Museums as Vehicles for Storytelling: A Survey of Methods and the Potential for Online Collections

  • Julia Sager


Like the masterpieces hanging in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Louvre Museum in Paris, and countless others around the world, visitors to museums on a daily basis are extraordinary. Each person enters the galleries with individual curiosities, hopes, and knowledge built from their memories and lived experiences. As they take in the information presented to them, perhaps they consider an experience they had. Perhaps of everything they see, what sticks out to them is a piece they most relate to and that happens to be from another continent. The ways individuals relate to objects and other humans are derived from experiences stored in their memory, both on an explicit and implicit level. As we continue making connections through storytelling, we are joined as humans on a basic and yet intimate level. This paper investigates the psychology of storytelling and its usefulness in engaging the communities museums serve, specifically considering the use of museum collections websites as a means of expressing narrative.

Understanding the ”Why”

Storytelling is a popular tactic used in advertising, social media, cultural institutions, schools, and more. In advertising, story is used to create emotional connection and drive a particular message. Storytelling shows up on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites through the “story” function, allowing one to share different aspects of their life. In cultural institutions such as museums, storytelling can be seen through exhibitions that share perspectives through various forms of engagement with content matter. By understanding a few psychological basics and analyzing the “why,” institutions may connect more closely to their missions when considering how to incorporate storytelling into online collections websites.

Simon Sinek speaks to this precise principle in his TEDx Talk “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action” and introduces the golden circle, which starts with “why” in the center, moves outward to “how,” and then to the last ring, the “what.” He explains that we cannot assume that we know why we do what we do. We need to solidly know. This is what will drive success. This is why cultural institutions, among other nonprofits, form mission statements—which are an anchor to the organization. When creating programming, exhibitions, initiatives, partnerships, etc., an organization will refer to their mission. Therefore, when utilizing the power of storytelling, an organization should know why it works and, thus, why they are using it.

Basic Psychology of Memory and Storytelling

Understanding the “why” narrative and the idea of story works as a useful tool in genuine connection, enabling one to better understand one’s organization and community. The first thing to understand is that memory can be incredibly subjective due to the astounding individuality of each person’s cognitive function, as well as personal experience. However, generally, the main components to memory function in the brain are the same from person to person. There are two types of memory controlled by different areas of the brain: explicit memory, primarily influenced by the function of the hippocampus, and implicit memory, influenced by the function of the cerebellum and the prefrontal cortex.

Essentially, the two types of memory are like data collection. Explicit memory is categorized in three ways: episodic, “times, places, associated emotions and other contextual information that make up autobiographical events;” semantic, “general world knowledge we possess and have collected throughout our lives;” and autobiographical, “a collection of memories specifically related to the self.” Implicit memories are obtained and remembered subconsciously. To explain further, episodic memory recalls events in one’s life; semantic memory mixes with episodic memory in experiences and is emphasized by cultural differences; and autobiographical memory includes things such as how one looks, meaningful things in one’s life, and usually specific things one knows of oneself. Therefore, this idea of our life being made up of stories comes from our explicit memory, which is at the forefront of our consciousness, paired with the emotions we feel as we collect experiences as well as the subconscious implicit memory. Our implicit memories are not necessarily remembered clearly or directly but have a lasting effect on who we are and what we become. As we grow and change, we will accumulate implicit memories unknowingly and we can control those memories that exist in explicit memory to some degree as they are influenced by what we choose to do.

As we talk, communicate, and relate to other human beings we little by little tell our story. Storytelling does not have to mean sitting down to narrate the details of one’s life, though this is how it may typically be considered. Patrick Ryan, a scholar based in London, wrote about the place of the storyteller from social and cognitive standpoints. He states that “physical, social, and cultural environments affect cognition—how and what we think—which in turn affects storytelling. In reciprocal fashion, the storytelling we practice and/or experience affects how we think of, view, remember, and experience those three environments and all discourse.” In one particular paper, Ryan was speaking literally of the practice of storytelling, however, much about which he writes can easily be translated to other forms of storytelling. One does not need to actively speak about their life to have a story or to communicate it, nor do they have to fully consider their entire life story to relate to someone else’s. Consider a visitor’s experience with a piece in a museum. What if that piece was a work of art by Degas? The visitor would not need to have led a life like Degas in order to connect with his work. It could simply be something about the color, form, or subject that reminds them of something stored in their memory. The more powerful the emotional connection, the more prominent is the memory.

