Object Stories

Introduction Process Impact

Introduction

Portland Art Museum‘s Object Stories project was the winner by popular vote of our Business Unusual Innovation Story Contest, receiving over 11,600 votes. We are excited to release their audio postcard here, which will live permanently in the ArtsFwd Innovation Stories collection.

About the Portland Art Museum

Founded in 1892, the Portland Art Museum is the oldest art museum on the West Coast and the seventh oldest in the United States. Through gifts and acquisitions, the Museum has developed a collection of more than 52,000 works displayed in 112,000 square feet of galleries. The collection is distinguished for its holdings of Asian art, contemporary art, English silver, European painting, graphic art, Native American art, and Northwest art. Executive Director Brian Ferriso leads the museum with a vision centered on improving public programming, promoting the transparency of the organization, and increasing accessibility.

Starting Conditions

In light of the challenges of the 21st century, institutions across the globe are reassessing their strategies to be more relevant in the lives of their communities. Framed by this larger discussion, the Portland Art Museum began to rethink how we relate to our audience.  We questioned the role of the public as mere consumers of information and strove to diversify the populations that we serve. In doing so, we uncovered that both the Museum and the public needed a catalyst for active participation, personal reflection, and meaningful ways to rediscover works of art in the collection. It was out of this larger, ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born.

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Process

Launched in March 2010, Object Stories invites visitors to record their own narratives about personal objects—whether a piece of clothing, a cherished record album, or a family heirloom. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, this project aims to demystify the Museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities – while continuing to highlight the inherent relationship between people and things. Nearly one thousand people from throughout Portland—most of who had never before set foot in the Museum—have participated as storytellers in this project.

How Object Stories works

Current visitors to the Object Stories gallery encounter a recording booth, where they can leave their own story, as well as a central table with two touchscreens that enable them to browse, search, and listen to hundreds of collected stories about personal objects and works from the collection.  On the surrounding walls, guests find a rotating selection of museum objects that have been the subject of recent stories in concert with portraits of community members posing with their personal objects.

A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.
A user-friendly touchscreen inside the Object Stories booth guides participants through the recording process.

The Museum has also produced a series of Object Stories that brings out personal perspectives on selected objects in the permanent collection, with recordings of the voices of museum staff, local artists, and cultural partners. This stage of the project has added a personal dimension to visitors’ experiences and their interpretation around works of art in the collection.

Change in organizational approach, a new culture of dialogue

This overarching shift in the Museum’s relationship with our audience is the culmination of a series of other changes away from “business-as-usual.”  The internal process of developing and implementing Object Stories has encouraged the dissolution of long-established departmental silos, the growth of new partnerships with community organizations, and the confidence to experiment with a formative approach to programming that incorporates audience feedback. Before the launch of Object Stories, the education departments of the Museum and Northwest Film Center partnered with Milagro Theatre and Write Around Portland to develop community-generated prototypes that led to the existing recording process and prompts. This prototyping phase brought in staff from across the Museum—as well as local design firms—to challenge our assumptions of who could and should hold authority in these decisions about content and interpretation within the museum. While more work has to be done to build upon this internal culture of dialogue and collaboration, this project has successfully led to a shared understanding of the value of representing community voices and displaying public-generated content on gallery walls.

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Impact

A new platform for community collaboration

Since 2010, the Object Stories concept has essentially evolved into a comprehensive educational platform for engaging audiences and forging community collaborations. The Museum has since extended Object Stories into a multi-year partnership with area middle schools that involves in-depth teacher professional development, artist residencies, and multiple visits to the Portland Art Museum that culminates in students’ own personal “object stories.” Further success has brought the Museum into a new international partnership with the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, and a more locally-focused proposed Object Stories project with the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland. These outreach efforts will also bring the storytelling process outside of the Museum through a new mobile iPad application currently in development.

The Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.
The Object Stories gallery at the Portland Art Museum.

Big impact with room for growth

The biggest shift and impact caused by Object Stories is the changing viewpoint of diverse audiences, who now see the Portland Art Museum as a place that invites the voices and stories of its community and welcomes the public in this act of co-creating content. As the Museum continues to integrate the Object Stories initiative into its growing educational programming and interpretive planning, we will no doubt discover new challenges, as well as exciting opportunities.

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  • Alison K.

    This is such a wonderful project for a museum to undertake! Museums are built on the premise that objects are imbued with potent histories and stories that need sharing – why WOULDN’T that naturally extend to the histories and stories within the objects closest to the members of their community? This project acknowledges that the museum is not an absolute authority, and that it values – indeed, NEEDS – the public’s input in order to offer a fuller museum experience. Also, there’s no better way to make the museum relevant than to create opportunities for audience members to see themselves, literally, in the museum. I know “visitor-generated content” makes some museum professionals nervous, but when treated with the reverence that the Portland Museum has treated the public’s contributions to Object Stories, the public will take notice, and is sure to treat the project with equal sincerity and respect.

    On a personal note, at the first meeting for my fellowship with Emerging Arts Professionals SF/BA, all the fellows were instructed to bring along an object and share why it was meaningful to them. It was a great way to get to know everyone in a way that went beyond superficial methods of introduction (“Hi, my name is _____, I work at ______.”). To do this on a museum scale is such a valuable way for audience members (and the museum itself!) to connect more deeply with the community of which they are a part.