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Encyclopaedic vs. Experience: Immersion, participation and storytelling

Aileen Peirce, Chris Gidlow and Polly Schomberg on why storytelling is a powerful technique that we need to embrace and yet use judiciously. It is one weapon in the museum and heritage professional’s arsenal – use it wisely.

Humans have always told stories. Storytelling is the natural, human way in which we make sense of the past. It hardly needs justifying that this is the normal means for cultures to interpret their heritage. It is no coincidence that “history” and “story” share the same linguistic root. Indeed in some languages it is impossible to make a distinction between the two words. When Herodotus first used the word in the 5th century BC he meant his investigations into the past of Europe, Asia and Africa. He wrote down the results of those investigations as stories ranging from fables and travellers’ tales to the epic sweep of the past.

There are no human cultures where storytelling has not been the standard way of preserving and communicating facts about the past. The first written text, the Epic of Gilgamesh, as we call it, is a story about the past of the city of Uruk and its ruler. The Illiad is the first major text from Europe, Beowulf the first in English. These are all stories, transporting their listeners to the past. Interpretation of the past in forms which are not narrative are rare, and in some cultures totally unknown. The object label and the thematic graphic panel are by no means as common or as natural.

At the Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa, storytelling and the process of storytelling are inherent to the way visitors experience Maori culture and the cultural history of the indigenous people of New Zealand. Not only is storytelling part of Maori tradition but it is genuinely appealing to the visitors.

Perhaps the reason why storytelling seems so natural is that it mirrors the way in which we make sense of our own lives. Although the events and experiences which have influenced us are uncountable, when we come to explain our journey to work, our careers, our relationships, we select those which specifically lead to that conclusion. We order them logically and usually chronologically, drawing out the chains of cause and effect, to form a logical and dramatic unity – a story. It is not at all surprising that we use exactly the same technique to make sense of the pasts of others and of our cultural past. And in this way storytelling can help to engage a culturally disparate group of people.

It is hard to imagine anyone who would spontaneously answer the question ‘how was your journey here today’ thematically – different categories of wheeled transport and their utility to the commuter; or statistically – 30% of my journey was delay free; or as a debate of contrasting arguments for and against the journey being easy. No, anyone (other than maybe a museum or heritage professional!) would start at around the front-door and end with arrival, narrating the journey in between.

Because this is how the past is constructed in our own minds, it is hardly surprising that this is how we communicate a narrative sense of the past to others. We take them from a situation they know to one they do not know through the medium of a story.

Since storytelling is a human universal, it requires no specialist skills or rarefied educational or museological theory to understand it. An ordinary visitor can follow a story, enjoying it for itself while learning. As often as not it will be a story which has awoken the interest in history which brought them to the site in the first place. The setting and the characters may be unfamiliar but the universality of basic plots, human values and human nature create an empathy in the listener which makes them all the more receptive to the historical content. Witness the rise of the historical novel and its adaptation into film. Very often it is the story, whether encountered in a novel, a film or a piece of oral storytelling, which acts as the hook drawing a visitor to our sites. Their very story-based form helps make history accessible to a broad range of people.

“What do you want this new museum of ours to be”, the director had asked [the designer] at one of the meetings – “an encyclopaedia or a novel?” Encyclopaedia or a story; or even encyclopaedic museum versus the story-led visitor experience – which would you prefer?

Historic Royal Palaces defines its Cause: “to help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people shaped society in some of the greatest palaces ever built.” We chose these words deliberately because so much of the heritage we preserve is encapsulated in stories – the myths and legends of the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Whitehall Palace and so on.

When we produce statements of significance for parts of the Tower of London World Heritage Site, stories, whether true or legendary, are considered just as important as architectural or archaeological values. For example, the Bloody Tower is connected to the story of the Princes in the Tower; the Bowyer Tower to the story of the Duke of Clarence, drowned in a butt of malmsey; and the execution site to the stories of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey – all as significant as the fact that these buildings are part of Henry III’s 13th century expansion of the fortress. And when the heritage is in the form of stories in the first place, what better and more natural way to communicate than by retelling those stories? For example, the Yeoman Warders’ famous “Beefeater tour” embodies and continues this tradition of storytelling at the Palaces.

However, while storytelling is of course an engaging and appealing way of communicating with visitors, it can also be misleading. Some of it seems farfetched, but history can be like that – it gets embellished. Makes for better stories. In our quest to tell better stories we must have clear boundaries – how far are we prepared to manipulate facts, objectivity and the historical process in pursuit of a good story?

Storytelling may be a natural way of organising events but it is, at its heart, an ex-post rationalisation of events that were not neat and rational. The past, like the present, is chaotic, disorganised and fragmented. We may impose a story on the past but it does not naturally form a story. There is no “story of the Tower of London” with a beginning a middle and an end. One thousand years of history cannot be so neatly packaged. However, if we accept that as the case at the macro level, is packaging history into stories at the micro level not equally absurd?

