Storytelling for Museums—Act #1

April 23, 2019

Why Storytelling? It seems storytelling is the latest social touchstone everyone wants to talk about, shifting from the lexicon of creatives to everyday mainstream conversations. But why? This is part 1 in our 10 part series on Storytelling for Museums—In 10 Acts.

By: John Chiodo, G&A Senior Planner

The Writers' Room at the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian, MS



Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to make a body of content interesting to someone who may not be compelled to consume it otherwise. After all, a story sounds a lot more interesting than a report or a thesis, right?

A story offers a journey that takes you somewhere you haven’t been. A good story will make you feel something—and a good author will have you feel how they intended you to feel.

Storytelling is integral to how we approach exhibition design, and while we do tell linear, authored, narrative-style stories in museums—that is not what this is about. Let’s talk about why stories are so important and how we interpret them for a built, learning environment, like museums.

I’ve broken it down into ten acts, starting with why we tell stories in the first place.


Act #1: Why Storytelling?

The telling of a story is a fundamental way we conceive what is going on around us. It is how we imagine our reality. Think about how we remember things from the past and how we imagine things in the future… Is there a story you tell yourself about what happened, or what you expect to happen?

Stories as a mental construct

In The Meaning of Human Existence, E.O. Wilson writes “We are devoted to stories because that is how the mind works—a never-ending wandering through past scenarios and through alternative scenarios of the future.” He goes on to assert, “conscious mental life is built entirely from confabulation,” as homo sapiens can only model in their minds what is going on around them.

Stories as a way to connect with others

In his book, On the Evolution of Stories, Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Brian Boyd explains why we tell stories, how our minds are shaped to understand them and what difference an evolutionary understanding of human nature makes to stories we love. He writes, “Story…helps us understand the who, what and why of our and others behavior…it illustrates a capacity to infer the beliefs, desires, and intentions of others…”

Therefore, stories are an ideal way to connect to other people and ultimately enhance our ability to empathize and understand each other. And, stories are the primary way we contextualize our past, present, and future—it’s how we form our perceptions and understanding.

When applied to museums and other educational contexts, stories help:

  • Build empathy, as they have the power to resonate and emotionally connect with the visitor
  • Bring a diverse group of visitors together, allowing them to feel included and break down cultural barriers and silos.
  • Create an authentic experience for people.
  • Make a message resonate—which makes it more memorable.
  • Engage the imagination as one relives the experience they had.


Follow along with us as we explore Storytelling for Museums—In 10 Acts.