Mary Ann McNair joined the creative team as a workshop facilitator at the Center for Digital Storytelling in 2008, working primarily through the Center’s Denver office. She spent many years as a museum educator, specializing in interactive exhibit components for all ages, at the Colorado History Museum. She also produced educational materials, including multimedia programs, artifact kits, activity books, and exhibit guides. Mary Ann served as content advisor on several books on Colorado history, created the Lewis and Clark Information and Activity Box for Kampgrounds of American, and fed her passion for historic images as the photo editor for the book I Looked in the Brook and Saw a Face: Images of Childhood in Early Colorado, by David N. Wetzel.
I remember my first assignment at the Colorado History Museum when I started working in the education department there many years ago. I was twenty-five years-old, recently returned from graduate school in Tucson to my hometown of Denver, and ready to get to work.
The museum was in a relatively new building, with a vast, echoing hall anticipating “permanent” exhibits that were still in the formative phase. Upstairs, visitors could find a small, temporary exhibit called "The Coloradoans,” featuring a smattering of artifacts and a state of the art, five-carousel, reverse projection slide show.
All of Colorado’s ethnic groups were represented in that slideshow – English, French, Italians, African Americans, Irish, Utes, Slovaks, Slovenians, Croatians… the list was long. Long, but glaring in its omission of one very important group, Hispanics, who made up almost 9% of the population. Hispanics, who were in this part of the world long before Colorado became a state.
So I typed up a short script of about 100 words, found two people in the institution who were Hispanic, and set about recording their voiceovers. Then I found a few slides of Hispanic folks in southern Colorado around 1900, and, voila – a revised slideshow that, at the very least, would not continue to insult the state legislators at the capitol building across the street.
Twenty-five years later, Daniel Weinshenker sat across the table from a colleague and me, tantalizing us with stories made in workshops through the Center for Digital Storytelling – people telling their own stories in their own words, and using their own photos and video clips. Sometimes raw, always honest, the stories were filled with the emotion that comes from telling something held close to the chest and really being heard, maybe for the first time.
He wondered if we would like to start including digital stories in our exhibits. I knew there were no historical tomes and no labels on the wall that could substitute for stories being told by the people who lived them. There was no script I could research and invent that could ever approximate authentic experience.
What if we’d had digital stories from every time period and major event in our history? Stories made by the wife of a Civil War soldier who didn’t come home? A fur trapper who survived a bear attack in 1820? A Ute woman and her family forced by U.S. soldiers from their homeland? A Hispanic woman weaving a rug or teaching her daughter how to embroider a colcha? That would be gold. And current stories, current voices, those are gold, too. They are what history should be about.
It wasn’t immediate, but we did eventually have the Center for Digital Storytelling run two workshops at the museum – one for an exhibit onItalians in Denver, and another for the neighborhood section of an exhibit on the history of Denver. The StoryCenter continues to work with museums and libraries in various parts of the world, helping them involve communities in collecting their own stories, collaborating on developing exhibits, assisting with educational outreach programs and developing curricula utilizing the stories.
Today I am privileged to be part of the StoryCenter team. I have facilitated workshops as the museum and cultural education point person for five years, working on these and many other types of projects. Digital storytelling pulls me into the lives and experiences of individuals more than all of the historical, anthropological, and literary paths I have ever followed. It feeds my soul.
Watch Bill Tallbull’s story made for the history of Denver exhibit, Imagine a Great City, here: