Long before the written word, there was only storytelling. While it’s impossible to pinpoint the actual start of these oral narratives, most anthropologists date them back to more than 50,000 years ago and cave drawings discovered in France show that modern humans have been visually illuminating their lives for more than 30,000 years.
Even in today’s digital age, we still find time to pass down many of our experiences, cultures, traditions from one generation to the next through the spoken word. Throughout the ages, storytelling remains a steadfast foundation of our global society.
At the USS Midway Museum, storytelling is more than simply a way to communicate, and over the last 20 years, it has been elevated to an artform.
“Midway, as a venue, satisfies all the components for good stories,” said Jim Reily, Midway director of volunteer docents. “The aircraft carrier is foreign to most guests. There is an opportunity to share the stories of danger, heroism, sacrifice, patriotism and selfless service. The museum’s exhibits and displays are the perfect triggers to start a sea story told by our docents and other volunteers.”
More than 700 volunteers walk the decks of Midway, many of them connecting directly with museum guests. All recognize how critical storytelling is to education as well as entertainment.
“Storytelling is an important way to educate our guests because it captures their interest in inspirational ways,” said Paul Ward, a Midway docent with more than 7,400 volunteer hours. “Storytelling is a great help in providing clarity to a concept that is being shared, often for the first time.”
“It’s a good educational tool because it keeps the learner interested and entertained,” said C.J. Beaudu, who has been a Midway docent since 2013. “A good storyteller is not only knowledgeable, but also animated, and will watch the listener for cues to determine if the story is being understood and appreciated. If you’ve captured the listener’s attention, they’re learning.”
Visitors to Midway span a wide range of ages, backgrounds and nationalities, however, good storytelling is a common thread that can connect with a diverse collection of people.
“Tailored stories to the audience whether young or old works across a broad demographic,” said Todd Hyde, a volunteer docent for nearly 12 years. “If you capture their imagination, add some wonder, and tug a few heart strings, they will let go of their cell phones for the day. Our motto of adding a dash of inspiration, education, and entertainment along with preserving our American and naval heritage works for all hands.”
Unlike most museums, a visit to Midway is not a static encounter. For those who know her best, the ship is seen as a highly engaging “heads up” experience. Even with more than 30 beautifully restored historic military aircraft, dozens of unique exhibits and a variety of interactive experiences, the creation of an intimate connection with visitors comes by way of the museum’s volunteers, many of them military veterans who take guests on a high-seas adventure through storytelling.
“It’s our stories that help make the USS Midway come alive for every one of our visitors,” said Henry Schrik, who has amassed more than 1,200 volunteer hours since joining the docent team four years ago. “I tell our guests it’s not just about the airplanes and the
stuff that is seen when on a self-guided tour.”
“Visual learners appreciate the mental pictures storytelling evokes,” said Patty Forrest, who has more than 9,000 volunteer hours as a member of Midway’s community outreach, safety and ship’s restoration teams. “The guests use all their senses while visualizing where the story takes place. The stories preserve a lifetime of experiences from one generation to another.”
For Midway’s volunteers, there is a tremendous sense of satisfaction when they see the reaction of guests holding on to every word of their stories.
“The feedback I’ve received over the years has been very gratifying and it’s one of the reasons I’m here,” said Todd, a retired Navy commander with more than 7,000 volunteer hours. “These stories capture what many guests have never heard before. When a guest offers a handshake and says a heartfelt ‘thank you,’ it means just that. When a child asks another question it means you have connected. It’s not out of the ordinary to see a tear or even an introspective pause in the conversation as they grasp the meaning of what they just heard.”
“I love the moment when something said connects with something seen and explained,” said Paul, who also volunteers for the museum’s exhibits, guest services and community outreach crews. “You can literally see that eureka moment when you have touched a chord of appreciation or understanding. That moment is when I know that the story shared has made an incredible impact.”