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“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” ― Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works

Museums frequently describe their exhibitions and programs as those that bring history to life. The “life” in history is derived from the people of history; the struggles and challenges they faced and the choices and decisions they made. Interactive experiences introduce visitors to the people of history through engaging them in the interpretation of the evidence. Through interactive experiences, visitors are asking and answering the question of who: who made, owned or used this object, and on what occasion? Up to this point, the object has served the visitor in many ways, whether it has been a mystery object to identify or a tool used to make something. Now, in the interpretive phase, objects and the stories they embody become the means through which people of the present are introduced to people of the past. The story takes its form through organizing and ordering all the facts, information and data collected from questioning, identifying, analyzing and using artifacts.

minimal_illustration_03Creative Station

To get visitors to discover the stories of the past, museums are faced with the challenge of introducing a diverse group of visitors to the varied stories of history. Depending on the visitor, some of these stories are familiar, while others may be obscure in content and meaning. The process of communicating any story is one that involves the teller of the story (a museum exhibition for example) and a receiver (the museum visitor). The receiver of the story tends to be a passive participant in this type of process. Interactive experiences, though, transform the experience of learning the stories of history into an engaging activity. The artifacts used in these activities become the means for communicating the stories; objects become storytellers and the interpreters of past events.

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Objects are no longer secondary to lengthy labels, but rather become the words and the pages of the story. As evidence of a specific event, objects are able to take the visitor back in time to discover the people involved. As storytellers, objects enable visitors to understand the experiences of other people through a sort of “walk in their shoes.” It is a story filled with many characters; each person has a different perspective to add to the story and a different task to perform in making the shoe. Each person and each object add to the richness of the story being developed. Visitors are faced with the same challenges as these people when asked to “try to figure out how you would cut as many umps and quarters as possible from this one piece of leather.”

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The journey into the past is one that visitors do not have to take alone, but are guided by the stories of the people who took the same journey many years ago. History is no longer distant and remote when the people of the past are sharing with visitors their choices and challenges, their innermost thoughts and feelings.

tumblr_lmgknlGk451qaruxco1_1280Curious by Visual Poetry / Photo: David Washburn

To secure and understand our own place in history and in time, we turn to the stories of those who came before us for explanations and meaning. The time-line of dates used to illustrate the progression of history is now transformed into a story-line illustrating the diverse characters and tales of the past. Interactive experiences communicate these stories and take visitors on journeys into the past to meet the diverse cast of characters. Historical understanding then can be seen as “finding one’s place” in the story of history. This understanding or knowledge of history draws upon the close affinity of the past to the present, and the present to the past.

Content Resource: D. Lynn McRainey

Main photo: Nintendo ad