-old, spinning an absurd tale to explain what happened. This is more evidence that storytelling is a whole-brain activity.
The human brain is hard-wired to seek stories, but it’s also shaped by them. The new field of interpersonal neurobiology investigates how our brains grow when we tell each other bits of our life stories. As it turns out, the brain doesn’t make much distinction between our own experience and someone else’s. Even the US Department of Defense is exploring ways to use storytelling to understand how the brain comprehends new information.
Stories are like glue, making information stick. Emotional stories are poignant to us because our brains release oxytocin – nicknamed “the tenderness molecule” – as we empathize with the characters. Sad stories also trigger a release of cortisone, which helps us pay closer attention. And when we’re seeking a match between the story and our own experience, we use a part of the brain called the insula, which lets us think about “the moral of the story” and connect it to our own lives.
Stories may be the only way to turn someone else’s experience into our own. Storytelling: It Can Change Your Mind also goes on to discuss proven techniques for storytelling in museums, zoos, aquariums, theme parks, and other attractions. Our research confirmed our intuition that storytelling is the most effective way to engage the heart, mind, and spirit of museum visitors.
Perhaps the time has come for a more in-depth focus on the art and science of storytelling in museum exhibits. It seems that many institutions have “Directors of Visitor Engagement.” How about a “Chief Storytelling Officer”?
What are great examples of museums that have embraced storytelling as a discipline? What are good examples of exhibits that are particularly effective in using storytelling to engage the visitor?
I invite you to check out Storytelling: It Can Change Your Mind, located here.