This article originally appeared in Museum magazine’s March/April 2023 issue, a benefit of AAM membership.
By the time you read this, I will have just joined hundreds of museum advocates on Capitol Hill for AAM’s annual Museums Advocacy Day, making the case to government leaders for supporting museums. This event is one of the key strategies in our field’s collective advocacy efforts, which have led to major victories in recent years, including billions of dollars in relief funding, allowances for museums to participate in Small Business Administration and tax relief programs, and historic funding increases for the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
As you would expect, part of making this case involves sharing numbers, the many eye-popping statistics about the contributions museums make as destinations and employers. But there is another component of advocacy that is equally important: telling a good story.
In meetings with representatives and their staffs, I’m always struck by this. Numbers may get them to listen, but stories get them to pick up their pencils and start taking notes. Hearing the stories of museums in their districts—how they’re supporting the community and how the community is supporting them—brings the facts about their impact to life.
Sometimes we forget about this power that storytelling has. We look to data and facts as the highest form of truth but forget that they are only meaningful with context to explain them. Facts only become relevant to people when they know what story they tell.
This is as important to recognize in the work we do inside museums as it is in the work we do to build support for them. Some of my most illuminating experiences in museums are when I have a tour guide to fill in the gaps on what was going on in an artist’s life when they made a painting, or what was happening in history that made an object significant. More than the names, dates, and characteristics associated with an object, it is this storytelling that makes me most likely to remember something, and to want to share it with others.
As museums continue to work on becoming more relevant to more people, we can’t neglect this reality. All our potential starts with the ability to form a connection and build understanding, no matter how much a person knows about the subject beforehand. This visitor experience is what distinguishes us and makes us worthy of public support. It’s too important to treat as anything less than a top priority.
As the articles in this issue of the magazine demonstrate, museums are already on the task, experimenting with novel ways to immerse people in the stories they tell, using forms like virtual reality, theatrical experiences, games, and comics. They are also reconsidering the kinds of stories they tell and how they tell them. Some of the most exciting, pioneering work on this front is in approaches that tell multiple stories, allowing many perspectives to create a nuanced account instead of privileging one “objective” voice. Historic Sotterley’s work with descendant communities, as described in this issue, is one example.
Going forward, I hope that more visitors can have experiences that fill their minds with fascinating, complex stories, bringing objects and facts to life and leaving them feeling more deeply connected to humanity. That’s what wins hearts in our communities, and what convinces decision-makers that museums matter.