The Hero’s Journey – it is perhaps humanity’s oldest and most fundamental storytelling tradition. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars, it is a narrative formula that consistently captures the human imagination by connecting our emotions to the trials, tribulation, and triumph of a character. This storytelling paradigm is widely used across fiction, but what is the role of this highly efficacious narrative device in self-guided, real-world narrative experiences like exhibits?
In IDEAS’s recent Amplifying the Artifact webinar, an assembly of over two dozen exhibit designers and operators met to discuss the role of immersive storytelling in museums, zoos, and aquariums. A vast array of experiences revealed a common thread that the most effective exhibits take guests on an emotional journey from the perspective of the presented subject. The presentation of artifacts, animals, and other subjects should serve as climactic moments of full experiential story arcs that grip emotions, fascinate curiosity, and reveal a different perspective.
Guests invest in a journey when they emotionally connect with the human element of a story; yet a frequent conflict in narrative design for exhibits is the double-edged sword of anthropomorphism. On one side, imputing human emotions and qualities to a non-human subject can create profound connections with guests, deepening their appreciation. Conversely, anthropomorphism can irresponsibly and fallaciously represent a subject by assigning it inaccurate biases and connotations. Where is this balance struck?
Our conversation revealed that authenticity must be the watchword when taking guests on an emotional journey. This starts by breaking a subject, be it an artifact or an animal, down to its narrative basics. All stories essential boil down to someone or something facing a challenge and either overcoming, avoiding, or succumbing to it. Identifying the fundamental conflicts that a subject faces or has faced is key to finding the salient and authentic emotional cues.
After identifying the fundamental narrative arc, designers must narrow the scope to the specific context of the subject, asking the questions of who, what, when, where, and why. At this point, collaboration with subject matter experts becomes essential. Understanding the subject’s more specific connotation within history, science, philosophy, or other broad subjects reveals other emotional touchpoints that help buttress the hero’s journey arc. Context also provides invaluable guidance to physical theming, graphical looks, and spatial layouts that authentically tell the story of a subject.
When the story structure has been dressed in the context of a subject, the final step is finding the voice to present the narrative. Voice is manifest in everything from placard copy and video scripts to guide maps and marketing materials. When presenting something like a personal belonging or portrait, that voice may be specific to an individual. Often, however, there must be a third-party interpreter that relates a non-human experience to a human audience. Voice must take inspiration from multiple elements, from the tone of the underlying story to the subject’s cultural context to the complexity of the information presented. In any case, a voice must always be clear and accessible to a diverse array of experiences.
All exhibits should seek to present a compelling story arc couched within an authentic context and told in an impactful voice. Our webinar revealed a unanimity of opinion that the mark of a successful exhibit is a guest that leaves understanding and emotionally invested in the subject they’ve encountered. Like a great novel, film, or play, an exhibit can take someone on a journey that transforms their experience of the world. However, unlike more spectatorial forms of storytelling, exhibits have all five human senses at their disposal.
In our next entry, we’ll discuss how to activate the five senses to take guests on these emotional journeys.