A New Way to See Balboa Park – Making Visitors Part of the Story

Storytelling is powerful. One aspect of its power is its ability to engage people.

We need look no further than down the road less than a mile from our office to one of the nation’s great parks – Balboa Park and its storytelling adventure, The Giskin Anomaly. Using cell phones, the park’s guests are guided throughout the park through tips provided by the main characters of the game. The use of storytelling as a strategy in this adventure ensures guests do more than walk through the park; they engage in it and join the story.

Giskin Anomaly
(Credit: Ken Eklund)

Our interview in this blog is with the person behind the storytelling strategy. Rich Cherry is the Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, which was formed several years ago to help Balboa Park’s museums and performing arts organizations tell their story using technological advances to do so. Under Rich’s direction, the Balboa Park Online Collaborative has grown from 17 to 27 members. It has created 20 websites and digitized more than 170,000 images and videotapes and it launched an iPhone mobile application for park goers to use. With Rich’s leadership, the museums are teaching us not only about history, arts and sciences, they are now showing us the power of a good story to deepen the connection between you and the people you want to reach.

Before taking over the reins of this collaborative, Rich was the Director of Operations at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. He has 20 years of experience in the technology field and is an expert in new media.

Because of his wealth of expertise, we are pleased to share his thoughts on the importance of storytelling in today’s world.

– – –

When it comes to incorporating storytelling into the Park, you’ve been on the forefront. Why is that?
Part of BPOC’s mission is to facilitate and execute a fundamental change in the way museums, cultural arts and science institutions in Balboa Park approach the use of online technology by making online technology an integral part of the way the institutions fulfill their missions, interact with patrons, and collaborate.

Storytelling in museums is as old as museums themselves so that in and of itself is not a new thing. But we know that audiences are changing and part of our goal is to model how to use technology to tell stories when the patron wants to listen. We can also potentially engage new audiences in learning about art, history and science.

Some might argue that the Park is a draw in itself and doesn’t need any bells and whistles. How do you answer that?
I would agree that the Park is a draw as are the museums, performance venues, playgrounds, etc. I don’t think that using technology to assist with telling a story is a “bell and whistle” anymore than a docent is. It’s just a tool for telling a story at the pace a visitor wants to listen and serves as a model for institutions who want to tell stories. It’s not even a new model as audio tours have been used since the 50’s to tell stories in museums.

You helped create the storytelling game, the Giskin Anomaly, at the Park. Why did you think it was necessary?
I thought it was important to model a new way of engaging the public with the history of the park for the museums so that they too could start changing the way they interact with patrons.

Giskin Anomaly Marker at the Old Globe
(Credit: Ken Eklund)

What’s been the reaction?
The public reaction has been fabulous. Participants can leave messages and its been very rewarding to listen to them give accolades to my team. We also won a national award for the game from the American Association of Museums. We are still working with the museums to see if we can get them to adopt the techniques we used but as I have said museums have been in storytelling business for a long time and it will take time for them to adopt new tools in this effort.

How else are you using modern technology and social media to promote storytelling at the Park?
Giskin is a phone-based adventure…you can play on any phone. We are in the process of developing smartphone and mobile web based tools for the museums to use as storytelling platforms. Some of this work is part of a national effort called TAP funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Why is storytelling a component of your strategy to attract more visitors?
I don’t think that it’s primary about attracting more visitors as opposed to getting them more deeply involved. However storytelling is the original viral campaign…you hear a story and you tell someone else…in this case we hope they tell someone who then comes and participates in the adventure.

Will social media help advance the art of storytelling? If so, how?
Storytelling and social media are deeply intertwined. Everyone who uses social media is telling a story about themselves or about something: what they like, eat, dislike, etc. It’s not always a true story. Take for instance the “Fake Steve Jobs” on Twitter. Our storyteller Ken Eklund has had other successful stories using social media as well, such as World Without Oil, which was designed to document the first 32 weeks of a world oil crisis…played out in more than 1500 personal blog posts, videos, emails and voice messages by random participants.

Social media makes everyone a storyteller and a potential participant and re-teller of the story. At a minimum there will be more storytelling and — along with more bad storytellers — you have the opportunity for more good storytellers as well. I think about the stories told at TED and how they not only “spread” but how they have raised the game for other storytellers.

– – –

Thanks, Rich, for these valuable thoughts.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services

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