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2 minutes to read Posted on Thursday May 6, 2021

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Beth Daley

Beth Daley

Editorial Adviser , Europeana Foundation

Storytelling with digital culture is booming - find out why

Digital storytelling is our topic in focus this month on Europeana Pro, as we hear from the Europeana Network Association’s Task Force on Europeana as a ‘powerful platform for storytelling’. First up, find out why digital storytelling is all the rage in the cultural heritage sector and how it can help you connect and engage with your audiences.

A person reading a book
Olvasó nő madárral
Szász Endre
Rippl-Rónai Megyei Hatókörű Városi Múzeum - Kaposvár

What is digital storytelling?

Humans have always told, retold and listened to stories. They allow us to make sense of the world, to learn, and to empathise and connect with each other.  

Digital storytelling is simply this age-old act of storytelling but using digital media, perhaps introducing elements of images, audio, video and interactivity with the more traditional text or narrative. It is employed widely by cultural heritage institutions to attract, engage and inspire audiences.

Technology supports new ways of telling stories

Visiting a cultural site in the company of a guide who tells fascinating stories about the exhibits becomes a memorable experience. When human guides are a scarce resource - or doors to a museum or gallery are closed as we’ve experienced recently - digital technology offers the chance to bring these experiences to a wider audience as well as provide a welcome invitation to discovery.

Ways of enjoying works of art have been reinvented so that cultural institutions can continue to offer themselves as restorative, but also inclusive, user-centre oriented and participatory environments.  Take for example, Las hilanderas. Una historia en imágenes (Museo del Prado, Madrid) - an interactive image viewer is used to highlight details and reveal the narrative behind a famous painting by Velázquez. And A Picture of Change for a World in Constant Motion (New York Times) - a storytelling text sidebar links to a dynamic image gallery that zooms in on Hokusai’s Ejiri in Suruga Province as you scroll, revealing the details at the same time as you are told about them. 

We all know by now that the current COVID-19 pandemic has motivated cultural heritage institutions to share their collections and stories online, featuring a variety of formats, media and platforms and targeting different segments of the public. A survey from the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) revealed that during the lockdown in Europe, over 60% of museums increased their online presence. The most popular activities, according to ICOM, were live events and online exhibitions, with an increase respectively of 12.28% and 10.88%. And if you’d like to explore some of those, check out Mapping museum digital initiatives during COVID-19, it’s a great overview of various digital initiatives launched by museums during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A child looks at three animals sat on a bench.
Image from page 19 of Merriment and Mirth for Merry Little People. [Verses, illustrated by P. Cox and others.]
Truelove & Shirley
The British Library
United Kingdom
A child looks at three animals sat on a bench.

What makes a story memorable and engaging?

So what’s at the heart of a good story, digital or otherwise? Emotional connection. 

Tapping into our emotions is what creates that powerful experience and a sense of psychological proximity. It makes sense that people are more interested in events that happen to them personally than those that happen to others or to strangers. What skilled storytellers do is create characters and journeys that other people can easily relate to - so that the story is as close to the reader or viewer as possible. The more we empathise with the characters, the more interesting the events happening in the story are to us. When we put ourselves in the place of the characters, psychological proximity is really tight.

Stories about cultural heritage are very effective from this perspective because by connecting the audience to the characters and events of the past, they often trigger our own personal memories, emotions and experiences, generating empathy and fostering that sought-after sticky engagement. For example, take a look at A Closer Look (Louvre, Paris) - this experience invites people to look closely at a high-resolution image of a single artwork, before telling the story of its subject and creation and providing interesting comparisons with other works. And ‘There is a bat in the library’ (Museum of English Rural Life, Reading) - this Twitter thread uses an informal event to entertain and then inform people about bats and their conservation. 

More from the Task Force

At Europeana, we have been thinking about digital storytelling for some time, and in September 2020 were delighted to launch a Task Force on the topic, run by the Europeana Communicators Community with 26 members from 14 countries. We have spent the last six months analysing examples of online digital storytelling from the cultural heritage sector that our members have found and loved. 

In our next posts, you’ll find out more about the longlist of great practice examples we’ve looked at and will be able to explore them yourselves, as well as our three detailed case studies and our seven tips for digital storytelling with cultural heritage. 

We hope that the outcomes of this Task Force - which show that the great digital storytelling we have discovered doesn’t necessarily rely on fancy formats or big budgets - will help Europeana to support institutions to develop their capacity for developing and using digital storytelling practices, whether their final publication place is on Europeana or elsewhere. 

Interested? Then keep an eye on Europeana Pro News for more from the Task Force and register for our webinar on 9 June, when we’ll hear more from the Task Force and are delighted to welcome expert storytellers from the sector to share their experiences. 

And also - check out the Digital Storytelling Festival - a creative competition from Europeana and the Digital Heritage Lab on Medium and social media.