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Essential Evaluators: Digital Storytelling

Category: Audience Research and Evaluation
A graphic reading "Essential Evaluators" with the subtitle "Digital Storytelling."
An audiovisual storytelling technique is on the rise in museums and evaluation, and may help shift inequitable power balances in research.

Essential Evaluators seeks to gather evaluators in a common space to dialogue, reflect, and support each other in a world upended by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protest movement. This is a time of uncertain and unknown expectations in our professions, in our institutions, and in our communities. We invite you to join us as we rethink, revision, and ultimately redefine our roles as evaluators and our place in museums.

Other posts in this series:


Evaluators are conduits who can convey the voices and experiences of individuals to decisionmakers, the public, and to our audiences. Amid the pandemic and calls for racial justice, we are being challenged to do this more effectively, to gather deeper, more authentic feedback and center the voices of more diverse museum visitors. One way to do this is by turning to novel tools, like photo-elicitation and participatory action research, as we featured in a previous post in this series. In this entry, we want to share another tool that shows promise, called digital storytelling. In shifting the power balance between researcher and participant, this technique can increase the participant’s engagement in the research process by allowing them to shape their own narratives.

So, what is digital storytelling, exactly? It’s a technique born in 1994 in San Francisco, when a group of media artists and designers came together to create a way for anyone to share their personal stories through digital media tools, even those without multimedia experience. Technically, a digital story is an audio-visual clip (anywhere from two-five minutes long) that combines photographs, video, digital or digitized art, and voiceover narration (Lambert, 2009). The aim of digital stories is to empower personal storytelling, give voice to those traditionally left behind, and share stories of healing and hope. The format was originally employed as a therapeutic tool to explore topics like deep trauma, identity, and community. The resulting clips are powerful insights, most often narrated by the participant authors themselves, and can be a potent tool for anyone who wants to create change.

Because of this power, digital storytelling has made its way to the evaluation field, where it’s been adapted as an arts-based research method. Its benefit is in allowing participants to voice their own experience, so that the nuances and knowledge-translation are owned by them, instead of by the researcher. Thanks to this effect, literature reviews have shown that digital storytelling is effective when working with traditionally marginalized groups.

There are seven elements of digital storytelling (adapted from the Story Center):

  • Point of View – The crux of the story and the perspective of the author
  • A Dramatic Question – To focus your participant but also to engage the audience
  • Emotional Content – Through the sharing of a deeply personal experience, a connection can be made with the audience
  • Voice – The participant as narrator creates connection, context, and authenticity
  • Soundtrack – The use of music to amplify the emotion
  • Economy – Using just enough content to keep the audience engaged without overloading them
  • Pacing – The rhythm of the story supports the narrative arc

To put it simply, digital storytelling participants are given a prompt (the dramatic question) and then time to reflect and write about an experience they have had related to the topic. They are then asked to supplement the writing with images, videos, and art that help to illuminate their story. Finally, they are supported in putting all of the elements together and narrating their piece for a final digital format. To ensure accessibility regardless of a participant’s level of experience with digital media or creative writing, participants are generally brought together for a creation workshop, which could last hours or a couple of days, where they are supported by professionals who can guide them at any stage of the process. At the end, they have produced a piece of digital art that is also an informative and evocative narrative—and a rich piece of qualitative data.

Beyond the evaluation field, some museums have embraced digital storytelling as an opportunity for visitors to contribute narratives to the space. The Art of Storytelling project at the Delaware Art Museum invited visitors to explore online collections, create their own images, and develop stories inspired by what they found. The Smithsonian Learning Lab used digital storytelling as a way to connect audiences and objects across distances ranging from six feet to thousands of miles. Finally, the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece, undertook a digital storytelling project using objects to create a storytelling-based digital guide for visitors, with “the perception of snakes in Archaic Greece” as the ‘dramatic question.’

