Q&A: Digital historian Mary Ann McNair

Historian Mary Ann McNair’s plans for retirement from the  Colorado History Museum (where she coordinated educational materials) were sidetracked when she discovered StoryCenter, formerly the Center for Digital Storytelling, a national effort to use storytelling as a vehicle for reflection, history, education, community mobilization, and advocacy.  The program teaches everyday people how to tell, through music, images and their own words, the unique stories drawn from their lives. Today, she still helps facilitate digital storytelling workshops in Colorado and beyond – in September she’ll focus on National Park staff who work at Underground Railroad network facilities.

Senior Planet: What was your favorite part about working for the museum?

McNair: I had access to a million-plus photos and collections, artifacts you couldn’t believe! I was working on a project on the history of mining in Colorado, and wanted a graphic for an information card. I found an old pocket watch that had two tiny characters, almost like a cuckoo clock, working with pickaxes to tell the time, and they actually worked! I worked with people who had creative brains, and we’d brainstorm lecture series. I was surrounded by wonderful people – photographers, the state historian, head of publications, everyone you needed. I did a touch-screen exhibit on the 10th Mountain Division.

Senior Planet: So that was how you became comfortable with technology?

McNair: No, I had people to help with that. For example, we used an 1870s telegraph machine to create an interactive program where kids could choose the right words to use in a telegraph to prevent a train crash. I wrote to Hollywood, and got footage of Buster Keaton running alongside an 1870s train that had the most magnificent crash! So if you didn’t use the correct words, the train would crash. If you did choose the right words, you’d get the president, Grover Cleveland, saying ‘You saved the day!’ and an image of people from 1915 dancing in a circle. It was just fun stuff.

Senior Planet: Was there any exhibit you prepared that, in hindsight, predicted your facility for digital storytelling?

McNair: I did a program of the 10th Mountain Division that involved going through 50 or more videos that were all raw footage. I selected the ones I thought had the most compelling stories, and edited them down to five stories. Then I thought about what five things I’d most want to know about the 10th Mountain Division soldiers. One was: What was your closest call? Another was: How cold was it? I found the answers to those questions, including a story about how one soldier’s copy of the New Testament in his pocket stopped a bullet from killing him. That was my first real experience of having people tell their own stories.

Senior Planet: How did you make the transition from being a museum historian to telling digital stories?

McNair: Well, Daniel Weinshenker (head of Colorado’s division of the Center for Digital storytelling) came in one day and said he’d like to show us some digital stories. We watched five or six and he asked if we’d like these for our exhibits. The Italians In America exhibit came up in 2007, and I hired him to come in and do a workshop with 10 Italian Americans, and ended up with very powerful stories.  I was unhappy with what was happening at the museum, so I left. I took a facilitator training workshop. I told him I was nervous about the technology (of making a video). He told me that it was nothing to do with the technology: it was about the writing. So I just figured out the technology.

Senior Planet: And writing came easily to you?

McNair: I’ve always loved writing, and I read nonstop. I’m all about history. When it comes down to it, that’s what I’ve done forever: Help people tell their own stories. As a historian, I was telling people what it was like to be a Ute Indian. I knew what they ate, and what they lived in. With digital storytelling, it was a delightful shift of perspective, valuing the stories that came out of people’s mouths.

Here’s an example of a digital story from the project:

Senior Planet: Have your participants ever told you about the impact of the stories that you helped them articulate?

McNair:  There’s something about our story circle process that I think helps people see their story from multiple perspectives. They almost always come to some new insight. Then they write the story, record it, and listen to themselves a million times, and then put the pictures to it. When it’s finished and they watch it, there’s something about listening as a member of an audience that’s transformational. It makes people feel as if they’ve processed this event in a way they hadn’t before.

Senior Planet: Can you give an example?

McNair: There was one person in a workshop for survivors of medical air crashes, like Flight For Life, which are very common. And he said, “I’ve been in therapy since the accident. This is the first thing that’s gotten me to move forward in a positive way.” Otherwise he’d been stuck in the same story he’d repeated over and over in his head. Seeing it a new perspective helped him move through it.

Senior Planet: What is it about telling their story to a roomful of strangers that helps people understand their experiences in a new way?

McNair: They’re in a room with people there to actively listen to them, and not to judge them, and to help them see that story. And then they watch it. Hearing their own voice tell the story, but from a distance, there is something transformational about that process. The first story I made was about my mother’s death. I immersed myself in it for three days. And I processed her death in ways that took me over a year to do when my father died later — and I hadn’t made a digital story about that.

Senior Planet: What does ‘aging with attitude’ mean to you?

McNair: I think it has to do with blowing away preconceptions. When I worked at the museum, I ended up as an expert on certain things; I could hold my own against any educator. When I went into digital storytelling, I felt the opposite. I felt so much younger, so much less knowledgeable. I went from feeling like an expert to feeling like I was learning to walk. Guiding someone is so different than doing it yourself. I had to learn to keep my hands off others’ stories, so their stories would really be their own. It was tough. But storytelling is the crux of who I am. I love learning about other people and other ways of seeing and doing, and helping put that into context. This is a reflection of the person I’ve always been.

If you want to try telling your own life story, read the Senior Planet feature about it here.

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