Exhibit storytelling: to narrate Renoir at Baltimore Museum of Art



The Baltimore Museum of Art invited his public to invent some stories on a Renoir painting, that was stolen in the Fifties and was mysteriously rediscovered in 2010, in order to promote the exhibition where it was showed.

The aim of an advertising campaign is to deliver a certain message to a certain public. But that message should also be correctly interpreted from that public. Where is the problem? It is that we are bombarded by so much advertising that we pretend not to see it.

How can we overcome this? Classical solutions are: raise the “volume” (of audio in TV commercials for instance), raise the number of impressions (commercials/day), raise the message appeal (Sex, pets and absurd).

But there is also a new way: storytelling. It is a technique that tries to overcome the noise using exiting stories that are created to transmit a message. The storytelling is not a new thing: the human being has been using it since the Greek myths (and not only) and also in the advertising field it has always been used. The difference is that now its operation are studied and institutionalized, especially in its digital version: the digital storytelling.

The storytelling is largely used in core communication, in order to narrate firm history and values. In cultural organizations there are few examples of storytelling, and this is a serious lack. Cultural organizations have a lot of extraordinary stories but they are not able to communicate them effectively. In some case they are subject to a storytelling done by others, in particular the media, but they don’t participate at it.

Case study: the Baltimore Museum of Art and Renoir

The Baltimore Museum of Art has used storytelling to communicate its exhibition “The Renoir Returns”. This exhibit shows for the first time to the public a Renoir’s paint that was stolen in 1951. Since that date they had lost all tracks of the paint, but in 2010 Mrs. Martha Fuqua tried to sell it in an auction: she said she had bought it at a flea market for 7 dollars. The paint was appreciated 100.000 dollars but FBI stopped the auction in order to give back the artwork to the right owner, the Baltimore Museum of Art. The FBI closed its investigations saying that there were no enough evidences to charge anyone, so the theft and the painting’s adventures are still a mystery.

The museum decided to use the media hype of the paint creating this temporary exhibit. But it hasn’t just submitted passively the media storytelling, as others museum have done: it have contributed to tell the mysterious story of the painting.

The museum created a blog where it asked users to narrate their own version of the painting story. The painting adventure will be narrated by people in many episodes, while the museum will provide some “evidence” to stimulate the imagination.

They said:

We will publish a piece of “evidence” each week from the history of the purloined painting. You are invited to contribute 500 characters inspired by each piece of evidence, connecting it to the preceding entries and taking the story in new directions you imagine.

Acclaimed Baltimore-based writer and producer David Simon (The Wire) has already provided an imaginative beginning. The subsequent entry with the most “likes” on this blog will become the next passage in the ongoing story. The next piece of evidence will then be published to inspire the following passage, and so on, until the story reaches its natural conclusion or the exhibition ends on July 20 – whichever comes first!

The museum has participated actively to his painting storytelling and has engaged in this project its visitors. The results of this operation are still uncertain but it is a fine example of museum digital storytelling.