We are all storytellers. We know how to spin a good yarn about our everyday life experiences and often slip into embellishment or overemphasise different aspects. We often unconsciously alter our tone of voice, our pitch and volume. We also use our whole bodies to express emotion when we both tell and listen to stories. Oral history and the retelling of stories is in every human’s DNA as they have been central to our learning and development. Long before words formed our language, our ancestors told stories through gesture and drawing, acting out events to pass on knowledge and experience.
Storytelling is a key element to our understanding of space, objects, and time, and it can be a useful tool to help all visitors engage with your museum. It is an especially useful tool for SEND audiences if done well.
Key things to consider:
- Keep the pace slow and sentences short, repeat sentences, give time for processing and understanding.
- Use rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and ritual.
- Use iconic gestures to bring visual meaning to your words.
- Make things really special—revere the object and story and build on the awe and wonder of it.
- Deliver stories in a humble, offer-filled way—share the experience of discovery with your audience.
- Be totally present in the moment—bring your whole self to the story; forget everything else during that time.
- Try not to ask direct questions but rather use reflecting language. Instead of asking “How, what, why?”, ask “Do you remember?” or “I wonder what …”. Share the power balance with your audience, value opinions and observations over “correctness”. Knowing the date something was made is far less important than an observation of how it feels to the touch.
- Use props to engage all of the senses, which helps build context and adds layers of meaning to a story. All people are sensory learners and will benefit from sensory elements in a story, but for some learners, the use of sensory props will be a core way to engage in and access a story.
- Stories or a “chant” of words can be used to center a person’s concentration in the moment and bring them into the space. Start an activity session with a story or a repetitive “journey story”. It can help children switch their focus from the anxiety they may feel about entering the museum and having travelled there to being present in the moment. Storytelling can be a grounding tool.
- Find a quiet space away from busy areas in the museum and, if possible, sit on the floor or low down. Have a basket or interesting container to hold your props; make sure they are hidden so they are revealed as moments of wonder when their turn in the story comes. As they emerge, allow everyone in the group time to explore the items and process them and the story they are hearing. Be calm and flexible to responses from your audience, which may come as sounds, gestures, or even behaviour that you don’t expect.
- Value any reaction as participation and enjoy the unique way each story told to a new audience is different. This is the magic that creates meaningful engagement with your museum and is a gateway further into it. This “magic” is probably why you chose to work in a museum—to share the love of the stories held within its collections with new audiences. Enjoy!
Louise Coigley teaches Live Inclusive Storytelling for museum staff and has online courses
Here is a clip of her storytelling in a school setting
Sensory storytelling is similar to inclusive storytelling and partners concise text with strong sensory stimuli to convey a narrative. The text is typically less than ten sentences. Pick a few key themes or stories that shine out in your museum collection or displays and use them as a basis to create your sensory story.
Joanna Grace runs the Sensory Projects and writes sensory stories that you can use either as is or as a basis to create your own story.
Sensory storytelling is a powerful tool that supports sensory engagement and well-being. We all use our senses unconsciously to build a fuller picture of our surroundings, but some people rely solely on their senses to understand the world around them, especially when their cognition is restricted due to learning disability. Exploring objects in a sensory way enriches the experience for everyone and is an excellent method of interpretation for adults with dementia, too.
Be mindful of personal preference to loud noises, smells, and sensations (ask the supervising adult about these first), and go with the pace of the audience.
Some examples of props to engage the senses:
- Materials of different textures—soft fabrics like velvet, faux fur, silk, or chiffon; rough materials like sandpaper; crunchy materials like space blankets, bubble wrap, and corrugated card.
- Light-changing materials like coloured acetate or sweets wrappers; materials of different opacity like tissue paper.
- Scent—essential oils (check with adult accompanying child if OK to use), food smells (e.g., coffee, lemons), herbs, and smelly cubes (https://aromaprime.com/)
- Sound—musical instruments, rain sticks, thunder tubes (ask adult before use), and talking tiles for prerecorded sounds (https://www.consortiumeducation.com/)
- Touch—water spray bottle, feathers, fans, toy slime, or sensory toys
Here’s a YouTube video from Joanna Grace talking about sensory storytelling