Museum Studies Blog

Posted on May 29th, 2024 in Book Reviews, Student Work by jachigg | Tags:

Storytelling in Museums. Edited by Adina Langer. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield/AAM, 2022.


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Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of modern museum work. However, very few museum professionals have examined how it is done and the scope of the practice. In Storytelling in Museums, Adina Langer, an experienced curator and museum professional, brings together 18 essays from 18 different professionals in the field, sharing their insights and expertise on what storytelling in museums looks like in practice. Langer notes that “this book is not a prescriptive manual based on a singular definition of storytelling” (x). Using a variety of definitions and methods defined by the individual authors, the book explores how storytelling can skillfully connect audiences with the content of museums in thoughtful and surprising ways. The diverse range of author backgrounds, museum geographical locations, and museum types gives a holistic view of the field.   

As a framework for audience engagement, Benjamin Filene, an exhibit developer and public historian, argues that storytelling “pushes museums to move past a singular focus on the information or ideas we are sharing and to consider, too, the strategies through which we share them and what visitors actually do with them” (4). By considering storytelling through this lens, the authors give insight from their professional experiences engaging with storytelling.  

The book is divided into two main sections. Part One defines storytelling and how it can be used to engage with audiences and communities in different ways. Langer uses a broad definition of museums, including chapters from traditional museums of various subfields, museum theaters, cemeteries, community centers, and online sources. The book’s first section considers storytelling through labels, exhibit design, community involvement, marketing, museum theater, and museum programs. These chapters ask museum professionals to consider how they tell stories from their own experiences, and then they give tools to include more tactics. For example, in Chapter 9, Rebecca Melsheimer and Jose Santamaria from the Tellus Science Museum emphasize using exhibit labels to connect the audience to the content.  “In keeping with our guidelines, what do we really want you to take away from this chapter (and can we do it in two hundred words or less)?” (117). The authors specifically note what the reader should take away in the format they are trying to teach. Part Two consists of more specific examples of storytelling in museums connected to communities, such as a community storytelling project in New Mexico and an initiative at the Moroccan Museum of Culture. While using a variety of tactics mentioned in Part One, these chapters outline the experience of these different museums and how storytelling impacts their work and missions.  

The authors expand the idea of what storytelling can look like in museums and related institutions. Thinking outside of traditional methods, the authors emphasize how storytelling can be done in various ways. Langer expands the field by intentionally including diverse authors and ideas within the chapters. The authors focus on ideas important to those committed to DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion), such as using inclusive design, creating digitally accessible exhibits, and considering tactics used in museums worldwide, not just in the United States. Various authors also emphasize the importance of telling the stories from the perspective of all involved, not just those with power. By focusing on the people involved with museums and their needs, the authors give the space to ensure all constituents are included in storytelling within museums.  

The book is exciting for museum professionals because it guides the audience on using the different tactics mentioned while relating the ideas to actual, unique museum experiences. In Chapter 6, Miriam Bader, the Education Director at the Tenement Museum in New York, describes two projects focused on interconnection in museums, then lists the practical applications for museum professionals based on the project experiences, such as making projects human and embracing not knowing the whole story (78). Bader engages the reader with thought-provoking projects and highlights what can be mimicked and used in other institutions. The varied writing styles and perspectives help the book appeal to the larger museum professional audience, not just those focused on museum education. The book is helpful for anyone wanting to improve their institutions, as storytelling is foundational to a successful and exciting museum. 

However, the value could be seen as somewhat limited for a reader with a more basic knowledge of the subject. Part Two is not as accessible for someone trying to gain a general understanding of museum storytelling. With the focus on concrete examples of storytelling tactics in community scenarios, the details of the situations may distract the reader from the guidelines the chapters are trying to reiterate. While Part One contains a unique and exciting read for anyone interested in museums, Part Two is created by museum professionals, distinctly for museum professionals. 

Nonetheless, by connecting all the chapters within Storytelling in Museums, any reader will gain a more expanded, well-rounded understanding of how museums tell the stories of their artifacts, communities, and constituents. The book overall connects ideas about the importance and usefulness of storytelling that many museum professionals might only have considered now. The 18 different perspectives give guidance, allowing readers to choose just one chapter to learn something from, if desired. Langer expands the museum field by combining such thought-provoking and original ideas all together into one how-to-go guide. 


Izzy Silverman is a first-year MA student in the IU Indianapolis Museum Studies Program.