Storytelling in Our Communities Through Museums and Cultural Institutions

Studies show that museums are places for connection. Everyone visits a museum for different reasons and each visitor comes with their own story, as is known from many different studies assessing visitor behavior. Colleen Dilenschneider of Know Your Own Bone from IMPACTS Experience has numerous blog posts explaining data behind visitation from the effects of executive leadership to fundraising and membership. In one article, Dilenschneider explains five areas in which human connectivity is directly related to museums: it is the best thing about visiting a cultural organization, it is how we want to experience cultural programming, it is the most effective way to increase satisfaction, it is how we determine reputation and make visitation decisions, and it is a reliable indicator of successful organizations. Essentially, it is not only the connections people feel within museums, but also the connections they have outside the museum that dictate their views on cultural institutions and the experiences they have within museum walls.

In exploring museums, visitors are afforded an opportunity to discover and form connections with the stories of those from different cultures, regions, nations, and continents. Stefano Valtolina, author of “A Storytelling-Driven Framework for Cultural Heritage Dissemination,” expresses the use of story particularly in art museums. “In general, a story helps the visitor to interpret an artwork in the context of the life of the artist or the social and political context in which the artwork was created. Visitors can also tell their own stories, making connections between the artwork and their own concerns, knowledge and interests.” This is precisely how explicit memory works. One can create connections between any number of topics or objects based on what their brain has stored within their memory. Each new experience builds on top of another, creating a network of memories. Story helps with interpretation because it creates something for viewers to connect to on a personal, psychological level through the relation of the viewer’s experience to whatever piece they are considering. When it comes to museums, this can manifest through connection to a collection, exhibition, or program, and frequently in interactions with others.

Storytelling During a Pandemic

During this time, society has shifted into tech-driven high gear, embracing technological possibilities like never before in the effort to maintain connection, which is at risk of being lost in the chaos of this fast-changing world. There is much information being exchanged constantly, which can have both positive and negative effects. Patrick Ryan notes, “we rely on commercial experiences and mass-media images that we retain in our memories, influencing our cognition and our values…. It is necessary to adjust ways of thinking about storytelling so the art form is integrated in all social transactions to form a culture of storytelling.” While he wrote this in 2008, it is still very relevant today. By focusing in on stories told, one may see genuine connections forming cross-culturally that are important to cultivate and continue to uphold as society continues to evolve.

In-person exhibitions are one area in which storytelling can be a useful tactic to employ in terms of relaying information, creating experiences, or designing unique spaces. Depending on the type of museum in question, the content could speak to the story behind the pieces in the exhibition. Some institutions may even utilize particular visitor engagement tactics in the exhibitions to get them involved in something hands-on. However, in the wake of a pandemic, museums have had to adjust. All kinds of organizations have reached out to the community in an effort to not only continue business and maintain relevance, but also to support the community and become a resource.

For example, prepandemic museums may have created pamphlets, posters, and various methods of advertising aside from digital or social media means in order to spread word about programming or new exhibitions. However, now more than ever, institutions are looking toward building engaging social media posts, updating websites, and adjusting events in an effort to reach communities who have grown distant due to shutdowns. Many institutions have paired creative community programs with their exhibitions or created special programs to compliment exhibitions or current events. For example, numerous art and history museums have hosted “Ask a Curator” online events in which the public can hear a more detailed account of particular subject matter and get to know the people responsible for much of the information they see in the museum. Creating effective online collections websites is a key resource to add to such experiences and programs that are built on the idea of learning more about a museum collection. In addition, online collections websites are a large part of expressing narrative and building upon the desire for connection between a museum and the community.

Storytelling Through Online Collections Websites

Online collections websites are key resources, tools of engagement for connecting with the community, and an effective way to be more accessible to curious minds of all ability levels. What good is sharing pieces from a museum’s collection on social media when the online collection is difficult to browse or find more information on the topic? Online collections websites are different from just hosting an online catalog. An online catalog may let one search, but it is typically for informational purposes alone and more often used by academics. An online collection website, however, is much more engaging. Such sites often still include a catalog component, as it is built in as a search function. Many institutions have begun improving their online presence by creating these webpages to be more appealing. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York, incorporates a search function, educational resources, a browsing option, collection highlights, and options for connecting with art through programming. This is a good example of an institution that has taken advantage of discarding the typical catalog search in favor of a more interactive, entertaining, interesting, attention grabbing, and ultimately user friendly model of an online collection website.

Utilizing storytelling in online collections websites does three things: one, it takes the museum experience a step further; two, it becomes a resource or tool for learning that is accessible to a wide audience; and three, it showcases objects and history from all angles—from the individual to national to international experiences. Online collections websites must be not only factual and searchable but also engaging. Depicting collections through the lens of storytelling can be used to build this sense of community and engagement. This is, again, due to the ways humans form connections through sharing experiences. This was a major theme on my mind while working on a project at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.

