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Storytelling: Invoking the Muse

Historically, a museum was a scat or shrine to the muses, those nine who inspire art and science, history, poetry, dance, and song. The muses are the guides to creativity, to the joy of learning, and to discovery. As museum educators and docents we have a similar role in our modern day temples to art, history, and science. It is our job to lead visitors to the inspiring contents of our institutions. But the muse must be activated within us before we can inspire others.

The Muse and Velcro

Storytelling, an inspired art, is one of the most effective tools we can use when we serve as muse to our visitors. Storytelling works because it helps the visitor create a narrative frame on which to hang the facts and images encountered. It’s like a structure made of Velcro just waiting to grab facts and images onto itself. Story structure is an innate part of human consciousness and central to the way we organize knowledge. The visitor does not have to create something new or external to integrate the knowledge transmitted through story. Storytelling takes away the stress of learning and creates receptivity and emotional readiness. When we activate the story mechanism in our listeners, we serve as the muse.

Story Circles and Community

We co-authors are all storytellers who have worked in museum contexts and know the power of storytelling as an inspirational interpretive tool. We observed that many docents and museum educators were drawn to story, but had no idea how to begin integrating it into their tours. We also saw that the docents in our local museums, parks, and gardens were often isolated from each other, even as they were struggling with similar problems. We decided, therefore, to create a series of inclusive multi-institutional story circles where people from various interpretive settings could come together to learn about and practice their craft.

Our goal was to provide docents with the opportunity to experience story first hand. We were confident that exposure to stories, plus some basic storytelling instruction in a familiar environment, would increase the use of this ancient skill in our local facilities. We knew that docents needed a safe place to learn about, and to practice, storytelling. They also needed a chance to network and collaborate with other museum docents and staff that used storytelling in their work.

Over a two-year period, we held a series of story circles and workshops at fifteen institutions in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Each two-hour session started with refreshments and networking. Next followed a demonstration or short workshop and an opportunity for the participants to tell stories and invoke the muse. Some of our favorite techniques for involving the visitor through story, follow.

Touch Cart Stories

One of our first story circles was facilitated by Sandy Oglesby at Pueblo Grande Museum. She demonstrated how to use story to engage visitors with the objects on a touch cart. The cart that Sandy rolled out had several objects, but the most provocative one was a large stone hand axe used by the Hohokam people who lived in the Phoenix area about a thousand years ago and who designed the canal system still in use today. Sandy told three different types of stories each with the axe as their focus.

The first was the story of the object’s discovery, told from the archaeological point of view. In the second brief story, Sandy made a personal connection to the object by describing how her brother had used just such an axe to chop down a tree at a wilderness survival camp. She recreated a dialogue between her brother and herself that detailed how effective the object was. “Sissy, I cut down a whole tree with an axe just like that. It was hard work, and it really helped me understand how skilled the Hohokam had to be to survive.”

The third story was Sandy’s imaginative, two-minute re-creation of an event in the life of the person who had used the axe —

Our family had been walking for days. We carried only those things that were Most precious and powerful. A dry wind stung our faces and sapped our energy as we trudged through the desert. Our goal was to find relatives and a new home. At the top of Greasy Mountain* we saw the beautiful valley below and the green snake of trees that promised water and a new life. When we finally reached the river, we drank and splashed our faces with relief and joy. But suddenly Father straightened Himself and raised a hand to silence us. A large man was approaching us from the opposite bank. Mother and the girls retreated quickly up the bank and into a shelter of trees. I stood with Father
and reached for a mesquite limb floating near us. Just as suddenly, I felt my Father relax as he and the other man shouted a family greeting. The large man came into the river where we were standing. He and Father spoke their clan names and their fathers’ names, too. Mother and my sisters rejoined us as our relative handed my father a beautiful stone axe head.

“We have been waiting for you and offer you this gift as a sign of welcome. ” Father accepted it, and then laughed as he saw I was still holding the branch like a weapon. “That will be the handle of our new axe, ” he said.

(*Greasy Mountain is the original name of South Mountain in Phoenix.)

When Sandy finished this story there was a moment of shared silence before the spell broke, and we all came back to the real world. Talk about a teachable moment! The participants had experienced for themselves how quickly they could be brought into the sphere of the object and the powerful emotions that could be evoked. Of course, the immediate response was, “But she is a storyteller! I could never do that!”

