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Disco, Dada, Darwin – the recipe for a good story

During their tours through Swiss museums, the guides of #letsmuseeum convey art and culture in an unconventional way: freely and personally. Their aim is to attract new audiences to museums. Now, for the first time, they have passed on their experience and knowledge of storytelling in a course.

How do you cook up a good story? The recipe of the #letsmuseeum coaches is as follows: a tablespoon of entertainment, a teaspoon of inspiration and just a pinch of information. The guides can be found in Swiss museums. Their tour isn’t for art outreach or education professionals, but rather for art fans who embellish their favourite pieces of the collection with honest, personal observations and anecdotes.

It’s a service that has already been appreciated by many visitors, as Caroline Schlüter from #letsmuseeum says: “We also regularly exchange ideas with the partner museums where our guided tours take place. Their feedback has been positive, except for a few minor comments.” For example, their communicative benefits have been confirmed. And the different approach to learning has also been recognised by the art education sector.

Art or just veg? During the final guided tour, many course participants shed their fear of the works of art. Photo: Simon Tanner

Focusing on one key element

In order to share the knowledge gathered during their guided tours with the staff of the partner museums, the #letsmuseeum coaches organised for the first time a workshop that will be offered to other interested parties in future. Last August, they presented their method at the Zurich Kunsthaus. The idea wasn’t to just study dry theory in a seminar room: the participants were instructed to put together a small guided tour of the museum themselves. An undertaking that, as it turned out, is not so easy after all.

The participants’ task was to fine-tune their methodology in the morning, and the afternoon was devoted to independently fleshing out the tour in the style of #letsmuseeum. They were supported by experienced #letsmuseeum guides such as Jana Schiffmann, who offers tours of the Rietberg Museum. “We showed the participants that a story has to be surprising, that there should be conflict in it and that listeners should take personal insight away with them in the end,” says Schiffmann.

Such stories remain in the memory longer. Otherwise, there is the danger of “losing yourself in research and imparting too many facts that the listeners can’t remember.” But if the story about the key element you want to convey is good, the listener will retain at least one fact. And that’s already a lot.

It’s best to try it out on yourself first: because if you do too much research, you risk losing the plot. Photo: Simon Tanner

From theory to practice

In the afternoon, the workshop participants were able to put theory into practice. With a notepad in their hands, they roamed the Kunsthaus to choose a work of art for which they were assigned to make up a short personal story according to #letsmuseeum criteria. “It's a challenge for everyone who participates to put together their own #letsmuseeum stop within one day,” says Rea Eggli, director of #letsmuseeum. “But this is the only way for course participants to get a concrete idea of what we mean by good storytelling. Namely Disco, Dada, Darwin. Soul, heart and head.”

After the course participants decided on a work, their presentation – no longer than three minutes per participant – was perfected in two test runs within a small group. As it turned out, not everyone had the courage to reveal a lot of personal information about themselves at the beginning. But after encouragement from the coaches and the other participants, the presentations become increasingly bold.

“When was the last time you broke a rule and realized it was worth it?”

Aline Minder

Cheeky cows and passionate turnips

During their final guided tour presentations, many course participants completely lost their shyness. The allegedly “ugliest object in the whole Kunsthaus” was discussed mercilessly. A painting of a forest was philosophically fantasized about. There was a passionate ode to the turnip. Course participant Aline Minder, Head of Education and Communication at the Bernisches Historisches Museum, chose a cow as her favourite subject in the Kunstmuseum. In the painting entitled “The Cow in the Herb Garden”, the bovine does not stand in its pasture like a good cow, but instead munches away at vegetables in a garden. The cow taught her one thing above all else, says Alina Minder: “It’s worth breaking through the fence from time to time and enjoying food where you’re not supposed to.” Then she asked the group: “When was the last time you broke a rule and realized it was worth it?” This key element stuck with the listeners.

Sometimes it does help to change perspective. Photo: Simon Tanner

Using findings for your own tour

After the tour, the experiences of the workshop were exchanged over a drink. “I didn’t expect we would create such a great tour at the end,” said Minder. She will be able to use what she learned during her tour at the Bernisches Historisches Museum. For Fiona Straehl, art educator at the Zoological Museum of the University of Zurich, the workshop was a broadening of horizons. “We are rather heavy on facts during our guided tours. It was very exciting to see that knowledge can also be conveyed in other ways.” She particularly liked how detailed the feedback on the tour was. This made it possible for her to work specifically on her own subject. Sina Voigt, who works in Communication at the Rietberg Museum, now sees art education through different eyes: “Today I noticed how much work is involved in such a tour.”

For good storytelling you need soul, heart and head. Photo: Simon Tanner


“Museums are places where a lot of knowledge is stored.”

Alexandra Müller-Crepon

For Urs Eggli, the only man in the group, “the strong emphasis on entertainment during the guided tours at the beginning was somewhat irritating.” As a research associate and art educator at the Succulent Collection in Zurich, it was not easy for him to relax and try something more lively than usual. “But it was a lot of fun presenting a work of art from the point of view of a fan.”

Alexandra Müller-Crepon is project manager for the Engagement Migros development fund. For her, the key element of the story is precisely about museums themselves finding new approaches to their guided tours and leaving familiar paths behind. This will allow museums to see things from new perspectives and to incorporate findings from new forms of education into their own activities.

It is to be hoped that such a workshop will lead to discussions within the museums. “Museums are places where a lot of knowledge is stored. With a new approach, this knowledge can be passed on to a younger audience,” says Müller-Crepon. She finds, however, that it is important that existing art education perceives #letsmuseeum not as competition, but as complementary.