Telling Good Stories: Part 1
Museums, libraries, and other community-based culture and heritage hubs create, curate, and share content that helps us make sense of our world. But spaces like these are not about facts or objects, images or even people—they’re about the stories those resources tell, and the meanings we pick up along the way. Stories are still the most fundamental way we learn; they can change the way we see the world, ourselves, and each other. Stories bring life to the human experience, create connections, and make room to reflect and explore.
Storytelling is a powerful tool to say the least, but anyone who has developed an exhibit or gallery knows it’s not easy to make content compelling for diverse audiences. So how do we tell a good story, let alone a great one? How do we share ideas that really stand out and mean something?
Good stories start with themes.
Themes 101: Ideas that Stick
The big idea, main message, the moral of the story, the point: whatever you decide to call it, a theme always answers the question, “why do I want visitors to know that?” That is usually the facts or concepts we gather up and hang our galleries, exhibits or experiences on. Facts are everywhere: easy to come by and just as easy to forget. Themes are less easy to shake off, and have the potential to stick with visitors long after their experience ends—they’re the “it” you want your audience to “get” as a result of their interaction with your resources.
Themes are not the same as topics, but we’ll dive into that difference in a future post. Let’s start with why themes are a good place—indeed, the place—to begin when telling a good story.
Why begin with themes? Themes create a cohesive, focused approach and are useful because they:
Themes Answer that Burning Question: So What?
Sure that’s an interesting topic, but...what does it mean to me? It’s easy to tell stories when they’re about the things you know (your knowledge), own (your collection) or care about (your values or mission). But what about your visitors? Why should they care? Themes help tell stories that are worthy of your audience’s consideration: those unexpected, consequential or captivating ideas that make your resource more than just a passing curiosity or amusing diversion. Get to know your resource and your content—your facts, stories, objects, images—and then take a closer look. Even closer! Ask yourself: What’s so special about it? What’s worth remembering? So what? Themes give visitors something provocative to process or ponder that connects to their lives in meaningful ways. So consider what’s most important, but also why it matters. Will your audience think so, too?
Before you start building a digital gallery with Codex to tell your story, consider this: what one thing, if nothing else, do you want your visitors to walk away knowing or remembering after they’ve explored it? Chances are, that one thing is actually the makings of a theme that everyone can get excited about. In Part 2 of Telling Good Stories we’ll take a closer look at the mechanics of themes and how to craft a knockout—a theme that really has the power to provoke, connect, and inspire change. In the meantime, check out these exhibitions from like-minded leaders in culture and heritage that know what themes are, and aren’t afraid to use them.
Themes in Action...