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Capturing Local History Through Storytelling

February 27, 2019 7:45 AM | many info (Administrator)

Looking for a way to develop content and engage your community? The Museum on Main Street’s Stories: YES program offers a great way to share local history. The Stories: YES initiative helps students connect to local history and understand its significance by building skills in interviewing, research, and creating non-fiction narratives that are shared with the community through exhibitions, social media, and digital video exhibition kiosks.

The Museum Association of New York (MANY) is bringing the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street Traveling Exhibition “Water/Ways” to New York State starting in June at the Erie Canal Museum and ending at the East Hampton Historical Society in April 2020. MANY has partnered with the New York Folklore Society to help find and share local water stories with high school students in Amsterdam, NY as part of the “Water/Ways” community programs.

Stories: YES was created to help museums strengthen or develop new relationships, with kids, youth groups, teachers, or schools. These students and teachers use the art of interviewing and filmmaking to research and share local water stories.

At the end of January, I joined a workshop hosted by the New York Folklore Society that taught students basic filmmaking skills, like pre-production planning and interviewing on camera. Media Consultant and Communications Lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Dr. Lillian Spina-Caza provided helpful resources for the students and New York Folklore Folklorist and Executive Director Dr. Ellen McHale taught how to conduct an interview. Despite the freezing and snowy weather, these students arrived with an enthusiastic attitude and eager to learn.

During the training, students not only learned interviewing and filmmaking, but analyzed “Water/Ways” student films from previous exhibitions. This immersive and engaging way to capture local history teaches students lifetime learning skills and allows them  to participate professionally in the community.

Students first watched interviews without sound and then only listened to the audio before putting both elements together. Students were able to focus on and identify positive and negative attributes of the film by isolating the audio and video. They identified things like the background music was too loud and made listening to the interviews difficult. They also noticed other things like corresponding “b roll” footage with relevant narration and using two different camera points of view for the interview subject to add variety to the video and enhance the story narrative.

Then, students used cameras, tripods, and boom mics provided by the New York Folklore Society to film mock interviews as practice. Lillian taught the students to frame their subject and making sure the camera is level with the subject’s eye line and to not put the subject in the middle of the frame, but slightly to the left or right of the center of the frame. Students needed to be aware of lighting, and where the interviewee sat. Lillian had them choose the interview spot and right away they noticed the need for natural light and opened up the shades. The students were conscious of the background of the interview, opting for a wall that wasn’t too busy. They even arranged the shelves to make them more visually appealing. Ellen taught the students about asking opened ended questions. Asking questions that require more than a yes or no response and engaging the interviewee with follow up questions was tough for the students at the beginning. Once they became more comfortable being the ones who asked the questions, they began to have intriguing conversations. The only other real struggle was the weight of holding up the boom mic, but they adjusted their position to sit on the floor to capture the subject’s sound which made it easier for them to hold the mic boom.

These students came ready and excited to learn. I was immediately impressed by the students ability to take initiative. As an amateur film maker, I found the day educational and it was fun to talk about different film editing software and film making tools. I am a believer in that it doesn’t matter what type of film making hardware or software you have, but what matters is the ability to tell a story, an approach that was echoed throughout the day.

The “Water/Ways” exhibit is enhanced by participating host sites abilities to connect local stories to the exhibition concept. There are a lot of community stories waiting to be told. Stories about local history, culture, and traditions. These are the stories of a community. Using community members, like students who have a desire to learn and develop their skills, can provide a wealth of information that add value to any exhibition.

The Museum Association of New York helps shape a better future for museums and museum professionals by uplifting best practices and building organizational capacity through advocacy, training, and networking opportunities.

Museum Association of New York is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. 

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