How can museum evaluators think about integrating this tool to elevate the visitor voice? Although examples from the museum field are not plentiful at this point, museum evaluators need only to look to their colleagues in other disciplines, such as health, education, community development, and international aide, all of which have employed digital storytelling as an important tool in understanding participatory research, knowledge translation, and community development.

Participatory Research

Digital storytelling has been used with people traditionally marginalized because of their race/ethnicity, refugee or immigrant status, health issues, socioeconomic status, or membership in a rural community. Creating a firsthand narrative allows participants to counter the stereotypes associated with parts of their identities. The benefit to research has been a prolonged engagement between the participant and the researcher, the inclusion of the participant in decisions about the direction of the project, and generally more rich information that can be gathered than in a traditional qualitative interview. Museum evaluators can employ this tool to tell the histories of people left out of the dominant narrative of history or to gather information about what it is like to participate and the hopes and aspirations for future participation in a program or endeavor.

Knowledge Translation

Oftentimes digital storytelling is used for public sharing, either via an organization or cause’s website or on video sharing platforms like YouTube or Vimeo. It has also been used for educational purposes like professional development, encouraging a deeper level of connection and self-reflection. It is also an effective advocacy tool with policymakers. Museum evaluators can use this tool to provide a firsthand strength-based perspective of an individual from a marginalized community, or to share the firsthand experience of a participant or visitor.

Community Development

Projects studying everything from the impact of sports on young girls’ lives (Wijen & Wilhschut, 2015) to increasing environmental advocacy (Gearty, 2015) have utilized digital storytelling to increase awareness and participation, and to gather important qualitative data on subjects that may be too complex to explore through more traditional research means. As museum evaluators look to increase participation and visitation by more diverse audiences, digital storytelling can help to communicate the impacts of a museum on the lives of community members, such as a teen participant’s experience in a science program or the impact of a mobile museum rolling into the neighborhood for the first time.


There are of course important things to consider when taking on an approach like digital storytelling. The adaptation of creative activities to research can create challenges such as the quality judgement of the art produced, as well as the ethical aspects of having the research participant present such personal stories. But the benefits of elevating voices and allowing community members to craft their own narratives can drive us to find ethical and responsible ways to integrate this technique into our practice.

Digital storytelling creates a bridge between a museum’s digital assets and community, especially in a time when museums are looking for ways to engage audiences who still feel more comfortable at home. It also opens the museum world by allowing audiences to explore the inherently personal and creative nature of storytelling. Throughout the pandemic, people have been using digital storytelling to connect with others and to give voice to their sense of isolation and grief. Likewise, digital storytelling has been a major factor in the Black Lives Matter movement; people telling their story in digital form shined a light on the injustice and systemic racism in our society in a way that allowed others to see, hear, and feel it.

We know there are other examples of museums and museum evaluators doing work with digital storytelling. Please share your stories with us in the comments section, so we can grow the conversation around how to incorporate this technique into our practice.

  • Pujol, L., M. Roussou, S. Poulou, O. Balet, M. Vayanou, & Y. Ioannidis. (2013). “Personalizing interactive digital storytelling in archaeological museums: the CHESS project.” In G. Earl, T. Sly, A. Chrysanthi, P. Murrieta-Flores, C. Papadopoulos, I. Romanowska, & D. Wheatley (eds.). Archaeology in the Digital Era. Papers from the 40th Annual Conference of Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA). Southampton, UK, March 26-29, 2012: Amsterdam University Press. Available dare.uva.nl/cgi/arno/show.cgi?fid=545855
  • Twiss-Garrity, B. A., M. Fisher, & A. Sastre. (2008). “The art of storytelling: enriching art museum exhibits and education through visitor narratives.” In J. Trant & D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Archives & Museum Informatics
  • Wyman, B., S.Smith, D. Meyers, & M. Godfrey. (2011). “Digital Storytelling in Museums: Observations and Best Practices.” Curator: The Museum Journal 54(4), 461–468.
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