Why long-form narrative content is the perfect way for museums and art galleries to build an audience online

Long-form narrative is an immersive medium for people to connect with our heritage and culture — and there’s a great return on investment.

The biology laboratory remains one of my most vivid memories of secondary school. There were floor to ceiling hardwood shelves stacked with glass jars of various shapes and sizes and filled with animals, birds and amphibians in formaldehyde. We were never allowed to get too close. I don’t recall any of these specimens ever being used for the purposes of teaching, but there was undoubtedly something riveting about those dusty jars and their contents: a glimpse of mouse fur, tenticles, something reptilian in the murk.

Fish in formaldehyde

To we children, the assortment of jars was a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ of sorts — those bricolages of natural history, geology and historical relics which were popular among the wealthy and influential in the 17th century. This type of private collection was the antecedent of the public museum, although they represented a very different purpose, celebrating novelty and blurring fact and fiction, rather than the collection of scientific specimens.

In fact, the provenance of the biology department’s collection of glass jars was 19th century scientific custom: the specimens had been classified, catalogued and chronologised in the spirit of the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment which gave rise to the public museum. My own early experiences of visiting such museums remain just as vivid as those memories of school — particularly the Hancock Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, built to house the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s collection of taxidermy, ornithology and osteology. I particularly loved the Ancient Egyptian ethnographic collections and the Greek archaeology.

Today, we’re rightly sensitive about the issues raised by the spectacle of collection and exhibition. As well as illustrating the science of zoology, a taxidermy diorama can evoke the nightmare of big game hunting. In addition to showcasing the development of anthropology, ethnography collections can reveal tricky issues of empire, plunder and repatriation. The decline of hegemonic metanarratives has undoubtedly prompted the curated exhibition space to change. Tiina Roppola, specialist in design-led education at the University of Canberra, has traced the evolution of the museum visitor experience as a series of seven phases or acts, from ‘staging curiosity’ to the ordered curation of knowledge through the reconstructive, the participatory, the inclusory and the experiential. She suggests the seventh stage, characterised by the influence of convergent technology and social networking, will provide opportunities for viral engagement and immediacy, if not for deeper, more enduring connections.

In Stedelijk Studies (the peer-reviewed academic online journal of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) Dr. Emilie Sitzia has explored the role of narrative theory in the interpretation of historical artefacts and collections and makes a compelling argument for the importance of narrative in immersive exhibition. There has undoubtedly been a shift in how curated content is framed: authoritative, didactic interpretation has been replaced with a more inclusive narrative frame, inviting the visitor to participate and to reflect on how their own lives and experiences entwine with the narrative of history.

Like with real-world exhibition spaces, the question of how objects and stories are presented online is just as compelling, and as museums and galleries have been forced to close their doors, the question of how the public might engage with their stories and artefacts has become more urgent. More than ever before, museums and galleries have a range of tools available to present material: images, video, social media engagement and the creation of user generated content.

During the first wave of COVID-19, York Museums Trust explored ways for people to enjoy their objects and stories through its websites, social media and other digital partners. The most popular idea has been #curatorbattle, which the Trust has been running on Fridays on the YMT streams since the lock-down started. ‘Every week,’ explains the Trust’s Lee Clark, ‘museums and visitors are invited to put forward objects from a set theme, such as ‘dullest’, ‘prettiest’ and ‘best egg’, essentially creating an online ‘exhibition’ of objects from museums big and small, in one Twitter thread. #creepiestobject took the battle to a new level, with museums all around the world taking part and garnering news coverage on CNN, The Washington Post and BBC One’s Have I Got News For You. So far, the Tweet has been seen by more than 2.5 million people with 1.5 million engagements. The Yorkshire Museum’s Twitter has more than doubled its followers since the start of the battles.’

The Yorkshire Museum

Although social media engagement is a great way to spotlight interesting items and the stories behind them, it’s not necessarily the most effective way to encourage visitors to return or to grow traffic organically through search. Web search is still essentially driven by written content above all. It is through words that people find what they’re looking for, and long-form content ranks well in long-tail search queries. The most popular, single word search terms account for around 20% of searches. Slightly more specific searches with two or three words account for around 10%. The remaining 70% of searches are highly specific phrases, which allows content writers to really make the most of search engine optimisation.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

As well as being searchable, long-form content is also evergreen. Although the flash-gun effect of a wildly popular social media post might cause a surge in traffic, it’s valuable to create long-lasting, durable, content that performs well over time. It ensures a lasting engagement with material that people will return to again and again. Museum Next founder Jim Richardson says that ‘long-form written content is still hard to beat for its ability to deliver long term value’.

