The Storytelling Animal and the Role of the Museum

22, September 2014

There is a lot of diversity within humanity, and how could there not be? We grow up in different areas and live within a wide range of lifestyles. We are immersed in cultures and subcultures that help to define us. Yet, even with our differences, we are human, and we are much the same. We try to live our lives to the best of our abilities and work toward a better future for ourselves and our loved ones. We grow old, and we hope that our lives, our story, had meaning. In this we are human, one and all, unchanged. Regardless of where we find ourselves in life, humans are storytelling animals. Our narratives consist of problems and our characters work to solve those problems. We live within this narrative, and we share it with others. We love to tell stories, and we love to hear stories. Awake or asleep, we live our lives through story. In an interview on Edge.org, author Jonathan Gottschall (The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human) explains:

"We think of stories as a wildly creative art form but within that creativity and that diversity there is a lot of conformity. Stories are very predictable. No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure."

a dress worn by the Veiled Prophet Queen in 1948Veiled Prophet Queen dress worn by Helen Dozier Conant in 1948. Missouri History Museum.

In the Missouri History Museum’s 250 in 250 exhibit we share the story of St. Louis. Our story is your story, a story of 50 people, 50 places, 50 images, 50 moments, and 50 objects. There is diversity within our story, but there is also conformity. We are all connected and have the same human needs. If we look at the dress of the Veiled Prophet Queen, we can find a connection with the “Belle of the Ball” and the “Queen of Love and Beauty.” The story of hope, love, desire, and beauty is one that we can all connect with in some way. It is a story that we share not just within St. Louis, but with people all around the world. Stories are, and can be, an art, but they are so much more. Stories are uniquely human. They are the essence of humanity. It is this essence that we attempt to capture, preserve, and share within the walls of the museum. This is true for those who have attained an amount of fame, and it is true for those who have not. It is our job to capture the entire tale, not just a snippet or two. We work tirelessly in our quest to tell the entire story, knowing that it may be near impossible. Yet, we continue to record and transcribe oral stories, and we collect, care for, preserve, and record the history of objects. We share this information through our exhibits and hope that others can find meaning in our work. We do this with the intention to tell a story—the story of humanity. The storytelling that we do at the Museum is the act of preserving that which makes us human.

However, our role at the Museum goes much further than preservation. We are caretakers, it is true, but we are not meant to amass and horde the great treasure that we have within our institution. The treasures that we keep tell a story, and it is a story that belongs to everyone. Each and every one of us has a role in this tale, and as we find ourselves wondering the Museum’s vault of stories, we must find our own path through the grand narrative of our past. Within the walls of the Museum, we can do our own identity work and decide the place that these stories have in our own lives. We at the museum can offer guidance, and we are happy to serve, but the meaning within the story is one that each of us must find on our own.

—Judy Williams, Social Media Content GRA