Seeing Our Stories Told: The Hero At The End of Your Story Is The Victim At The Start of Mine

I saw a movie this weekend which embodied so much of what we talk about when we discuss empowering people to tell their stories and prominently displaying their stories.

In documentary Liyana, South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe works with orphans in Swaziland to create a story as a way to help them process their trauma. As they go to work on creating the story, it is depicted in a gorgeous storybook illustration/animation. (Much to my surprise, there isn’t a print book. They are working on turning into a graphic novel.)

The film cuts back and forth between the animation, the orphans working with the storyteller, and telling Liyana’s story to interviewers. It is difficult to say which is more animated since the children (looking to be between 6-9 years old) narrate the action of the story with expansive gestures and vocalized sound effects.

The storyteller guides the children through a process that one might use in a U.S. classroom as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to instruction. (Unfortunately, a school in the U.S. would have to use “multi-disciplinary” as a rationale for engaging in such a time intensive project.)

Once they decide to name their hero Liyana, they assemble a picture of her from a collection of magazines. The children create animals out of mud (with much greater skill than I did as a kid) to represent the bull that accompanies Liyana on her quest to retrieve her twin brothers and the hyenas and crocodiles which threaten them on their journey. The illustration of the imaginary final monster closely resembles something they created from discarded metal found near the orphanage.

Unfortunately, Liyana’s life is a reflection of that of the orphans. Her father beats her mother and then both parents die of complications of the HIV virus, leaving her and her twin brothers in the care of their grandmother. We are told that of the 1.2 million people living in Swaziland, 200,000 are infected with HIV. Later we see the orphans being tested for the virus at a clinic.

Near the end, the children talk about how real life does not have a happy ending like many stories do. Part of me was hoping they had been coached to say that or things had been edited in that manner but I suspect that was a lesson they had already learned too well in their young lives.

Earlier in the movie, the storyteller asks them to decide why Liyana must leave her grandmother to make a journey. The first suggestion was that grandmother was sick and Liyana had to get medicine but the vote ultimately favored robbers came and kidnapped her twin brothers. I was wondering why they would choose the more severe of the two options when we learned the orphanage had recently been the target of a violent robbery. There were audible gasps and groans in the theater as the orphans calmly talked about how the robbers came in, held Liyana down and abused her.

It was a beautiful example of storytelling and story making. In addition to the more traumatic elements the process was meant to help the orphans deal with, you could easily identify the association between elements of the story and their lives.

Liyana is accompanied on her quest by a noble bull because the orphans care for cows and chickens. A grove of mango trees represented a life of ease that tempted Liyana from completing her quest because the orphans reveled in climbing mango trees and letting the juice run down their faces. It was the voice of a peacock sounding like Liyana’s grandmother that got her back on task.

I don’t want to give it away, but if there was anything that illustrated the value of people telling and seeing their own stories, it was the ending. For the children and the audience, it was a happy ending because it reflected an idealized vision of lives they could lead.

But in the U.S. the same basic scenario is synonymous with misery and is the starting point of many stories that the hero seeks to overcome. If the same storytelling program was run with orphans in the U.S. there would be a very different ending.


Museum 2.0 Gets Writer/Convenor 2.0

Hey all – You may or may not know that some months back Nina Simon, writer of Museum 2.0 blog, announced she was leaving her position at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) to devote herself more exclusively to OF/BY/FOR ALL which strives to “make community organizations.”

What does this mean? It means that if you want to be FOR your whole community, you have to be representative OF them and co-created BY them. If people don’t see themselves as part of your work, they won’t see your work as an essential part of their lives.

Putting up a “welcome” sign is not enough. To involve people in meaningful, sustainable ways, you can’t just make programs FOR them. You have to involve them in their creation. And that means becoming OF and BY them too.

Nina recently made her final post on Museum 2.0 saying she was handing the blog over to Seema Rao. Rao had actually done a few guest posts back in July. By quirk of the feed I use to read blogs, I caught her first few posts and, not realizing it wasn’t Nina, wondered how the heck Nina had had the time to visit all these museums she was talking about AND run MAH AND be hitting the speaking circuit so much.

Since I was already intrigued by what Rao was writing under a mistaken identity, needless to say I think the blog is being left in good hands. I look forward to seeing what she posts.

In her final post, Nina reflects on her 13 years of blogging and how conflicted she was with her sense of obligation to the blog and readers. Then how she came to accept the trade-offs of going to a more infrequent, but perhaps more satisfying publishing schedule.

I can relate with her feelings on the subject having had many of the same thoughts myself throughout the years. Like her, I have often regarded blogging as a way to “think out loud” and organize my thoughts on different subjects. When I go back through the archives, I can certainly see how both my personal philosophy and the collective mind of the arts and cultural industry have evolved over the last decades.

I write this post as a tribute to the difficult and thoughtful work Nina has done over the years, providing leadership for many of us in the arts community as she is likely to increasingly do in the future. I am also writing to encourage people to pay attention to Museum 2.0 as a blog because Nina’s choice to transition it to a new writer is really a manifestation of the philosophy and intent she has long espoused:

Nina writes:

1. Museum 2.0 is about participation, but I never fully succeeded in making it participatory. Because I’d built the blog originally to do my own writing and learning, I rarely invited guest writers. I never experimented here with models for collective writing. … I wished Museum 2.0 could break free of me and become more dialogic, led by a strong writer AND online convenor. I believe Seema Rao is this person and I hope you’ll join me in reading and participating as Museum 2.0 grows. There will be new experiments and approaches – alongside the archive of what we’ve built thus far.

We Will Accompany Them On The Beaches, On The Playgrounds, In The Parks And At The Opera!

