And So the Story Goes…Innovations in Storytelling

May 4, 2018

By Braden Cordivari, Fiona Jensen-Hitch, and Linda Lin

Each year, through the Student Exhibition Internship Program at the Penn Museum, a team of students  develops a small exhibition in line with the Provost’s “Year of….” The 2017-18 academic year is the Year of Innovation, and the student curatorial team consists of Braden Cordivari (C’18), Fiona Jensen-Hitch (C’19), and Linda Lin (C’18) with Curatorial Advisor, Dr. Phil Jones, and Curatorial Coordinator, Sarah Linn.

Left to right, the curatorial team of Sarah Linn, Linda Lin, Fiona Jensen-Hitch, Braden Cordivari, and Dr. Phil Jones with a selection of objects: (also left to right) a Japanese horagai conch-shell trumpet, a Yup’ik story knife, a Cochiti storyteller figure, a Babylonian tablet, a Chinese mirror, and a Palauan storyboard.

In the fall of 2017, we began researching and choosing objects with the guidance of Sarah, Phil, and several Penn Museum keepers (collection managers). Throughout the 2017-18 academic year we also held weekly meetings with the Museum exhibitions team to develop content, create text for labels, and design the installation. Originally, the intent was to focus the exhibition on writing, but as we discussed potential directions with the exhibitions team, we became interested in a cross-cultural look at storytelling. While writing acts as one type of innovative storytelling, there are many other ways to share important narratives without the use of writing. We selected objects from several cultures around the world that represent various traditions of storytelling, past and present.

One rich tradition that we are examining is the Homeric epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Our exhibition uses a 6th century BCE Attic amphora depicting a storyteller, a papyrus fragment of the Iliad from 2nd century CE Egypt, and an 18th/19th century CE Neoclassical gem to explore the changing reception and importance of the Iliad through time, from its central role in ancient Mediterranean culture to its place within later classical education and conspicuous consumption.

A Neoclassicalgem from Europe showing Priam begging Achilles for the body of Hector, an emotional scene from the Iliad.
Museum Object Number: 29-128-272

Our goal for the exhibition is to show how these innovations in storytelling have the power to change the experience of the story. Some stories began as oral tales and were later written down, while others transformed from written texts into elaborate performances. We have highlighted a few examples of these changes in storytelling method. For example, showing a picture of a story, whether on a gemstone or a modern movie poster, gives the audience a collapsed version of a familiar narrative.

Other objects, like a horagai conch-shell trumpet, are not tied to just one narrative or message—these have been used by militaries, Buddhist monks, and street performers. The Javanese puppet on display was selected very early on as an example of how a written story (the Mahabharata or the Ramayana) came to serve as a rich source of artistic and cultural inspiration, and is still told in a myriad of ways, including shadow puppet shows.

A Javanese puppet (29-91-27), part of the wayang kulit tradition of shadow puppet performance, and one of the diverse storytelling methods highlighted in the exhibition.

In our exhibition, we have grouped the objects into thematic sections to show various ways in which different stories have been told over time. This includes how people have used objects to change the ways that stories are told, depicted, and embodied. Written texts, masks for dances, and ceremonial drawing knives form just a few of the objects on display. Linda Lin, a senior studying Art History, is particularly interested in how objects from different contexts and cultures can be grouped together to form a theme or narrative and be installed in a way to produce new knowledge.

The student curators with Sarah Linn examine a Palauan storyboard (74-3-6) that shows the story of the “Deceived Husband of Ngkeklau.”

Our exhibition is the first student show to feature an interactive element — a digital display examines the context of stories and shows objects in use while a physical book allows visitors to read synopses of some of the stories, such as the Ramayana or a short tale of Gilgamesh. The digital content includes a sung reconstruction of the Iliad, specially created by Dr. Stefan Hagel for our exhibition, which furthers our exploration of all the ways the epic poem has been sung, depicted, and written. These interactives are particularly important as many of our objects are used in performances or as props in telling stories, the full effect of which would be lost without seeing them in use.

A Sumerian tablet with a tale of Gilgamesh from 1730 BCE.
Museum Object Number: 29-16-84

In choosing and researching the objects, we talked with many curators, scholars, and keepers of collections, in order to understand how any prospective object would fit into the exhibition. In some cases, these discussions led us to the material that we are using in the interactive. In addition to the recording of the Iliad mentioned above, we also have a clip from a longer interview with Cochiti artist Mary Trujillo, whose storyteller figure appears in the exhibition. Mary was able to tell us about her storyteller figures, her ceramic practice, and how her grandfather shared stories with her family, providing an invaluable context for the object. In addition, over 30 videos of string games were recorded for us by Adrian Hardy, a student affiliated with the Navajo Nation Museum. None of these discussions or materials would be possible without the assistance of Museum-affiliated faculty; in particular, Dr. Lucy Fowler Williams was instrumental in providing support for the interview with Mary Trujillo.

A Diné (Navajo) string game formed in the shape of Dil-ye-he (Pleiades), used in telling stories such as Coyote tosses the stars.
Museum Object Number: 22717

The three of us have all thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work with Museum staff and to see what it takes to make an exhibition come to life. The exhibition is now open and we look forward to sharing our work with you!

The three student curators, Linda, Fiona, and Braden.

All photos by the Penn Museum.