Five Simple Ways to Tell 79 Million Stories – A Curator’s Perspective

01.04.19

by Ivan Bojanic, Senior Integration Architect, Trends & Integration, Gongos, Inc.

At its heart, consumer research aspires to tell us other people’s stories; to explain where they came from, why they do what they do, and to better predict what they might do in the future.

Of course, the challenge is one of scale. Spending one-on-one time with an individual allows us to appreciate their unique narrative. But can we internalize thousands — or millions —  of highly individual stories?

We believe it’s possible to do that, in a way that not just communicates others’ experiences, but that also evokes true empathy for these individuals and a deep understanding of why these experiences matter to us.

One emergent trend in the insights space is to tell human stories through “experiential galleries”. These immersive, museum-like environments allow users to interact with various stimuli to engage with insights. Video, life-sized infographics, and physical objects offer more than just data — but an opportunity to truly understand the human stories behind them. By providing a curated glimpse into humans and the way they live, an experiential gallery can help us understand who the subjects truly are in the context of products and brands.

Ellis Island: Three Approaches to Storytelling

It’s estimated that 40 percent of the U.S. population can trace its ancestry through Ellis Island, whose National Museum of Immigration explores the experience of the 79,483,571 recorded permanent residents who have migrated to the U.S. since 1820.

There’s a heightened expectation at Ellis that doesn’t exist at most other museums. As a nation of immigrants, Americans’ identities are rooted in their ancestry, and visitors come there hoping to feel recognized as an integral part of our nation’s story. In essence, many museum visitors have come to explore not just history, but an additional perspective: their own.

I recently visited Ellis Island. As a symbolic monument, it spans the breadth of human experience: common and noble; abject and prosperous; desperate and ambitious; those seeking greater freedom and, sadly, those brought here unwillingly.

But beyond mere symbolism, this landmark is charged with the daunting task of telling more than 79 million human stories in its compact 27 acre footprint. If any museum is expected to personalize and honor the unique experiences of millions, this is it.

Ellis Island presently offers three opportunities to visitors wishing to explore the immigration story:

In my recent visit, I toured all three spaces through the lens of an information architect — and was left with a unique perspective. The experience impressed, surprised, and in some cases disappointed; and it also inspired this list of five simple rules for how to tell human stories in an immersive environment.

Rule #1: Choose Your Resources Thoughtfully

Given the arsenal of resources available to tell stories, it may be tempting to put as many as possible to use, such as audiovisual recordings, wall-mounted displays, interactive screens, and artifacts of daily life. But more is not always better. Remember that each resource is telling a story — in effect, talking — and the net result can be a cacophony of competing voices, especially in a limited space.

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Thoughtfulness applies to choosing an environment, also. In the same way that it’s easier to get to know someone in a relaxed setting, it’s more effective to tell others’ stories in an environment that allows visitors to absorb and reflect. A large and heavily trafficked area, such as the main museum’s entry point or a corporate lobby, may seem ideal for an installation — but these qualities could also make it harder to get your message across.

Rule #2: Curate, Don’t Collect

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One of the great ways we can tell empathetic human stories is by presenting items — artifacts — from people’s day-to-day life. Think of times you’ve caught a glimpse inside someone’s office or home, and what you were able to learn from subtle cues: a piece of art, a diploma, family photos, books, mail. An experiential gallery allows you to recreate this fly-on-the-wall experience.

But it’s easy to undercut an artifact’s ability to communicate by simply collecting them, rather than considering what each one will communicate, and in what context. The contrast between the museum’s heaped assemblages of disparate artifacts behind glass and the hospital’s organic, streamlined approach illustrates this well. Throughout Ellis, it was much easier to envision the artifacts in their original environment, placed where they would have been, speaking volumes with just one piece — instead of a volume of pieces saying nothing in particular.

Rule #3: Help Your Audience See Themselves

In theory, audiences are there to learn about others; yet helping them see themselves in the exhibit spurs engagement, invites empathy, deepens understanding, and magnifies its impact. In an experiential gallery, a simple way to achieve this could be to allow users to take a short quiz or complete a personal profile, and then compare their responses to those of other visitors. For instance, Ellis’ interactive Threads of Migration and Social Explorer displays in the modern museum wing show users about themselves — but also prompt reflection about how others’ experience might be similar or divergent.

In the case of the former, the display itself is built on user-supplied data; so not only are we drawn in by the chance to interact, but we get to compare our outcomes to others’. And,  by enabling users to search for their own background and displaying individuals, Social Explorer reveals our place within a complex pattern of migration. This inevitably generates thought and appreciation of the experiences of other groups.

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Rule #4: Let People Tell Their Own Stories

Although this approach seems intuitive, think of how often we explain rather than allow others to tell their story. In our daily life, for instance, we invent narratives to explain what we think we see. In research, we aspire to omniscience, savoring the challenge of interpreting expansive and complex stories.

However, in the context of the human stories at Ellis Island, explanations too often create barriers. Written timelines and summaries may inevitably be necessary to establish context and basic understanding, but will never be able to adequately convey the depth of human drama.

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Instead, short self-narrated biographical videos and — from other generations — oversized portraits memorably give the museum’s subjects a voice; and in many cases, names. The hospital’s life-sized photo reproductions, inserted into the very halls their subjects once walked, are all we need to understand what these individuals experienced long ago. Modern immigrants were able to tell their own stories via video due to the progression in technology.

In aggregate, it’s these stories and faces that linger, providing perspective on what the 79 million people (so far) have vividly experienced firsthand.

Rule #5: Have a Point of View

This is arguably the most important rule of curation. It is the storyteller’s responsibility to not just convey information, but create meaning through the way they choose to communicate. Individuals are quirky, and so are our stories; this spirit should inform and infect our approach to storytelling.

So go large. Create a work of art, not just an informative display. Use giant photos to create impact. Challenge visitors’ expectations, like the hospital’s wordless installation in a non-traditional setting. Enable visitors to see the lives of others through the prism of their own experiences. Inspire people to reflect on, and in turn, empathize with the experience of others.

In closing, spending time at Ellis Island convinced me that it’s possible to powerfully tell a large number of complex human stories. The essence of doing so is to reduce the amount of work visiting audiences have to do. I found myself enjoying the immersive experiences where the information guided me, rather than demanding my analysis.

If you think about it, that’s how we best get to know another person: face-to-face. Walking in their shoes. It can be an effortless — though enlightening — process, not a multilayered exercise in sleuthing. So when looking at millions of faces, aim for the same experience.

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