There are lots of examples of good long-form content from museums and galleries. The British Library has an impressive collection of resources which utilises items from its collection as part of an immersive, valuable learning experience. The British Museum too has an extensive blog to engage visitors to its website with objects, ideas and stories.

However, despite the ubiquity of the blog as the go-to form for the purpose of driving traffic and creating engagement, the word ‘blog’ doesn’t necessarily connote the absorption, insight and affective responses we hope our online visitors might enjoy.

Nick Faber of digital strategists Cuberis has argued that the word ‘blog’ it itself part of the problem: the word ‘blog’ has become a catch-all for long-form writing online: its origins as a weblog, the ubiquitous lifestyle blog post and the marketing-driven ‘how to’ format. Although many museums have sucessfully used their blog as a vehicle for a variety of formats (the historial travelogue, recipes, ‘everything you need to know about…’, ‘things you didn’t know about…’, ‘a profile of…’, ‘the mystery of…’) these tend to be fairly short and might utilise more superficial structures such as the ‘listicle’.

Storytelling is the best way to get real engagement, elucidate memories and emotional responses from readers. ‘Human beings think in narratives and through narratives by using and understanding specific patterns, structures, motifs,’ says Emilie Sitzia. ‘The musuem narrative adopts forms from other genres and sources. It is these patterns and structures of the narrative that help human beings to understand.’

Jim Richardson points to the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, which established an editorial team to create and publish content. ‘In doing so,’ he says, they transformed their website from being about marketing what is happening in their museum… into a place for anyone interested in art to find interesting stories, interviews and links.’ The content is media-rich and elegantly presented; it’s also updated regularly, well-written and often employs the best strategies of creative non-fiction.

Rather than deliver visitors to the museum, museums must now deliver themselves to the visitor.’

David Resnicow

In the media, the influence of the web and the convergent device has undoubtedly re-energised long-form narrative as a way to tell stories. Although the modus operandi of the ‘mojo’ — the mobile journalist — favours the immediacy of images, video and the flow of social media feeds, the two journalistic disciplines can be complementary: The New York Times, The Guardian and National Geographic have pioneered digital long-form, when written content is combined with a multimedia UX. This provides a highly immersive experience for the reader, but to find it in the first place, it’s the words that count.

The Victoria Cross Trust, based in Doncaster, primarily maintains memorials and grave markers to commemorate the lives of holders of the Victoria Cross, for the benefit of the public and for posterity. It also aims to educate the public about the lives, citation details and last resting places of Victoria Cross holders to perpetuate the memory of these brave soldiers. The Trust’s educational activities were centred around Ashworth Barracks Museum which closed earlier this year. Although some of the collection is set to be exhibited in Sheffield and Stockton-on-Tees, there’s clearly an opportunity for the Trust to capture some of the objects and stories digitally. I’m working with some of the Trustees to create long-form content that doesn’t just drive traffic, but which creates genuine engagement through the power of narrative, that makes an enduring impact on visitors and which serves as an investment in the Trust’s future work.

Long-form narrative content is an essential and profoundly important way to share stories. It offers depth and breadth; it offers more than a fleeting glimpse. It can create an emotional impact. The story is the most affecting way to share experiences, to make connections to our own lives and to ask people to engage emotionally with the lived experiences of others, of those that have gone before us. Had we been told the stories behind the embalmed specimens in those dusty jars back in the biology laboratory, they could have meant more to us than remote objects of curiosity; instead, they may well have become resonant with meaning and memory. Looking ahead to a post-Covid world, the argument for capturing objects and stories digitally, and effectively futureproofing them, has never been more compelling.

Further reading

Aloi, Giovanni ‘Cabinets of Curiosities and The Origin of Collecting’ Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

Faber, Nick (2018) Blogs Need a New Name. Museums Can Make it Happen’, The Cuberist Blog.

Resnicow, David (2020) ‘Museums Have Moved Online, But They Must Reinvent Themselves to Thrive’, artnews.com.

Richardon, Jim (2020) ‘Long-Form Digital Content? Here are three museums doing it well’, MuseumNext.

Roppola, Tiina (2012) Designing for the Museum Visitor Experience, New York: Routledge.

Sitzia, Emilie (2018) ‘Narrative Theories and Learning in Contemporary Art Museums: A Theoretical Exploration’, Stedelijk Studies, Issue #4.

Steensen, Steen (2011) ‘The Featurization of Journalism’, Nordicom Review.

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