Public storytelling at the Smithsonian and beyond

Helen Klaebe is one of the Chief Investigators on the Community Uses of Co-Creative Media project, and she has just returned from the last leg of her five month Queensland Smithsonian Fellowship, which was awarded in August 2011. I asked Helen to pass on some reflections on her trip as it relates to our research project, and here they are – enjoy!

– Jean

Smithsonian update
For the last decade my creative writing-based research has focused on traditional and new ways of telling stories using new media – non fiction stories about real people in real places. Oral histories have been my method of choice, and one from which many storytelling products can be produced, such as writing a book, creating digital stories, inspiring public art or curating an exhibition.

The Qld Smithsonian Fellowship provided me with the opportunity to work alongside leading researchers at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH), in order to trial innovative ways of evaluating public narrative-driven Arts-based programs, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which attracts over a million visitors annually – showcasing artists, crafts specialists, and performers who tell stories about their creative practice. I have also examined how the facilitator/curator assists the storyteller – either in a ‘real’ performative setting, or through digital storytelling (video/images/blogs online) to tell their stories.

As part of my Fellowship I conducted a literature review; interviewed curators/interns/sponsors, attended planning meetings and workshops; built an evaluation model for the Smithsonian Institute (SI); produced templates to be trialled in 2012; produced a brief evaluation report on the 2011 Colombian program- including the use of video/images/blogs to tell stories; worked with SI curators on the 2012 program; conducted training in evaluation and digital storytelling, integrated evaluation models into 2012 activities; and returned for the summer Festival, monitoring evaluation and storytelling practices. Now that I’m back in Australia, we will produce a free online toolkit for organizations of all sizes that clearly explains how to better evaluate narrative-driven community engagement activities, where artists or creative practitioners are engaged in storytelling in public spaces.

Reflections on the art of storytelling – digital, interactive, live
While living in the US I became very interested in the growing public storytelling phenomenon that seems to be exploding – involving live storytelling performances with deep connections to various digital manifestations – examples include The Moth, This American Life, and Story League.

Some of the highlights of exploring ‘real stories’ re-presented in real places I experienced while in the US included: talking to ‘artisans at work’ in Bogota and its surrounds in Colombia; visiting the interactive Katrina Exhibition in New Orleans (featuring oral history interviews used to make digital stories); comparing the depiction of Thomas Jefferson at Thomas Jefferson’s farm Monticello, Charlottesville to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum exhibition; climbing through the abandoned streets that lie beneath the city of Seattle on an underground walking history tour; seeing the official 9/11 memorial and then visiting the ‘unofficial’ interactive museum where interview material works powerfully with objects; and (although fictional) in New York I was inspired by a locative, interactive performance of Sleep No More, an interpretation of Macbeth.

Storytelling is alive and well in the digital age. These examples, and the many other contemporary projects like them, show that the new hybrid, multi-platform and emplaced ways that stories can be re-presented and shared offer exciting new opportunities for storytellers, facilitators, curators and audiences.

Helen Klaebe