Appropriate and accessible storytelling in museums and heritage sites
by Allan LEONARD
26 March 2021
During an Imagine! Festival event, academics and practitioners shared their knowledge and experiences of the use of storytelling in museum and heritage site environments, as a means of evoking emotion in appropriate and accessible ways.
“Storytelling enables us to learn about past events in an emotionally engaging way. It brings experiences to life by using personal voices and perspectives. It helps with community inclusion and social connection, to engage with a broader audience, including those with disabilities.”
This was how Xi Wang, a postgraduate researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, began the event, which showcased collaborative projects with Titanic Belfast, the Prisons Memory Archive, and the Ulster Museum, “across time and space and across different cultures”. Other guest speakers were Conor McCafferty, Sarah McDonagh, and Rui Sun, with Professor Daniel Crookes facilitating the meeting.
Inclusivity as bedrock
From 2016 to 2020, Dr Conor McCafferty was the project manager of the Prisons Memory Archive (PMA), which was a partnership project between Queen’s University Belfast and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Shared Future News has written previously about the Prisons Memory Archive project.
McCafferty explained how the PMA began in 2004, with a filmmaker, Cahal McLaughlin, at the Maze/Long Kesh (MLK) prison site and recording walk-and-talk sessions with a former republican prisoner, a former loyalist prisoner, and a prison officer. McLaughlin made further recordings at Armagh Gaol in 2006. The following year, he and colleagues returned to MLK and made recordings with 140 participants.
McCafferty described three key principles of the project: (1) life storytelling, (2) co-ownership, and (3) inclusivity.
Rather than a set question-and-answer interview, participants were invited to walk and tell their story and experiences, based on what they encountered at the prison sites. McCafferty said that the architecture and artifacts of the site helped trigger memories — from prisoners, family members, prison officers — ranging from visiting the prison for the first time, of being interned, of life in the compounds, etc.
While the full collection is at PRONI, the project website has a selection of films. McCafferty spotlighted one, “We Were There”, which is the story of the women of the Maze/Long Kesh prison, remarking how many women went through the prison site as visitors, educators, and workers. He cited this as an example of co-ownership, as the project officers work in partnership with the participating women. Similarly, McCafferty described a co-creation process of working with prisoners, prison officers, and visitors, for a compiled glossary, so that others can navigate what is talked about in the archive.
Bringing a prison to life with audio description
Sarah McDonagh’s research is focused on creating access to the video tours of the Maze/Long Kesh prison, primarily for blind and partially sighted people, through the addition of audio description — an additional audio track that explains important visual information as it appears on the screen.
McDonagh explained that given the ongoing contention, a lot of contextual information about the Maze/Long Kesh prison in the video tours is kept minimal. There’s no spoken narration or voiceover over the visuals of the prison site, which allows viewers to interpret the prison in their own terms. “However, this approach privileges those who can see, which places blind and partially sighted people at a significant disadvantage,” said McDonagh, who then explored some of the challenges in creating satisfactory audio descriptions.
She presented the audio described version of the trailer for the Prisons Memories Archives to illustrate this:
[Participant] “I think there are ghosts in the Maze. The Maze itself is a ghost. It’s a ghost of another time.”
[Narrator] “A wide panoramic view of the entire Maze/Long Kesh prison, with its six stints of concrete walls, wire fences, exercise yards and admin buildings, the prison appears entirely grey. White letters appear against a black screen, which reads ‘The Maze and Long Kesh Prison’. A row of disused and abandoned Nissen huts. An empty fortified prison gate. Busted razor wires fallen from the concrete prison wall. 24 interviews…”
[Participants] “It’s a time I’ve never really been able to come to terms with.” “It was if they, the whole Northern Ireland conflict, had focused itself on this particular piece of ground and these particular buildings.” “Very, very painful memories, memories that have to be kept and have to be talked about and have to be put into our history.”…
Originally, there were three audio-described film clips presented to both blind and partially sighted, as well as non-blind, audiences. They found it lacking, incomplete, not fully communicating what life was like for those who passed through the prison. Thus the audio described material was changed, now including both descriptions of the prison space, as it appears, as well as hearing from experiences of those who were there. McDonagh said that this really brought the Maze/Long Kesh prison to life for those who came to engage with the video tours.
“So storytelling really offers a way in which to understand the complexity of the [Maze/Long Kesh] prison, and this has important implications in terms of how we understand and represent the prison to more diverse audiences. It also forces us to confront some of the cultural sensitivities at play in discussion about the past in Northern Ireland.
“And it really recognises that although we have a shared past, we don’t necessarily have a shared memory of the past,” McDonagh concluded.