We sought to prove them wrong. At a subsequent story circle at the Heard Museum, Esther Doetsch prepared touch carts with a wide range of objects. The participants were invited to select an object and ponder it for a few moments. They were then asked to turn to another person and tell them something about the object: why they had chosen it, what they liked about it, something they already knew about it, a connection to their own lives, or an idea or emotion that it inspired.

We encouraged them to use story-speak about the object, telling expressively and elaborately— in a way that evoked feelings and images. Within half an hour, the whole room was buzzing with stories. A few volunteers were persuaded to share their brief new stories with the whole group.

Personal Stories as Frames

We may be at our most muse-like when we use our personal experiences to help visitors relate to an object, an exhibit, or to the museum as a whole. When telling about our own lives we have to open the doors to ourselves, just as the museum must open its doors to visitors. The stories of our history with an institution, or our personal motivations to work in a museum setting can not be overlooked or regarded as irrelevant. Through our own commitment and passion we model for our visitors how to relate to and interact with the institution and its mission.

One of our story circles focused on how to identify and craft a brief personal experience to use an introduction to the museum experience. Such stories invite the visitor to feel a connection to us— and thereby to the institution.

We asked the participants to ponder their connection to the institution they worked at and then to share that with another person. These pairs then joined another pair and each told her story again. We then asked them to think about story structure—beginning, middle, end—and to find a new partner and tell the story again. Volunteers from the workshop then told their stories to the whole group. Within half an hour, everyone was telling stories. Through this process, one docent from the Heard Museum reconstructed for herself and her listeners how a trip to Chaco Canyon had inspired her desire to serve as a docent at the Heard Museum. The muse was invoked and a storyteller was born!

Other brief personal stories can serve as frames. Such story frames literally bracket the museum content to be shared with visitors and invite them to relate to the content in a similarly personal way. One docent at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Phoenix related a brief experience from his farming childhood in Texas to help explain a piece of farm equipment on display in the museum. The story was short, featured his faithful dog and a similar piece of equipment, and had a good ending. The children were captivated.

“I liked the dinosaurs, but I really like your stories best. ”

In several of our workshops, we taught the participants methods for finding and developing folktales that could be told effectively within the context of a tour. Topics included techniques for learning a story quickly, adapting a story from a children’s book, and ways of fostering participation during the telling of a story.

The biggest issue for telling a story on a tour usually comes down to timing. The stories have to be short if they are to be told within the tour itself This can actually work to the advantage of the docent who is just learning to tell stories. It is not necessary or desirable to memorize a story just as it is written. Most stories can be distilled to a short list of essential points and enhanced through judicious inclusion of gestures, dialogue, or participation, and be a very effective and still brief addition to the tour. This, of course, takes practice, which was one of the functions of the story circles.

In some of the institutions that we worked with, a storytelling station was created as part of larger and longer tours. For example, at The Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe, when a large group of children comes in one of the stops may be 20 minutes with a storyteller This gives the children more focused exposure to stories relevant to the museum experience. At the end of a similar storytelling session at the Mesa Southwest Museum, one of the authors was told by a child, “I liked the dinosaurs, but I really liked your stories best.”

Invoking the Muse

As the project evolved, we realized that the role of the docent is parallel to the role of the storyteller. When a great story, a storyteller, and an audience all come together the interaction produces a magical synergy. Something similar happens in an effective interpretive moment, when the guide, the exhibit, and the visitor connect. That spot of overlap where the three spheres intersect is the spot that every storyteller and every docent wants to inhabit. That is the spot where creative and imaginative energy are flowing for both the docent/ storyteller and the visitor/listener. When that happens, the muse is invoked and invited to her namesake, her temple—the museum. Training in storytelling, and getting the opportunity to practice with supportive colleagues, can increase the likelihood that such magic will happen more often.

Liz Warren is a storyteller, teacher, labyrinth builder and co-founder of the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. She can be contacted at:

Kathy Eastman volunteers as a docent at the Desert Botanical Garden, Heard Museum, and Phoenix Zoo. She is also with the outreach staff at Mesa Southwest Museum. Ms. Eastman tells stories and teaches in a variety of venues and may be contacted at: S K K

Sandy Oglesby is the Visitor Services Coordinator at Pueblo Grande Museum And Archaeological Park. She is a professional speaker, workshop leader, and storyteller. Ms. Oglesby may be contacted at:

Warren, Liz, Kathy Eastman and Sandy Oglesby. “Storytelling: Invoking the Muse,” The Docent Educator 13.1 (Autumn 2003): 14-16.

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