Stories Here. Proceed with Caution!

By Merilee Mostov, Director of Exhibits and Engagement | July 10,2020

There’s a lot of chatter about storytelling in the museum world. When the topic comes up in conversation, my throat constricts; my breathing accelerates. Admittedly, the topic makes me squirm.

Don’t get me wrong; I love stories. I love the way a well-crafted narrative can hold my attention, ignite my imagination, and arouse myriad emotions. I recognize that the human brain is designed to process and remember information in a narrative format. I rejoice in the oral and written storytelling traditions of cultures around the world. Yet, as a 21st century museum practitioner, my relationship with stories is cautious and strained.

Why? Because museums in the United States have not done a good job of storytelling. At most museums, including BIHM, we present one, simplified narrative about the past —a story told from the perspective of dominant culture — a neatly organized romp about the actions of mostly white, mostly wealthy, mostly powerful men of European descent. It’s not a coincidence that this is also the demographic of the people who founded, financed, and managed museums, even today.

What is especially damaging is when we present this one-sided narrative with bravado. We celebrate our narrative as the definitive story, willfully ignoring and negating the stories of most of the population: Indigenous people. People of color. People with physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. People who are economically disadvantaged. People with limited power. People who don’t look or think like us. People who challenge our narrative.

History is not the same as the past. The past is everything that ever was—the unknowable totality of every persons lived experience. History may be based on some objective facts, but it is always a synthesis, a reduction, an interpretation, a story. History is how we make sense of the vastness of it all. But even a small Island’s past cannot be fairly reduced to one monolithic historical narrative.

One of the pitfalls of stories is that we are so easily beguiled by them. Consider the classic fable, The Three Little Pigs. Despite variations, the story is essentially the same chronology of events told from the pigs’ point of view (POV). I never considered a different perspective to the story’s events until I read a book to my children, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. In this parody, events are told from the wolf’s point of view, calling attention to the one-sided perspective of the original narrative. In Scieszka and Smith’s tale, the wolf is not villainous; he is kind and gentle. Does a story change depending on who is telling it? Absolutely. Every story has a distinct POV. Which brings us back to my discomfort with storytelling in museums.

Imagine if every history museum in the United States presented their exhibits from the perspective of Indigenous peoples only. Take a minute. Imagine it. If you’re like me, you are struggling to generate an image of what that could look like. Why? Because most museums in the US do not represent the Indigenous or black or brown POV.

If the old adage there are two sides to every story were true, my job would be much simpler. But, there are more than 2 sides to every one of the billions of stories from our collective past. It’s not surprising that the main exhibit at BIHM, opened in 2007, is titled Island Story. Recently, some members have inquired if a new exhibit in this gallery will still “tell the story of the Island.” Those are the moments I start to squirm. Unlike Scieszka and Smith, I cannot honestly or responsibly tell a story titled The True Story of Bainbridge Island. No museum can.

What I can do responsibly is be transparent about the impossibility of that expectation. (Writing this blog is a start.) I can be more transparent about my biases, perspectives, values, and lack of true understanding about the lived experiences of other people. (Full disclosure: I am part of dominant culture.) I can forfeit the traditional role of curator-cum-storyteller and embrace the role of curator-cumspace-maker. I can leverage the soft power of my Museum to make space for others to share their POV. I can loosen my grip on what storytelling should look like in a museum setting. I can encourage everyone to be a critical consumer of history. I can inspire museum visitors to expect diverse and complex narratives, to welcome the cognitive dissonance required to engage multiple perspectives, and to support the museums who champion this kind of change.

What can you do? The next time you visit a history or art (history) museum, I encourage you to consider these questions.

  1. Whose story is on display?
  2. Who is telling the story? Is the storyteller’s identity explicit or anonymous? If anonymous, who do you imagine as the author of that story?
  3. What parts of the story are indisputable facts about the past and what parts reflect the storyteller’s POV? (Hint: look for adjectives and adverbs.)
  4. Whose story is not on display?
  5. Does the museum explicitly invite visitors to compare their lived experience with the museum narrative? Is there dedicated space in the museum galleries for multiple, including visitor, points of view?

I’d love to hear how these questions impact your next museum experience. Write or share photos with me at [email protected].

Have fun exploring.