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Gathering Community Stories in a Covid World

How do we connect with museum audiences – their stories and experiences – when even visiting museums is a sporadic, uncertain prospect? Covid-19 challenges museums to find new ways of connecting with communities. One approach is to ask audience members directly to record their experiences in response to questions such as “How did your family come to our community?” This community storytelling process encourages museums to reach out to connect with visitors where they are, whether in exhibits, outdoor satellite spaces, or at home.

We began to use the phrase “community storytelling” on a project with Whim Museum focusing on local history in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Our goal was to build a YouTube channel based on the museum’s central mission: preserving the stories of people who have lived and worked on the island. To do this, we would ask questions such as “What would you like your legacy to be?” This blog entry describes the process, a popup installation set up on a rum barrel, and shows some of the delightful stories recorded.

Story recording in exhibits

Exhibits have been the central component of the community stories process. We were fortunate to connect with the Levine Museum of the New South, an community-focused museum in Charlotte regarded for their IMLS-supported approach reaching out to their local communities. For the ¡NUEVOlution! exhibit, we provided a popup station to record stories in sessions in a variety of locations including local churches. All the stories were funneled into an exhibit station managed by our cloud-based Content Management System. The project went on to be awarded AAM’s MUSE award for use of media and technology in the Interpretive Interactive Installations category.

NUEVOlution questions menu
NUEVOlution exhibit questions, Levine Museum of the New South

We’ll write more in this column in two weeks specifically about exhibit-based projects and notes on best practices gathering stories in exhibits, including projects with California Science Center, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the American Visionary Art Museum. A central feature of exhibit-based recording is that it’s always there, unfacilitated, ready to record the unique stories of visitors.

Popup exhibits and outdoor outposts

Popup exhibits provide another option for gathering community stories. As museums plan for springtime and summer during the pandemic, outdoor popup exhibits can provide an easier interface to the public, with open air opportunities to interact. Prior to the pandemic, we created with 42 Design Fab a StoryBike to record stories at the Fresh Paint Springfield mural art festival celebrating the transformation of downtown Springfield, MA. The day included nine murals and their artists, family paint activities, music, local craft beer, food trucks, and a ton of enthusiasm from community members. An amazing event, and part of an extraordinary community initiative developed by a collaborative of community organizations.

StoryBike to record stories
StoryBike for Fresh Paint mural arts festival, with 42 Design Fab

Next week, we’ll write more in this column about the potential for popup exhibits to increase community connection, including projects with Mini Maker Faire at Boston Children’s Museum, Arts Learning Festival in Melbourne with Harvard’s Project Zero, and Washington Post Magazine on the National Mall.

Online recording on audience’s own devices

Online recording during the time of Covid-19 provides an obvious benefit: it can be done on audience members’ own devices, in their homes, following an invitation to record by email or social media. We first developed this monthly service for the Museum of Durham History’s community exhibit on the Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center in Durham. Ar-Razzaq is one of the oldest Muslim communities in North Carolina, and a year long community-storytelling initiative culminated in an exhibit at the Museum. More recently, the museum used the service to record stories from women who are leaders in politics for their upcoming exhibit on the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

smartphone with online recording
Online recording at Museum of Durham History

In the third installment of this article series in three weeks, we’ll explore other uses of online recording, including anniversary projects with the Association of Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums, Georgetown Law, and Kinston Public Library, and how this approach can be a natural complement to exhibit and popup installations.

Coordinating it all: cloud-based CMS

We developed the Story Curator cloud-based Content Management System (CMS) to facilitate organizations gathering of stories using any or all of the above methods: exhibits, popups, and online recording. Museums can create playlists that are automatically downloaded to stations in exhibits, or share select stories on social media. Captioning service is available for accessibility, and our new search function will allow search by content of the stories, a feature significantly increasing the potential uses of story archives.

Next week’s article: Community Stories and Popup Exhibits

Brad has contributed to the field with presentations at AAM, ASTC, and ACM Interactivity, where he has led sessions on empathy in exhibits. He has served as a website judge for Museums and the Web and the New England Museum Association, and as a Reviewer for IMLS Leadership Grant proposals.