Sunday, 13 October 2013

Historical Storytelling - Storytelling for Historic Site, Museum, and Parks Interpretation

Heritage tourism, experiential tourism, and cultural tourism are a growing business, and there are countless museums, town squares, parks and interpretation centres where the story of past is told and retold. Many times however, this telling is not done by storytellers! I believe that there is a great opportunity for the storytelling community to get more involved, and that we have a unique perspective that can only help create more interest in our shared heritage.

Storytelling on site at a museum or heritage home, however, may be a little different from the sort of storytelling we are accustomed to doing at story swaps, concerts or festivals. When we tell at an historic site, we have a chance to take true historical tales, and present them as a means of imparting a bit of information about the past.

This type of storytelling is a bit more focussed, with a more specific goal. It is, in a sense, applied storytelling. When we do it, we cease to become wholly storytellers, and start to draw on some of the approaches used by historical and parks interpreters. So take off your storytelling hat for a moment, and think about a local museum or historic place.

1. Pick a time period, theme or person that interests you as a teller.
Different storytellers tell different stories. I love telling ghost stories, or Jack tales. Other people tell epic tales, personal reminiscences or literary stories. In general, the teller tells the type of story that they love. Why should storytelling at an historic site or museum be any different? There are thousands of stories out there to be told, but there is nothing worse than listening to a tour guide relate a story which holds no interest to them.

One of the historic sites that I have been involved with is the Newman Wine Vaults in St. John’s, an early nineteenth-century stone and brick vault which was used for aging Newman’s Celebrated Port. I love telling the legend of how a Newman’s ship was attacked by French privateers, blown off course, and found safe harbour in St. John’s. One of the regular interpreters, who has a background in biology, loved to talk about a very specific type of mould that grows on the vault’s cool dark stone walls. I doubt I could get enthusiastic about mould, and perhaps the interpreter cared little for stories of piracy. We each tell the stories that excite us, and I believe that this type of enthusiasm is contagious. Then again, perhaps the mould is as well...

2. Utilize true, real life stories from real people.
History has gotten a bad reputation as being boring, but I think history is one of the most exciting possible things to study! History is full of drama, intrigue, humour, sex, bloodshed, hope, and a thousand other things we love to talk about as storytellers. Find the real stories about real people who lived and worked on your site that bring the place to life.

Think about the little things that written history might not always cover. What did the place smell like? Were the sounds different one hundred years ago? What were the women doing while the men were writing history books? When exactly did Aunt Vera go mad, and how did she end up in New Zealand? The potential stories from historical sources are endless. Find the one true story that speaks to you.

3. Do your homework.
People were much shorter back then. Or, at least, so we’ve been told! Many people have memories of visiting a pioneer village or restored home, and having a guide explain the small beds by saying that people were much shorter in the “olden days.” Is this true? Or is it simply a story that has been repeated over and over without proper research? Do your homework and find out.

When telling a story based on historical truth, it is important to research, research, and research some more. When telling a folktale, a storyteller has great artistic license. We do not have the same luxury with history. There is always room for drama, and sometimes a certain amount of recreation is needed, but historical tales should always be grounded in fact. Archives, museums, public libraries and oral histories all give us grist for the storytelling mill. Tell the truth. And yes, Crazy Aunt Vera really did wind up in New Zealand.

4. Provocation, not instruction.
There is an oft-repeated story associated with the Grand Canyon about the length of time visitors spend there. Like many stories, it has a couple versions. One states that the average visit to the Canyon last seven minutes. Another says the average visit to Grand Canyon is four hours, of which only fifteen minutes are spent in looking at it.

Think about that for a moment. Seven minutes. Fifteen minutes if you are lucky. That is the amount of time that you, as a storyteller working at an historic site, has to relate that site’s entire history. Sound impossible?

It is.

Too many interpreters, however, try to do exactly that. They attempt to compress everything about the site into one presentation, trying to teach all there is to know about the site to an audience that might not really care.

Good interpreters know that the goal of site interpretation is provocation, not instruction. It is impossible to teach a visitor everything about the place in the seven to fifteen minutes they have before they have to get back on their bus, shovel down their lunch, or buy T-shirts for their grandchildren. What you can do in seven minutes is dig a hole for them to fall into.

You won’t need a shovel. What you will need are your natural skills as a storyteller. Your role is to create a story where you trap the visitor, creating a hole they will need to ask a question to get out of later. In a sense, interpretation is much more like flirting than teaching. Give away a little, but always keep back just enough so that they come looking for more. If we give an audience something to think about, they might want to stay for longer than that magic seven minutes to discover an answer for themselves.

5. History versus Heritage Value.
History has many definitions, but I use it here to mean all that stuff that is written down on paper somewhere about things that happened in the past. History is dates, names, battles, treaties, acts of Parliament, laws, census information, et cetera. This, of course, is a very narrow definition of history, but I offer it only to contrast it with the idea of heritage.

Heritage is all those things from history that we value, and we choose to bring forward from the past to share with current and future generations. Heritage is something less tangible than history, because it comes with a sense of value. The heritage value of a place can be found in the importance or significance of that place to past, present, or future generations. It is a living thing, not merely words on an archival document.

The idea of heritage value is linked to the concept of “provocation, not instruction.” Our stories, instead of relaying all the history of the site, should speak to its heritage value. While we should tell the truth, choose which whole truth you will tell. We don’t have to tell all the truths of a place, but instead should focus on telling one complete truth. As well, ask yourself if the story answers the “so what” question.

“The Crow’s Nest Officers Club in St. John’s, Newfoundland was opened in 1942 and was designated as a provincial heritage structure in 1990.” So what?

“The Crow’s Nest Officers Club stands as a tribute to the vitality and humour that was essential to survive the horrors of war on the North Atlantic.” Ah! Now therein lies a story!

6. Use your storytelling experience.
We are storytellers! We are not necessarily tour guides or park wardens. We have our own special skills, and we can bring something to historic sites that other professionals can not. We can tell wonderful stories, and we come with skills from our work as storytellers that serve us well. We know about respecting our audience and choosing our stories wisely. We have a style all our own, and can create vivid word pictures, with pleasing sounds and rhythm. We create believable characters, and understand the importance of dramatic appeal. And we know that we need to practice our material to give it a bit of polish. So find an historic tale that you love to tell, and tell it!

Suggested Reading:
Amato, Joseph A. Rethinking Home: A Case For Writing Local History.Berkeley: U of CA P,
2002. A good reference for historians and researchers who are looking for new ways of looking at the past.

Dupont, Jean-Claude. “The Poker.” in Living in a Material World: Canadian and American Approaches to Material Culture. Ed. Gerald Pocius. St. John’s: ISER, 1991. An example of how one simple artifact can be the doorway to a realm of stories.

Strauss, Susan. The Passionate Fact: Storytelling in Natural History and Cultural Interpretation. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1996. An excellent resource for storytellers who wish to develop programs for parks, or for parks interpreters who want to learn about storytelling!

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: U of NC P, 1977. This is the classic work on heritage interpretation. It is a great little book for anyone doing any sort of interpretation work at a museum, historic site or park.


Need a workshop? Dale Jarvis has taught workshops in Canada, the US and the Netherlands for historic sites, museums, parks and cultural organizations, and for storytellers, showing them how they can use storytelling to bring a site to life. Email him to find out how he can help your organization at

(An earlier version of this article was first printed in 2009, copyright Dale Jarvis, St. John’s, NL. Photo of storytellers Dale Jarvis and Jedediah Baker by Chris Hibbs.)

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