Storytelling can be a blunt instrument, losing the nuances and ignoring the unknowns of history. However, it is these unknowns which drive research and new discoveries. The fact that we do not know the whole story has inspired countless generations of historians to investigate further. Perhaps by showing the gaps in our knowledge to our visitors, rather than always telling neatly packaging stories, we can inspire their interest in history too.

The historical process does not deal with neat stories but instead requires analysis of conflicting evidence – consider the Princes in the Tower. We do not know the true story – we have the legend, the Shakespeare play, the centuries of embellishment. However, in reality we do not know what happened to them, when or on whose orders. Some bones were discovered in the White Tower in 1674 which may or may not have been the princes but nobody knows how they died or whether it was on the orders of Richard III or Henry VII. Historians have spent many years analysing the conflicting evidence and reaching different conclusions. Does this sound too boring for visitors – would they not prefer to hear a simple story? In fact, our evaluation of displays in the Bloody Tower shows that visitors have a real appetite for historical detective work. They are asked to look at the evidence and vote on “whodunit”. Dwell times and levels of visitor engagement are very good and demonstrate that we should not be afraid that history and the historical process is boring.
In 21st century museum and heritage interpretation practice, the word “fact” has become almost synonymous with “dull”. However, we must recognise that many of our visitors look to us as the voice of authority and do expect us to deliver facts. Authenticity often comes up as a visitor concern in evaluation – they trust us to deliver it and we must recognise the unwritten contract between us. Of course our audiences also come to us for entertainment and we should not shy away from presenting some of our great legends. Was the Duke of Clarence drowned in a butt of malmsey in the Bowyer Tower? Probably not, but as a famous legend it merits telling.

Shakespeare, the master storyteller, tells this and many other Tower stories brilliantly but his audience goes to him purely for entertainment. Ours comes to us for entertainment but also with an expectation of historical truth. Our presentation of legends must recognise this.

The great storytellers of Hollywood are renowned for refusing to let the facts get in the way of a good story. However, history cannot always be moulded to fit the dramatic conventions of tension, heroes and anti-heroes, love interest, archetypes, conflict and resolution. In dramatic biography writers and directors always end up reverting to fiction. To be effective, the dramatic elements must and finally will take precedence over any “real” biographical facts.

Creating beginnings and endings, hinge moments and cliff hangers may produce a more compelling story but if this is at the expense of historical veracity should we, as heritage professionals, make that compromise?

Stories need internal coherence but creating a coherent story to delight the audience can often mean losing the multiple perspectives that make history so rich. The story of Edward I’s campaigns in Scotland is either one of triumphant victory or brutal oppression depending on your perspective.

At the Tower of London, Edward I is usually presented as a great warrior and leader rather than a brutal invader. In Berwick, where thousands of citizens were massacred by his forces, the story might be rather different. As storytellers we are all naturally biased so, if it is impossible to completely eradicate bias, perhaps we should disclose this bias and more explicitly author our stories. The Yeoman Warder tour at the Tower of London is an extremely accomplished example of storytelling at its best. It has highs, lows, drama, intrigue, tragedy and comedy and visitors consistently rate it as the top activity at the Tower of London. However, a quote from a visitor in July 2007 demonstrates the pitfalls of telling too compelling a story: He put things in perspective. Unbiased – told about the good and bad about the English at the time.

The Yeoman Warders are the keepers of Tower traditions and the tour is full of fantastic stories. However, it is certainly not intended to be an unbiased analysis of English history.
Yet one of the tantalising aspects of storytelling is that it does allow a personalised and subjective approach to imparting information. It enables the teller or presenter to own their point of view and put it across.

This personalised approach helps to engage the visitor and makes a connection between the audience, the story and the teller. Used well, a story can allow for different perspectives, enabling the visitor to make their own judgement or even seek other view points. It can help the visitor challenge the received wisdom – was Edward I a hero?

The last 20 years has seen growth in revisionist histories – providing another interpretation to a previously ‘true’ history. If storytelling can help us to be bold in the way we present history as multi-voiced, with changeable variables, then surely this is a good thing. Although we now accept more readily the inherent bias present in many “factual” exhibitions, stories seem to suggest to many in the museum profession a more alarming lack of truth. However, how often have you visited an exhibition which has presented the facts in an authoritative and omniscient way? How do you know that this is any more truthful than a story-based experience?

While it is just as possible to present bias through a selection of facts as it is through the telling of a story, there is potentially something more dangerous and persuasive about a story. Perhaps it is a direct result of all the positive aspects of stories – their ability to connect with everyone, the way they draw you in emotionally, the empathy they create – that encourages us to accept them uncritically. Just consider how war propaganda uses storytelling as a weapon to create new, credible narratives.

