One Foot in Front of the Other: Defining Terms

In my book, The Heart of the River, I wrote that “every adventure starts the same way, with one foot in front of the other.” After averaging 7 miles (14k steps) a day for the last month, I can testify that I embraced my adventure through formal/informal theatrical performances, walking tours, museum visits, historic site wanderings and so, much, more. It wasn’t merely the steps that made a leap forward, but also my mind as I started to pull on different threads of my project on storytelling, trying to find the ways in which these pieces fit and slotted together.

Images in this post represent the different ways you could tell the story of my trip to Italy. This first image is the ceiling of the Dumo di Siena in Tuscany.

As a reminder here are the four research questions that I presented a few months ago:

  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 first thing I’ve realized is that even alone each of these research questions are incredibly daunting, and are impossible to answer comprehensively even if I had six months or even a year of work-free research time. What I can do, however, is lay out a series of project examples based on my travels and conversations, with the intention of developing a philosophy and methodology on how to approach historical stories in a more layered and connected manner.

To start I want to take a deep dive into the language I’ll be using going forward. This particular piece of the conversation comes from interviews I conducted in June and July 2017 where my interviewees challenged me to further break down and narrow some of the basic tenants of the project. More specifically:

  1. What do I mean when I say interdisciplinary?
  2. What does media mean within the confines of this project?
  3. What does storytelling mean to me?

Inter vs. Multi

During one of my earlier conversations with Seema Rao of Brilliant Idea Studios I was presented with a small shift in language regarding my use of the word interdisciplinary.

Formal definitions state:

Interdisciplinary: relating to more than one branch of knowledge.

Multidisciplinary: combining or involving several academic disciplines or professional specializations in an approach to a topic or problem.

A look at down from the Augustus Gardens in Capri off of the Amalfi Coast.

Or as Seema put it – “inter [in interdisciplinary] means that one is being pushed into the other, [whereas] multi means both, all are together.” In other words, multidisciplinary speaks to telling stories in cohesion as opposed to having disparate elements link together side by side.

That being said, when you add in the digital component of the project, an additional term emerges: Transmedia Storytelling. This is a term we are using for a panel on technology and storytelling at the PastForward conference this fall in Chicago (which features myself and Seema). Transmedia – as defined is a methodology by which storytelling occurs across platforms in a way to create a unified vision and narrative.

For that reason I’m going to begin transitioning towards using multidisciplinary and transmedia wherever applicable, as both phrases accurately describe my investigations of layering narrative in the act of storytelling.

On Media

In a later conversation with Charisse L’Pree Corsbie-Massay, who teaches psychology and audience effects at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, I was asked to define what I meant by media, a phrase that has many connotations and meanings in different fields.

For the purposes of this project the term media is in the artistic sense – that which challenges all of our senses, from our brains, to our emotions. Disciplines that mix sound, and visuals, and dance and drama to tell a story – where each piece enhances and deepens the meaning of the story we are getting.

This includes, but is not limited to – oral histories, music, dance, spoken word, lyrics, theatre, poetry, novels, art (painting, sculpture etc.), movies, documentaries, video. A wide, all-encompassing net to capture a multitude of forms of expression.

“When one looks at it, all else seems little; the edifice is so vast, that one cannot hold the image of it in one’s soul; in memory we think it smaller, and then return to it again to find it every time greater than before. ” — J. W. Goethe on the Roman Colosseum, Italian Journey

That being said there is the flip side of media (as in multi-media) – the platforms and the tools used to disseminate these narratives. I have just dipped my toe into what exists in the realm of technology by watching videos, listening to podcasts, and looking at examples of transmedia storytelling in order to see what might be possible.

Storytelling and the Past

Finally – storytelling. For me storytelling is an action in which you create meaning out of events. As historians we make arguments. We interpret based on historical fact to pull together an understanding of what happened in the past. But I am often asking myself what happens when we tell stories where interpretation and meaning is a little bit more subjective?

Additionally we are taught about the importance of visual and material culture to offset written documentation as primary sources – especially when direct written documentation is not available. When I talked to Aleia Brown, a visiting scholar from Michigan State University Museum, about her work with African American quilters in the United States she said that “sharing stories was how to share knowledge, and get people to act…,[and a way to] create empathy so that people could see outside themselves.” For me history storytelling using multidisciplinary tools has the potential for building greater connections because storytelling is as much about emotion and the creation of meaning as it is about content development.

Tokens for the Carousel in Florence.

As I consider and think about the ways in which history can expand its tools for telling our histories I will remember the one essential lesson about being a public historian: How the public reacts to and internalizes the past is also subjective to their own experiences.

Earlier in this post I mentioned that I want to end my sabbatical with a methodology or philosophy regarding historical storytelling. Critical to accomplishing this goal is the recognition that storytelling is an art in of itself. Specifically, that the process by which you write a story, as author Guy Gavriel Kay reminded me, is not something that can be universally solved. There is no magic answer, rather an array of choose your own adventures that may lead to meaningful, and important, narratives of understanding for our past and our future. While I’ll end this month with an answer to my research questions, they will be, by no means, the only answer.

With our end destination in mind, let’s go and take this journey together — with one foot in front of the other.

Next Up? A look at an exhibition at the Tate Modern on the art of the Black Power Movement.

Interested in talking to me about your work in storytelling? Fill out my survey!

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