After I posted last week about how English towns installation of chat benches aligned with other stories I had covered about organizations trying to create personal connections between strangers, one of my neighbors, Regina Sweeney messaged me on LinkedIn about a study about buddy benches conducted in elementary schools. (I think this is the first time I have had someone I see on a fairly regular basis read my blog and send me a link.)

A number of schools use buddy benches to help kids make connections. If you are lonely at recess, you sit there and other kids are supposed to come over and invite you to play. There hadn’t been a lot of research done on the effectiveness of these benches so a group set out to conduct one at a school in Utah.

They found that introducing the benches reduced the number of solitary students. As part of the study, they removed the benches for a couple weeks and then returned them to the playground. When they were removed, the number of solitary students started to return to the baseline number observed before the benches were introduced. When the benches were reintroduced, the number of solitary students decreased.

While you can’t necessarily make assumptions about adults from the observation of a small group of elementary school kids, this result seemed to point to the usefulness of some sort of mechanism to facilitate connecting people. Providing people with a way to signal their willingness and desire to connect was useful.

There were kids that abused the benches. Some kids would sit on the bench and then rebuff all overtures to play. Teachers observed that kids who were normally very social seemed to sit on the bench to call attention to themselves. There were also those who made fun of those sitting on the bench.

Many students thought the benches were a good idea, but for other people.

“It appears that while students liked the idea of a buddy bench at their school, many may have thought of it as an intervention to help other students and not necessarily themselves.”

Kids in the upper grades (4th-6th) thought it was only useful for kids in the lower grades. Some students felt that they were introduced too late in the school year after cliques had been formed.

I imagine these general perceptions about the utility of benches might be more deeply entrenched in adults. Though I would also say adults might be more apt to resolve to participate in one role or the other if they knew the goal was to reverse a trend toward social isolation.

One take away from the study that I think is applicable for people of any age is the necessity to consistently make people aware of the program. Every teacher prepared their students for the introduction of the buddy benches and the benches were placed outside 100% of the time during the intervention stage. However, the principal reported only encouraging their use in morning announcements 80% of the time and the teachers monitoring the playground were often too preoccupied with other playground activities to seek out solitary students to encourage them to use the benches.

Those conducting the study felt these situations kept the project from being as successful as it might have been.

I would think the necessity of repeatedly communicating the availability of chatting/buddy programs would even be greater for arts organizations given that the attendees change for every event and they aren’t being exposed the availability of these initiatives everyday the way kids at school are.

I had written about the buddy seating program I had created at my previous theater which paired people in the audience chamber. As I read this study, I wondered if it might be good to have “meet someone new” seating in a public place like the lobby as well. People probably aren’t going to arrive alone at an event seeking a companion, but people new to the experience might welcome the opportunity to chat with those who are equally clueless about what to do or with someone who can offer some advice. Having a bench or row of chairs specifically to that purpose might be useful.

While this seems obvious in retrospect, it only occurred to me as I was re-reading the study and saw a line about the buddy benches being useful as”…a reinforcement by giving students a place to gather should they feel intimidated when seeking out play activities on their own.” This resonated with my recollection of a post Holly Mulcahy made yesterday about people who ruin the concert experience for newbies by enforcing a behavioral orthodoxy.

It wouldn’t eliminate the glares at clapping in the wrong place, but a buddy bench would give people a place to ask “Sooooo…I what’s the deal with not clapping at the end of some songs, but jumping to your feet at the end of other songs?”

If you are involved with education and want to bring buddy benches to your school, you need to read the study because I didn’t touch upon even 10% of what was involved and what they felt needed more rigorous study.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ VR Headsets

On Saturday, the Knight Foundation will be issuing a call “for ideas exploring how arts institutions can present immersive experiences to engage audiences” (disclosure: Knight Foundation has funded projects for my day job and supports tons of stuff in my community.)

In the announcement, Knight Foundation staffer Chris Barr writes about how virtual and augmented reality is already being used by arts organizations on an experimental basis.

From digital overlays of  museum spaces and VR interpretations of surreal landscapes, to artistic interpretations of climate change and digital recreations of fragile Cuban sculpture, artists, museums and other arts institutions are experimenting with these emerging technologies.

What they are looking for is projects in which technologists, companies and artists will partner with museums and performing arts organizations to explore some of the following ideas:

We hope to find innovative uses for this technology, new approaches for moving audiences through these experiences, and opportunities to engage new and diverse audiences.

How can these technologies help us reach new people? How do we make the experience before, during and after putting on a headset delightful? How do we service these experiences efficiently? How should these experiences be distributed and exhibited? How can this new form of storytelling be used for more inclusive stories? How can we use immersive tech to expand the reach of the arts beyond physical locations?

One thing I appreciated was that in asking how to make the experience before, during and after delightful,  they seem to understand that it is the entire experience and not just the technology that provides value.

As much as many of us, myself included, might resent the way the growing prevalence of technology/media is encroaching upon and competing with our practice, this is an opportunity to proactively be part of a conversation and effort at the genesis of the concept and application. The alternative is the current situation where you react to the emergence of a technology or trend.

Which is not to say that anything one might contribute to won’t quickly evolve and be used in a manner you hadn’t intended or conceived. How many of us knew a boxy cellphone would evolve to the point it replaced a watch, iPod, television and even voice conversations are moving to the margins.

When I saw the mention of “putting on a headset” in the passage I cited above, I chuckled because I suspect (and hope) that people will blow the concept of headset based delivery out of the water with the ideas they have.

If you are looking for some context or jumping off points for your own ideas, I have written about a number of projects associated with augmented reality in the past couple years, as well as projects in the Knight Foundation Prototype Fund

If you have an idea germinating,  guidelines will be posted on the Knight Foundation website on July 27. You can sign up for the July 30 informational webinar now.

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