The Value of Digital Storytelling for Small Museums: or, How PowerPoint 2013 Transformed My Life

July 10, 2013

In his feedback on my final project for Digital Storytelling (AMST 2699) my teacher Tyler Denmead, PhD, wrote, “Your discovery of PowerPoint’s potential has obviously been transformative for you this semester.”  Wow, that made me stop and think. “Transformative” is a very powerful word. Falling in love is transformative. Having a baby is transformative. Was PowerPoint really transforming me? And wouldn’t it be a little sad if it was?

The short answers are: YES, digital storytelling is absolutely transforming the way I work, and NO, no time for sadness, only a little regret I didn’t catch on sooner.

The things I learned in Tyler’s class about PowerPoint and Movie Maker and Google Maps are going to change the way that I work, forever. For the last seven years I’ve been helping the Little Compton Historical Society generate paper object labels, sintra board exhibit panels and some very nice books. Each year they get better and better because of the lessons we learn along the way. But they are all things you can hold in your hand, and for the most part, all things our audience members need to come to us to see.

We have not been ignoring the digital world. Our collection is on-line (littlecompton.org), and it is really pretty terrific. About 1000 people use it each year. The Historical Society has a Facebook Page with 800 likes. We sell thousands of dollars of books on Amazon.com each year. We’ve put two sets of oral histories on CDs for the public. Board Member Piper Hawes even created a beautiful iMovie about Sakonnet Point for us, which became the highlight of our 2011 exhibition. People came back with their friends just to sit and watch the movie.   

But until this semester, digital storytelling was not something I thought I could do myself. Now I know that I can, and that is where the transformation begins.

Think about what creating our own, in-house, digital stories means for those of us in a small museum:

  • Less need to write and print books or pamphlets in order to share information.
  • Less need to store those books and pamphlets for years until they sell or reprint them when they sell out.
  • Less need for exhibit panels.
  • Less need for consultants.

The potential financial savings are tremendous.

At the same time we gain so much freedom:

  • Greater ability to share the exhibits with people all over the world, for free.
  • Greater local control over the project. No need to try and convey the unique spirit of our community to a consultant working three states away. We already understand the unique spirit of our communities.
  • Our deadlines become our own, not the printing companies. If we want to finish a project the night before the exhibit in our pajamas, so be it. (Though I don’t recommend this.)
  • And my personal favorite, if we make a mistake we can fix it quickly and for free right in the middle of exhibition. No more replacement exhibit panels or embarrassing misprints that live as long as the book.

I haven’t even touched on the idea that digital learning is the way that billions of people now learn, and we need to catch up, or we will be left behind.

Of course, if we went completely digital we would risk leaving some of our audience members behind, and we don’t want that to happen. My job right now is to help the Historical Society find a balance that works for both the organization and the audience in the long-term.  It may turn out to be a simple as alternating years, book or booklet one year and digital stories the next.

This year, for our Remembering Adamsville project, we are doing both a book and an interactive computer program because I was so inspired by my class. We probably won’t do that again. It’s been a very busy year. We spent money on both publishing the book and purchasing computer kiosks for the public. It’s been an expensive year. I’m recruiting extra volunteers for the exhibit area to help visitors, including those who do not own or use computers, feel comfortable sitting down at the computer station and exploring. The computers are filling about half our exhibit space, but the other half still needed panels and objects and labels. The result is a mix of old and new techniques that I hope is just about right for our rather mixed audience. Over time, my hope is our audience comes to expect and look forward to our digital stories as much as they look forward to our books. 

Tyler used the very powerful word “transformative” with me because I had been gushing for weeks in my written assignments and in person about the changes digital movies and hyperlinked PowerPoint were going to make for me. I’d celebrate my Dad’s 75th birthday with a digital movie. I was going to include my class assignment Remembering Adamsville: People, Places and Things in the Historical Society’s temporary exhibit this summer. I’m working with Ron Potvin and a large group of other students to get SakonnetHistorical.org, a smart-phone application, up and running by July 14. 

My gushing was sincere. I was afraid to use Movie Maker. Now I’m not. I know it might be a little frustrating. I know it might not go that smoothly, but I know I can power through. I’m embarrassed that I did not know about hyperlinked PowerPoint. It is perfect for a digital exhibit. How could I not know about it? Well, I did not know about it because like so many workers in small museums I was using Office 2003 and putting off an upgrade in order to save money. PowerPoint 2003 doesn’t have hyperlinks. There was no way for me to know, except to learn it from someone else.

That is why when we had our digital exhibition at the end of the year I invited my colleagues from the RI Historic Sites Coalition to attend and see in person what a simple PowerPoint (2010 and up) can do. I was very happy to sit with staff and volunteers from The Beavertail Lighthouse and The Lippitt House to show them my work and to learn more about their plans for digital exhibitions in the very near future. PowerPoint may seem a little boring to anyone interested in the cutting edge, but for workers at one and two-staff-member museums, we need a workhorse we can rely on, and PowerPoint fits the bill. [see event photos featuring Remembering Adamsville here]

For Remembering Adamsville PowerPoint enabled me to include hundreds of images and dozens of audio clips representing ALL fifty-eight of the project’s oral history donors. Each person (or their family members) will be able to find themselves easily in the program, and then can branch out using the hyper-links to explore interactive maps, digital photo albums and their fellow participant’s stories. Right now the program has 140 pages, and that number will grow between now and the exhibit opening.  Imagine the expense of producing 140 exhibit panels or, more importantly, the negative impact of leaving out some of our fifty-eight participants because there wasn’t space for them in a traditional exhibit. Interactive PowerPoint solves those problems. Above all, the ability to include audio is the most appealing component. It allows me to share our oral histories in the way they should be shared, through sound rather than printed word, easily and without great expense.

I’d like to write that I’ll never produce another printed book again, but I know that’s not true. I love books and so does my audience. But digital storytelling in the form of exhibitions, movies, interactive maps etc. frees us from the need to “print something” every year.  We will still produce “something” every year, but from now on it will often be digital—website, interactive kiosk, movie, interactive map—instead of a printed piece.

The transformation is underway at the Little Compton Historical Society. I can’t wait to see how our visitors respond to our Remembering Adamsville kiosks and the Public Humanities Center’s  SakonnetHistorical application. If visitors like these digital offerings half as much as they liked Piper’s iMovie we will be in very good shape.

For those of you who do not know me, I am a part-time MA in Public Humanities Candidate and the full-time Managing Director of the Little Compton Historical Society.  I also have three kids and a husband and a dog and a cat and a pile of laundry as high as my waist, so when I do something it has to matter.  It has to make a positive difference to me, or else I really can’t afford to do it.

This Digital Storytelling class mattered to me. It taught me practical skills I could use the very next day at work. It also, like all of my courses at Brown, gave me the opportunity to take a little break from my small museum routine of being efficient, productive, thrifty and very, very practical and instead take a deep breath and spend some time thinking big thoughts, too. 

During our Digital Storytelling class the big thoughts were often, “What is a digital story?” and “Does technology really make storytelling better?” We revisited those questions throughout the semester and continue to think about them as we go back to our jobs and other classes. But my favorite big thought arose in my very first class, Intro to Public Humanities. “Who can do Public Humanities?” I think digital storytelling techniques have opened that door to anyone with an eye for a compelling image and an ear for a good story. 

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