Translations to open new windows of dialogue
Rui Sun is working with the National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI), to produce a Chinese translation for the Troubles and Beyond gallery at the Ulster Museum; this is also the scope of her postgraduate research at Queen’s University Belfast. She explained how, due to the structure and space limitation of the Troubles gallery, her translation — in the form of a Chinese visitor’s guide — could be presented as a pamphlet that is placed at the gallery entrance or at the reception desk, or as an audio guide, or as a website, or as a mobile phone app.
Sun said that for international tourists without background knowledge, it might be difficult to understand some of the content presented in the Ulster Museum. She used an example of an artifact titled, “Ulster in Danger”, which shows a snake strangling a scrolled document titled “Dublin Summit”, with a lit match towards the bottom but above a matchbox labelled “DUP”. Sun explained that she was confused: “What does the snake stand for? Is it the British Government or is the snake the DUP or other parties that want to strangle the Dublin Summit?”
Sun thanked the Ulster Museum for its bravery in setting up the gallery, with its aim to present the Troubles from multiple perspectives. Consistent with the museum’s declared aspiration for engagement, Sun wants her Chinese translation “to open a new window of dialogue so that more people might have the chance to learn about the Troubles”.
Finally, Sun used the example of the museum’s display of the Nobel Peace Prize medal donated by Mairead Corrigan as a means of conveying three aspects to international visitors: one, the dangers of conflict, noting the death of Mairead’s family; two, the political developments of the peace process; and three, the personal lives of citizens who were motivated by grief and gained international attention.
Connecting visitors of today and passengers of the past
Xi Wang, another researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, gave the final presentation, “Storytelling in the context of museum accessibility”. She focused on the quality of visitor experiences, particularly in regards to the generation of emotional engagement at Titanic Belfast. Wang cited a case of blind/partially sighted participant in a study, who observed her family members responding with emotion to the exhibit on the sinking of the ship, but she did not experience these emotions herself: “Some of my family members were crying, but I was wondering why they were crying.”
Wang used the device of telling the story of the maiden voyage of the Titanic through a multisensory “smart map” that she created: “The design aim of our interactive, tactile, smart map was to link across time and space the historical and physical facts … to establish an emotional connection between visitors of today and passengers of the past.”
Wang described the smart map as “bringing visitors onboard the Titanic”. Visitors are able to use their fingers to trace a watch along the route. There are several multifunctional buttons that respond with a relevant item description. For various points along the journey, users can hear musings of the different locations and follow the personal stories of the passengers, narrated with different voices. This includes the reading of one of the Morse code messages:
“Please tell your captain this: the Olympic is making all speed for Titanic … You are much nearer to Titanic. Titanic is already putting women in the boats. And he says the weather there is clear and calm. The Olympic is the only ship we have heard say going to the assistance of Titanic. The others must be a long way from Titanic.”
One of the responses from a blind/partially sighted participant at a reception study at RNIB was: “[This] will be a move forward to improve accessibility for visually impared people, but also for sighted people, as it can help visualise events along the way.”
During the question and answer session, a guest remarked on how people will communicate their narrative depending upon the audience that they are addressing, and she asked the panel how they manage this in their collection of narratives. McCafferty explained that the Prisons Memory Archive didn’t lead participants to purposely discuss anything in particular: “It wasn’t about gathering some evidence … it wasn’t about creating a complete, whole truth. It was about … seeing what the site evoked for them … to form this particular record … that’s not going to be complete. It’s not going to be the whole story. It’ll be partial, depending on who’s speaking and how they feel, or who they think maybe they’re speaking to as well.” He gave an example of participants who shared different memories with the filmmaker, Laura Aguiar, on and off the prison sites. “Participants themselves are … very much aware of how they’re framing their own story and what they want to say.”
I asked the panel a question, “The ethics of evoking traumatic events during storytelling?” McDonagh responded that it’s a question of thinking about who your audiences are when you disclose these stories, “because some people have experienced traumas, maybe similar to some of these things that people are disclosing with the [Prisons Memories Archive]”. McCafferty said that in regards to collecting the content, “You have to be aware of what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and make sure that the participant themself feels competent and content with what’s going on.” McCafferty added that in regards to sharing material, it could be the case that some groups maybe aren’t ready to view some material from the archive, and to do so would have an adverse effect. Reaching out to different groups and trying to introduce material can be challenging:
“There’s no easy answer to that, but I think having a sense of ethical responsibility considering how people might be affected, even on a practical level having the opportunity for people to come and talk to either somebody involved with the project of somebody who can offer some kind of sort of counselling … can be really important too. It depends on specifically what the content is and what the group is.”
Professor Crookes made a distinction between events of the distant versus recent past:
“I think if Titanic Belfast saw people weeping and crying with emotion, they would actually be pleased in a way; it would show that they had been very successful in drawing people into the experience … a little bit like watching the movie, Titanic. But with more recent events … where perhaps you could have families of victims listening to the story of some of the people who perpetrated the acts, you could see that could be very traumatic, and … I think there are very serious ethical issues…”