In April, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, or the Broad as it is referred to in Lansing, embarked on a project involving improvements to the collections website. My role was to organize works of art as well as define periods of art history in a way that would speak to what the collection had to offer. In doing so, it occurred to me that in order to reach the audiences that the Broad served, I must take myself out of my art historian shoes and consider the diverse experiences of those in the Lansing community.

What makes art history special is that it tells the visual story of history and gives a look into how ancestors lived, what their struggles were, the things they celebrated, and the values they upheld. The beauty of art history is that it is ongoing, as is any study involving humankind. A historical event a hundred years ago can still teach lessons in present day. Societies have all kinds of implicit collective memories that have shaped the movement of nations. Yet, when considering what bonds us, it is the sharing of explicit memories from individual to individual that inspires unexpected connections.

Therefore, when considering the idea of building an online collections website, the best way to connect to communities is by telling the stories behind the items in the collection. As I wrote definitions, I considered the historical context of the periods and the events that could most resonate with various audiences. For example, when defining the Modern period, I did not dive into technical terms but described how it could be defined by artists finding new ways to break old rules and urged readers to consider how our world today might be viewed historically in the future. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the pandemic, I will not be able to see how the collections website improvement project unfolds, but I am eager to see the end results.


As we consider storytelling it is essential to recognize the role that power dynamics play in our society, particularly in museums. In considering museums, the question becomes, why is it that they might be deemed powerful or particularly influential? Could it be that in this age knowledge is power? Or perhaps it is the domination of narrative? Society has entrusted museums with valuable objects that hold our collective memory, such as works of art, material culture, artifacts, and specimens, whose assigned values create a story. Therefore, being the holders of such significant objects is powerful because it is the holders that control the narrative. This is precisely why museums have a responsibility to the communities they serve and ultimately society as a whole.

However, one cannot consider museums in a social context without recognizing that historically they have had a role in misrepresentation and the perpetuating of inaccurate information of various cultures, be it from negligence or ignorance. The strides taken by museums in correcting such errors have partially been due to calls for change from the community and experts in various fields of study. In this process, museums must be aware that they should be vehicles for storytelling and be wary of falling into the role of fabricators of truth. As museums endeavor to improve, address changes, and celebrate successes, they will ultimately cultivate stronger bonds with communities and within their organizations.

While the discussion around how to best utilize storytelling in museums, and specifically in collections, will differ from institution to institution, it is an important topic that each should embrace. Storytelling can fuel mission-driven efforts to engage with the community because of the “psychological why” explaining human memory and connections. It both drives and is affected by individual and collective expression of identity. By understanding how visitors may psychologically connect through any project a museum undertakes, that museum can utilize storytelling more effectively. Specifically, by improving online collections websites, museums will foster connection between people, drive engagement with the institution, and ultimately become vehicles for storytelling now and in the future.

About the Author

  • Julia Sager

    Julia Sager is an emerging arts and cultural professional and graduate of Michigan State University with both her BA in Art History and Visual Culture and her MA in Arts & Cultural Management with a focus on Museum Studies. She believes that art history is about people’s stories. In her current role as the Education Assistant at Lansing Art Gallery and Education Center, Julia finds joy in creating opportunities for the community to experience art through creative programming. Julia’s experiences, in her current and previous positions, sparked her curiosity regarding the use of technology in museums and the way in which it may be used to highlight the many interesting stories throughout history.


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  2. The hippocampus is involved in creating memories and giving them meaning and connecting them to other bits of information. The cerebellum influences implicit memory and is involved in functions such as procedural memory, conditioned responses, fine motor movements, and posture and coordination. Lastly, the prefrontal cortex is very task or function oriented. The amygdala, another area involved in memory, is the part of the brain primarily responsible for regulating emotion and plays a role in memory consolidation, the process of transferring new learning into long-term memory.
  3. Dumper, K., Jenkins, W., Lacombe, A., Lovett, M., and Perlmutter, M. n.d. “Parts of the Brain Involved in Memory.”
  4. Ryan, P. 2008. “The Storyteller in Context: Storyteller Identity and Storytelling Experience.” Storytelling, Self, Society 4(2): 66–67.
  5. Dumper, K. et al state, “The amygdala seems to facilitate encoding memories at a deeper level when the event is emotionally arousing,” 6.
  6. Regarding visitor behavior, we can see through data, such as in reports by people like Colleen Dilenschneider, that visitors come for experience, education, as enthusiasts, as families, etc.
  7. Dilenschneider, C. 2015. “Hubs for Human Connection: The Social Role of Cultural Organizations (DATA).”
  8. Valtolina, S. 2016. A Storytelling-Driven Framework for Cultural Heritage Dissemination. Data Science and Engineering 1(2): 115.
  9. Ryan, “The Storyteller in Context,” 83.


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