• Jingshu Helen Yao

The Potential of Oral Storytelling in Museum Exhibitions

Artifacts, specimens, and models might first come to mind when people think of museums. Though museums today incorporate a variety of media into their exhibitions, the traditional items in visual exhibitions still remain at the forefront of people’s minds. Changes tend to occur gradually, but oral storytelling has shown its potential to become an alternative method to showcase history and culture.


In the Fall of 2019, the Future of Museum Storytelling Conference was held in New York. Professionals put their focus on how storytelling could benefit from the digital age, and how they could facilitate a museum environment rich in both oral and visual materials. In recent years, oral storytelling methods were employed to deliver complex topics such as immigration, decolonization, and LGBTQ stories. The strategy gave the marginalized communities full representation of themselves, which achieved better results while approaching these hard topics.


Metis Prisoners in 1885. Source.


Many indigenous communities around the world have strong oral traditions, which made oral storytelling a natural element of recording their history. Oral storytelling is now widely used to present indigenous culture in museums. The Gabriel Dumont Institute Of Native Studies And Applied Research presented audiences and researchers with an online archive of Metis oral history. The collection includes transcription and audio stories, interviews with storytellers, and additional resources for oral history research. The Virtual Museum of Canada, a digital platform created by Canada’s museums and heritage organizations, uses its space for virtual storytelling and illustrations.



Virtual Museum of Canada Logo. Source.


These archives and digital exhibitions have become extremely useful during special times like quarantine. While most resources are limited to in-person use, oral storytelling maintains the same value remotely. In addition to its close connection to indigenous culture, oral storytelling has also been used in other topics that largely involved personal experience. The Toronto Ward Museum’s program Block by Block focuses on the storytelling of immigration. The initiative intends to use storytelling as a method to create a more inclusive city.


Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Source.


Bidzinski and her colleagues at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights introduced their methods for including personal perspectives in historical events. “Oral history offers something other sources lack — perspectives from often-marginalized groups and individuals, including many who have suffered human rights violations. Many of these stories have been excluded from the historical record.” Bidzinski et. al, explains this in greater depth in their paper “Building the Oral History Program at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights”. With more and more museums adopting oral storytelling as a part of their exhibitions, it will add depth to museums and culture education.