The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller
- Steve Jobs
Collecting and preserving objects and using them to tell stories is why
museums exist. Dedication to this core purpose has led museums to become regarded as one of the most trusted institutions in our culture
. But the power that comes from storytelling and the trust that it builds should always be questioned. Which
stories are being told? Who
gets to tell them? When
is the right time to tell them? And how
are they collected, preserved, and shared? Museums all around the world are seeking new ways to engage with their communities to continue to earn trust by sharing stories that are authentically of, by, and for the people they serve
I love to tell stories and my job as the Chief Curator at the Grand Rapids Public Museum is a perfect outlet. Every new exhibit poses unique challenges: who is the audience for this story, should it be didactic or immersive, should we go into great detail about a few objects or show hundreds of examples? It seems to me that the best stories are about people, and the best storytellers listen to their audiences and tell stories that include them. As I research and write exhibits, I try to keep these questions in mind so that in each exhibit every visitor has a chance to learn something new while also seeing some part of their own story reflected in the narrative.
In order to tell these types of inclusive stories, museums need to build collections that reflect their community. The Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM) recently developed a new process to collect and share our community’s stories about life in West Michigan during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the first decisions we made was, at least in the beginning, to collect stories, not objects. The stay-at-home order meant that we couldn’t meet with donors in person to collect things, so instead we developed an online form
in the community could submit written stories, digital photographs, videos, or other media that documented their experience with the pandemic.
We also knew that we wanted to collect and share stories about people’s experiences now
, while they were fresh and still linked to emotion. Finally, we wanted to publish these stories in real time as they were submitted, both as a balm to the storyteller and as a way to connect them with a wider audience when they were most relevant.
To date we have collected and shared 367 stories, photographs, videos, poems, songs, executive orders, paintings, homemade masks, and more. Some are uplifting, others depressing, some are simply factual documentation of events through the eyes of the donor. Some are political, contesting or supporting the decisions of local, state, and federal politicians. Most of the submissions are thoughtful; sharing a story with the Museum seems to be taken more seriously than an average social media post. In its totality, the archive becomes more than the sum of its parts, a collection of stories that begins to reveal a bigger story about what life was really like during this unprecedented period in our history.
For Amy Lorraine
, the story of COVID-19 is about finding new ways to communicate with her mother, who is quarantined in a retirement community. Reg James’ COVID-19 story
is about using his talents as an artist and designer to make fashionable masks for his customers. For Heather Dean
, the story of COVID-19 is about government overreach and her right to protest. Brett Farmer
tells the story of these unprecedented times through the lens of his camera. And a 10th grade student from East Kentwood High School
writes in a school assignment that they are concerned about discrimination against Asian Americans, a familiar story with roots in history. All these stories, and over 300 more are now a part of the GRPM’s Collections and are freely available online in a digital archive
that will be preserved for future generations.
During a time of great uncertainty, these stories inspire me, make me smile, and give me hope. They provide a balance and give a real human perspective to what I read in the news. They are an anchor that keeps our collective memory from drifting too far from the truth. They say, “we were there,” “this is what we did,” “this is how we felt,” “this is what we believed,” and they do it in the unique voice of each storyteller, without spin or commentary.
Everyone has a story to tell; and many museums, archives, and libraries at the local, state, and federal levels are working to document the pandemic and its effects on people and their communities. So please, share your story with us.
Links to COVID-19 Collecting Projects:
Grand Rapids Public Museum - https://www.grpm.org/collections/
Grand Rapids Public Library - https://www.grpl.org/your-stories/
Michigan History Center - https://www.michigan.gov/mhc/0,9075,7-361-99041_99042---,00.html
Library of Michigan - https://www.michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan/0,9327,7-381-88854_89996-523458--,00.html
Smithsonian Museums - https://americanhistory.si.edu/press/releases/statement-national-museum-american-history-implements-collecting-strategy-response
Library of Congress - https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2020/06/how-will-we-remember-covid-19/
Alex has 16 years of experience working in museums, archives, and libraries in Michigan and Colorado. He earned a Bachelor's Degree in History from Kalamazoo College and a Masters Degree in Public History from Colorado State University where he specialized in Museum and Archival Studies. Alex began working in the GRPM’s Collections Department in 2008 and has curated exhibits including Thank God For Michigan: Stories from the Civil War, Thank You BEER!, Through the Eyes of Weidenaar, and TOYS!. Alex also works to facilitate access to the GRPM's vast Collections, and is especially interested in finding ways to use new and developing technology to engage Museum visitors with history, science, and culture. Alex serves on the Grand Rapids Historical Commission and the Advisory Council for the Professional Master of Arts in Social Innovation at Grand Valley State University.
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