"We all have stories like Disney has, but ours are true"

Smiling confidently, this is what Fransje Pansters, the digital communication advisor at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum told us when we met her in Amsterdam just a day before her talk at MuseumNext Digital Summit. She wanted to know why people can get lost in a novel, spend hours binge-watching Netflix and forget the time while scrolling through their social media timelines. So she dived deep into the methods of storytelling and asked professional storytellers- screenwriters, theatre writers, journalists and UX experts -about techniques and the ins and outs of a good story

  “Museums are based on facts, everything you do has to be historically accurate. But data and facts can make people move away quickly. From the social media we know that the public is most interested in general questions: how did van Gogh lose his ear? How did he die? This might be the entrance for a lot of people who are otherwise not interested in art. We, here at the Van Gogh Museum, feel there’s a specific way of telling our stories. So I started a research recently: I asked Dutch storytelling experts on how we can write stories which move people to eventually come and explore the collection. Let’s be honest, museums often seem hard to understand, some even find them boring. By writing appealing stories, these people may not come at first, but later will want to check out what’s behind the story.”

Fransje summarizes the elements that make a museum story powerful.


1. Focus on people

If you have mediaeval statues, how can you make them relate to people today? When you describe a historic event, museums tend to give a sort of helicopter view and provide a little bit of attention to all the people involved, which means that not everyone gets enough attention or everyone gets just a tiny bit of it. This makes the visitors wonder: what do we have in common at all?  You need to have a different look at the information you have. Choose a person you can identify with and step into his/her shoes. Their thoughts, fears and desires make visitors understand something about a certain historic event. 




2. Make the first encounter emotional

I’m not saying historical facts are not important, but it is emotions that can close the gap between past and present. Touching, teasing, provoking people is not a way to disregard historical facts, we need them to get to people. Writing texts that move people or touch hearts is not unprofessional, because the information is still there, and the story is authentic. Emotions create an internal motivation, and it’s not the museum that says, like a singular authority, that you have to see this or that. We’re lucky in that we know a lot about Van Gogh from the letters he wrote to his brother, Theo.



3. Look for change

Change is where emotion lies, and it is always the turning points that make stories interesting. Don’t be afraid to tap into emotions. A new meeting, an unexpected event, a challenging situation: everything that shows something is at stake will grab the visitors because they will look for the resolution. Change causes tension and they look for relief.



4. Start from the action

Stories don’t have to be chronological. You feel that’s true when you’re reading a book, but why shouldn’t it be the same with a museum? Be brave, shift the order of events around, the information is still there.


5. Less can be more

Especially at the beginning. Whenever you enter a bookshop, they never put all the books in the shop window, they present it nicely and try to make you come into the shop. Some people know exactly what they went in for, those are the people looking for a specific type of artwork

Then there are people strolling around, those are the ones you want to keep inside and draw their attention “saying have you seen this? There is also one that you would like.”


6. Keep testing what type of story works best for you

For their website, Rijksmuseum makes lists like ten cats in paintings or, relating to current exhibitions, compares the artists like Rembrandt and Velázquez. These interesting fun facts grab the attention and are easy to remember. Within a text we can experiment with what works best: a question or a statement? Posing a question if something is at stake works well with a personal story. These little twists in copywriting you can easily test on social media. It gives you much more freedom to try out what kind of copywriting works or doesn’t work.

In an online text you can make stronger statements, like “Millet was Van Gogh’s painter father”. Even if it’s not completely true, it’s powerful, and we can explain later why it’s not true. 

See what works for you. Once we had an idea that instead of Vincent we could focus on his brother, Theo. What is it like to have a brother like Vincent? It would provide a very different approach to Vincent, but the education department said we can’t fact-check it so it’s a nice idea for a fictional book, but not for a museum site. We’re in close collaboration with the education department to see the limits how far we can go. 



7. Everything can be an inspiration

On social media, we have a theme every month,  such as colours Vincent used or nighttime or mental health. There’s a kick-off brainstorming where people from the different departments come together and share their ideas. For example, there’s a film that’s out now or there is a new book that’s connected to the topic, and the social media manager collects these ideas.


8. Measure the impact

Discussion on what we publish is based on facts and not on opinions. We evaluate the results, analyse what the best story or post was. All tweaks in the text are there for a reason. I know that colourful posts always work best, but there have to be serious topics, too.


9. Keep it friendly

Social media’s tone is about fun, it’s joyful and more direct so when visitors come to the website, we don’t want a raw landing with facts and data. Therefore, we use a tone of voice that, with its directness and human focus, keeps people in the same mood, the same visitor journey. We have freedom in picking writing style, but facts are always checked by the education department.


10. Start with what you have

Writing is a powerful tool and luckily, you don’t need a big budget to do it. It can also be very simple. We’re lucky to know enough about van Gogh’s dreams and fears, as he wrote a lot of letters to his brother. There are artists we don’t know so much about, but there are ways to come around it in storytelling. For example, you can create a character that asks various questions about their lives. There isn’t one way forward


11. Cooperate with other colleagues

Our work is about constant collaboration. What we write is always checked by the education department, and on the other hand, if another department needs help for example with its newsletter, we know the tweaks that can make it more enjoyable and more likely to be read. All of us have our own field of competence and we all want the same: to help people discover van Gogh’s art, so we cooperate. 


12. Museum stories are important

In the era of fake news and limited access to information outside our bubble, museums tell stories that are authentic and historically accurate. It’s a great chance to be out there in the online space, if we use these means well, we have a chance to be a reliable source of information. As a kid, I was a fan of Pocahontas’s story. It was only a couple of years ago that I learnt what the truth is and I was shocked. She had such a horrible life which the Disney story disregards.

We all have stories like Disney has, but ours are true. We have a reason to be here.