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Pilot ‘Collecting stories | Connecting people’

From March until June 2021 Storytelling Centre and Rijksuniversiteit Groningen collaborated with Story Valley for the execution and development of our Rebelah-pilot ‘COLLECTING STORIES | CONNECTING PEOPLE’. We wanted to test if we could use the biography of a heritage object as a reference and a tool for telling something about ourselves and creating a story together. We worked with students of Art & Design and students with a migrant background in their introductory year to the Netherlands, both part of Friesland College, and with the Fries Museum, a museum responsible for collecting, archiving and presenting Frysian heritage.

The biography of an object tells about the materiality of an object, its history, origin, owners, where it was during its existence, its function, other (unintended) usages, etc. By looking at an object of heritage in this manner we can get to know it more thoroughly and in a multifaceted way. We can also make comparisons to our own lives more easily. We were hoping the objects of heritage in the Fries Museum would inspire the participating students to explain to each other what they recognised and found important in their lives. In this way they could share opinions and experiences, without considering the object too specific to one particular cultural heritage. In this way, museum objects can become a way to talk about ideas and emotions, tools for understanding more of another culture or heritage, rather than owning or appropriating it.

We designed four steps in the pilot. First, the students went to the museum and, guided by someone from the museum, got to know the objects. Step two involved a short introduction to storytelling and to getting to know each other through storytelling exercises. In step three we returned to the museum, but this time the students from the two groups paired up, mixing the Art & Design students with the newcomer students. They saw the exhibit together and each chose one object around which to create their story. In this session, we also talked with the students about how you can watch and get to know each other, using the biographies of the object and making associations according to your own experiences. Step four brought us back to the Friesland College. We explained to the students more in depth what a biography of an object could be. After that, we asked them why they chose their object and if they saw relations to themselves and their lives. These expressions would be the base for a new storyboard, including the object of their choice. The students of Art & Design would use the object and their experiences in the pilot to create new creative outcomes.

The pilot brought us interesting insights. Once again, we were impressed by the power of personal stories: the emotions object-based stories can bring about, the willingness to tell a story when you see how your listeners are responding, the cathartic experience telling a personal story. The students were very interested in the objects of heritage in the Fries Museum and it turned out it was not so difficult to choose a shared object. However, we did realize it would have worked better if we would have been able to also include objects from the cultural heritage of the newcomer students. It would have been a more equal conversation in which everybody can be an ‘expert’. The students chose the enormous sword of Peer Gynt, the exotic costume of Mata Hari, the newly made porcelain Delft Blue construction Pyramid by Studio Job and the impressive copy of the Statenbijbel (State Bible).

The biography of an object is an interesting approach which we would like to continue using. The students really dove into the symbolic power of the objects, a little less in other aspects like history, origin, etc. In the follow up of this pilot we will do more exercises with this methodological tool, so students will fully grasp it and be able to play with it. We would also like, if possible, to have objects that have a particular story, and not only symbolic value: that would help bring out the biographical element of the object more, and, we hope, inspire the students to see parallels with their own stories.

The final phase, before the students of Art & Design worked independently on new objects, the students made new stories together. During the creation of these new stories, the students were really exchanging ideas about how they see the object and how that relates to their personal life. Even though these exchanges were too brief, they show the potential of the methodology of the biography of the object in relation to your own personal experiences and to creating together new stories. People were really reflecting on how they were thinking about the topic and were trying to explain it as well as possible. Also they felt responsible for the creation and wanted to add their side of the story to it.

The development of COLLECTING STORIES | CONNECTING PEOPLE will go on in the winter of 21 - 22. We will keep you posted!


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