Beyond the Written Word: Historical Storytelling in an Interdisciplinary World

Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here. —Sue Monk Kidd in the Secret Life of Bees

As a public historian and preservationist, I have always seen our work as inherently interdisciplinary, recognizing that in the increasingly digital world we live in, the need to use audio, video, and text to communicate our mission has become paramount.

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Theaster Gates, A Game of My Own, 2017, “Salvaging discarded materials found in and around his native Chicago, Gates responds to the decline of urban institutions and traditions, and resurrects them as art.”

Now, nearly, eleven years into my career at the National Trust for Historic Preservation I plan on jumping in feet first into the world of storytelling and engage with digital (and in person) storytellers across a variety of disciplines and fields. In doing so I hope to gain a sense of best practices and tools that can help connect the public to the histories of all Americans.

This project is part of a two month sabbatical from the National Trust that will take place this coming August and September (see timeline below). The hope is to not just look at storytelling in the history field – but also the wider field of humanities and beyond.  At the end I hope to have gained a sense of how to construct a story that is richer, broader, and meaningful – without creating a cacophony that overwhelms the senses.

I started thinking through some of these questions in a two-part blog post [Part I | Part II] last year where I wrote about various creative conversations on identity. In some ways this project was born out of these pieces, where I sought to put together distinct pieces of culture (museum exhibitions, novels, theater, and art) to tell a distinct story of who we are as individuals.

For me, interdisciplinary storytelling isn’t just about using mixed media (or trans-media) to engage with audiences (otherwise we would just say movies and theatre are a great example of this and be done with it). Rather it is about creating layers of story that taken individually provide one singular piece of the narrative amidst a much bigger mosaic.

This is why I’ve been really fascinated by the work of Theaster Gates, companies like The History Project and StoryTech (One of the technology companies behind My Brother’s Keeper, above) or authors like Guy Gavriel Kay or Brandon Sanderson who imbue their work with art and literature amidst the work of world building. See also this video from the Game of Thrones Live Concert where the music is as much of a star as the actual HBO television show.

Here are some of my initial research questions:

  1. What are the ways in which history and culture are being presented in an increasingly digital world?
  2. In what ways do digital projects dealing with art, music, and the past connect with the public beyond a momentary impression?
  3. What are some of the innovative ways in which the arts and history intersect to tell a narrative – both offline and online? How can we create a more fully immersive experience for the user?
  4. How do various historical presentations and cultural mechanisms relate and effect individual and collective identity?

The Plan of Action

We always go into these projects with a lot of hope and discipline. My plan of action is to spend June and July doing research, interviewing creators, and planning. During the two months when I won’t be working I’ll be doing a combination of thinking (and traveling through Europe) in August and writing and synthesizing in September.

This is where I hope you can help. Like most researchers I know where to start and have been collecting ideas since I first conceived this project last summer. But my frame of reference is just one perspective. In order to talk to as many creators as possible I would appreciate if you would send me articles to read, individuals to talk to, tools to investigate. Anything that looks at interdisciplinary storytelling from an interesting perspective. You can email me if you have my address already or contact me using this online form.

The hope is that by the end of September I’ll be able to take my research from the sabbatical and re-center it on broader history while also enriching the way I think about storytelling and the world in which we live.

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