Big and Slow: Adventures in Digital Storytelling

Danny Birchall, Wellcome Collection, UK, Anna Faherty, Strategic Content, UK

Published paper: Big and slow: Adventures in digital storytelling

Museums are full of possibilities for deep engagement, open-ended learning, and thoughtful reflection. Online, we have adapted to a digital culture dominated by the brief and transient: from character-limited tweets to evanescent snapchats. In the process, have we lost the ability to craft digital experiences that offer the depth and pace of our physical galleries?

The news industry has struggled to develop business models that support the publication of quality “longform” digital stories, like the New York Times’ “Snow Fall.” Museums have the assets and the audiences to develop storytelling experiences that are both “big” in their scope and “slow” in the rewarding pace of interaction and engagement; these experiences come naturally in the gallery, but creating equivalent digital experiences seems harder for museums. The Google Cultural Institute’s “virtual gallery” format seems only to have scratched the surface of what is possible.

We will use Wellcome Collection’s “Digital Stories” as a case study in an attempt to create a “big and slow” digital product, exploring how the project broke some unwritten rules of digital practice in museums: putting stories before collections and allowing public engagement priorities to determine digitisation schedules. We will look at how the production process worked (and sometimes didn’t) and share results from the project’s multidimensional evaluation, showing how the public engaged (and sometimes failed to) with a big, slow digital museum experience.

This paper will synthesise learnings from both old and new storytelling forms to explore the challenges and best practice for writing and designing big stories in museum contexts. Embedding our case study in a survey of museum experiments with “longform” and beyond, we hope to offer a combination of provocative thinking and practical insights to support other organisations exploring their own digital storytelling platforms and ambitions.

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