Museums as Storytellers

An elementary schoolboy in Montana grew up in the late 40’s interested in everything related to dinosaurs. He dreamed of becoming a Paleontologist, but his academic results left something to be desired. In an article he wrote some years later called “An Intellectual Autobiography” he describes his grade-school experiences as “extremely difficult because my progress in reading, writing, and mathematics was excruciatingly slow.” Things did not improve in college. He flunked out of The University of Montana at one time failing five consecutive quarters.

He did not let this deter him from his dreams. While he did not have the academic results, he had the desire. After college, while driving an 18 wheeler to pay the bills, he wrote letters to hundreds of museums throughout the United States asking for a job of any kind. He was allowed to be a technician at Princeton University’s Natural History Museum. Over time through hard work, he rose through the ranks, and today is considered one of the most respected Paleontologists in the world.

Among many other breakthroughs, Jack Horner discovered that dinosaurs cared for their young, and some were social animals that nested in colonies. Horner was an advisor on the four Jurassic Park movies, and millions have seen him on documentaries about dinosaurs.

In his 30’s, he was diagnosed with severe learning disabilities which were the reasons for his struggles in school. He is an example of how persistence and dedication to your dreams can overcome any obstacle. Learn more about his story in the exhibit “The Way Jack Horner Sees the World,” at the museum through April 9th.

Museums are in the storytelling business. What we do is not about artifacts; it’s about the human stories related to the artifacts. The success of an exhibit has more to do with the effectiveness of the storytelling than it has to do with the actual artifacts.

This is true in every facet of life. Every four years, people around the globe are fixated to their TV’s to watch the Olympics. We do not know most of these athletes as they compete in sports we don’t regularly follow. The key to getting us to engage with the Olympics is the human stories of the athletes and their paths to the Olympic stage. The Olympics are brought to life through compelling storytelling. The same is true for every single artifact in your museum.

A good discussion of compelling storytelling is outside the length of this article. The point I want to emphasize here is that the stories are the exhibits. As your team has discussions about how to communicate your next exhibition to the world, start with the stories.

Here are a few quick tips on storytelling:

  1. Great stories are about the human condition – We want to connect to peoples struggles and care about their journey.
  2. Great stories appeal to our deepest emotions – They help us work through our most inner thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
  3. Great stories are easy to follow – If following along is confusing or too complicated, we lose interest.
  4. Great stories expand our horizons – They make us consider what’s possible both internally and externally.

Want excited and engaged visitors? Start by telling compelling stories.


Article by Frank Bennett, 

The exhibit in this story is fictional; it is only being used as an example, although I would love for such an exhibition of Jack Horner’s work to exist.