Even stories told without such explicit agendas will be tied to the outlook, opinions and culture of the storyteller. We can’t help but operate within our own cultural and moral framework. Again, there is something in the structure of a story that brings this to the fore. Perhaps it is the fact that stories encourage us to add more colour, more description and more of a personal tone of voice that allows the opinions of the storyteller to creep in.

To illustrate this, consider the body of films that have been made about Henry VIII and how they portrayed him, for example: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933 film directed by Alexander Korda and starring Charles Laughton) showed a sympathetic Henry, the victim of his wives’ machinations. Anne of the Thousand Days (1969 film directed by Charles Jarrott and starring Richard Burton) depicted a love story with an arrogant, self-centred monarch. Henry VIII (2003 Granada for ITV series, directed by Pete Travis and starring Ray Winstone) focused on the pursuit of a son, and Henry’s unappealing character.

From the filmic techniques used to shoot them to the particular censorship laws at the time; and from the social sub-texts on the monarchy and national identity, to the way the character of Henry is portrayed and more tellingly the way that the wives and sexual politics are presented: each one tells us more about the director and the cultural zeitgeist of its day than it does about the true character of Henry VIII. But again, perhaps this is a truth that extends to more than just the storytelling approach, and applies to everything we do at heritage sites and museums?

At Historic Royal Palaces, we believe that one of the key roles of museums and historic buildings is to ‘carry the past into the present’ and to provide people with a sense of their own history, and to tie this to themselves and the world today.

Our Chief Executive Michael Day states that: ‘In a world that is more uncertain than ever, people are searching for roots, foundations and anchors. They want to understand how the past shaped the present, and they want to protect the things they value. In this respect, I believe that we at Historic Royal Palaces have a unique role to play.’

However, we have to accept that whether we use story or not, we are only ever capable of bringing the past into our present now. Whatever we do will instantly mark itself out as a product of our current time and culture.

Yet storytelling also allows access to ‘human truths’ which transcend time and culture. Everyone, regardless of age, gender, culture or even historical period, experiences happiness, love, sadness and pain. A Tudor king will have experienced grief, felt pain and even cried. This emotive element within storytelling makes historical figures ‘real’ to the visitor.
In a small intimate space in the Young Henry VIII exhibition at Hampton Court Palace a chair sits by itself in the corner of a room. On the floor is written in to the carpet ‘the Queen laments like a natural woman’. To the side on a blocked-in doorway is written the name, if known, and the birth and death dates of the six babies born to Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII. As the visitor looks closely they will see that five babies were either stillborn or died soon after birth – a sad and simply-told tale. We deliberately provided an emotive moment where contemporary visitors can empathise with the pain and grief of these two parents.

While the great power of storytelling is its ability to emotionally engage, our goal in historic spaces is not only emotional engagement with the story but physical and sensory engagement with place. At heritage sites in particular, we have the real 3D environments where people walked, decisions were made, love was discovered, wars were waged and lives were lost. Yet to be told a story, whether orally, visually (in a film, or in images) in written text (novels, text panels etc) is often a passive communication process. Is it possible to find new ways of working with stories which give a more active role to the visitor?

At Hampton Court Palace, for example, we are working on a project to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne in 2009. In our thinking we have tried to push the concept of storytelling further – casting the visitor as the central character in a 3D, multi-sensual world. They will use their bodies in the same ways as members of the Tudor court, experimenting with the routes they are able to take through the building; they will engage with different kinds of activities in different rooms; they will discover how you move differently wearing different clothes; they will understand first-hand the range of emotions that might be felt; and will be physically reacting to the sounds and smells of court; and we will be manipulating how people interact with each other. The visitor is immersed in the story and experiences it rather than being told about it.

While visitor immersion and participation are important and exciting goals, we also need to inspire visitors to engage critically, to challenge and question the stories they are experiencing. The traditionally passive relationship between listener and storyteller must be overthrown. We must recognise and consider disclosing the inherent bias in the stories we tell, perhaps through more explicit authorship. As heritage professionals, we also have a responsibility to honour the unwritten contract with our visitors to deliver authentic and truthful experiences. There are no absolutes or definitive answers to where we draw the line between fact and fiction – this is a negotiated process which will change and evolve with each new project and story we tell.

Storytelling is a powerful technique that we need to embrace and yet use judiciously – pulling out all the aspects that we have identified as being powerful, engaging and able but being cognisant of its problems and limitations. It is one weapon in the museum and heritage professional’s arsenal – use it wisely.

Aileen Peirce, Exhibition Project Manager, Historic Royal Palaces; Chris Gidlow, Live Interpretation Manager, Historic Royal Palaces; Polly Schomberg, Visitor Experience Consultant, The National Trust; Kate Woodall, Senior Concept Developer Digital Projects, Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa

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