Why Storytelling May Be the Next Big Thing in Museum Funding

The San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) received a multi-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation's Exploring Engagement Fund to support a two-year storytelling project entitled "Crossing Fences: Conversations and Stories with African-American Men Across the Generations," underscoring how museums can capitalize on the growing popularity of storytelling to engage new audiences. 

You may have noticed the renaissance of the "art" of storytelling in the last half-decade. Thanks to social media, YouTube, and digital production technology, everyone can be a storyteller. Outfits like New York's The Moth have been instrumental in spreading the power of stories and hosting live storytelling performances, while storytelling podcasts from outlets like StoryCorps, the Kitchen Sisters, and Radiotopia continually rank high on iTunes.

Given the growing popularity of storytelling, it only makes sense that museums get in on the action. After all, museums, by their very nature, are repositories of incredible stories, as evidenced by the Museum of the African Diaspora's proposal. MoAD describes the project, which was inspired by August Wilson's landmark play "Fences," as a "unique two-year collection of important and impactful stories from local men of color that spans generations." These previously untold experiences "capture the essence of what it means to be black and male in America."

Storytelling is inherently conversational, colloquial, and accessible. As a result, it can attract and engage new audiences more easily than, say, an obtuse John Cage piece (no offense to Mr. Cage, of course). So it's no coincidence that this funding came specifically from the Irvine Foundation's Exploring Engagement Fund, which provides risk capital for grantees to try new programs and practices. Think of it as a sort of a "creative downpayment" to engage new participants in underserved communities.

This, of course, is precisely what MoAD plans to do with their project, by bringing the stories to a wider audience. According to Cheo Tyehimba-Taylor, Founder and Director of the "Stories Project," the end results won't sit in a museum waiting for visitors to put on headphones. Instead, the project will transform the stories into live performances in both theaters and churches across the Bay Area. It's the personification of a kind of "living history" that has the added benefit of engaging new audiences. Museums everywhere should take note.