Sharing stories about childbirth

How might Yarn help museum visitors to co-produce exhibition material on childbirth and its associated risks?

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A tangled yarn: I don't know this story's ending, the middle's a mess and I'm not sure the introduction is catchy enough.

How can I share it and who would want to listen? Organising your thoughts can feel like herding cats.

But Yarn is all about constructing narratives....


Like many of ideas during this project, we’re not sure who coined it, but Pararchive became Yarn – a brand that seemed to embody all our hopes and insights. It honoured the contributions of everyone involved and conveyed the very human values at the core of the project, as well as returning us to one of our original principles – that of fabrics and tapestries of connected tales. Fundamentally, our Yarns aren’t simply ON the web, but OF the web, weaved from the fabrics that are already out there.
From Introducing Yarn by imran

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We might not all feel like authors or that we have a personal Odyssey to relate but projects developed by the Communities and Culture Network+ (www.communitiesandculture.org) have shown how facilitated workshops can help participants to identify and express the stories they have to share (e.g. the 'Writing Leeds' project, with Studio12).

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What do I know about stories?

I have a background in Classics and classical literature has taught me that stories are woven and crafted.

...they can relate histories, myths and legends, as in the Iliad:

"Helen in her rooms....
weaving a growing web, a dark red folding robe,
working into the weft the endless bloody struggles,
stallion-breaking Trojans and Argives armed in bronze
had suffered all for her at the god of battle's hands"
(Iliad III, 151-154).

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We can spin a yarn to deceive and manipulate, as with Penelope's shroud.

So, stories don't have to be about 'personal truths'. They can be made-up, used to inform or manipulate, compete or empathise.

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It's not just about beginnings and endings - stories revolve around turning points.

Aristotle describes 'reversal' (peripeteia) and 'recognition' (anagnorisis) as key characteristics of tragic theatre.

It’s the twists and turns of fate which engage an audience and help us to obtain a new perspective.

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We can use stories to entertain, invite empathy and explain.

Stories are told and retold. We're always finding new meanings and ways to relate.

Example: The film 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou' is a reimagining of the Odyssey, with George Clooney as the eponymous storyteller.

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An empowered modern mum... or maybe not(?).

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Our stories form interconnected tapestries, passed down through generations, across space and time...

....which brings us to a recent CCN+ project about experiences of childbirth and digital resources...

‘Digital Engagement & Cultures of Expertise’: technological imaginings about pregnancy and childbirth.

"I ended up finding out a lot of information from books and just the weekly Googling on the Internet to see what stage I was at [in the pregnancy] and what was happening to me. It made me feel more in control, just having that information.
I think one of the massive things is just Googling stuff. Any question that you’ve got, you put it into your phone and you’ve got an answer in five seconds. Not like the midwife, who never gave me a straight answer."
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"Everything we were talking about before [in relation to pregnancy] - the NCT classes, the huge amount of information you find, how you want a natural birth or no pain relief - all just kind of falls down at the point of birth."

Thornham, H. M. 2015 (in press), ‘irreconcilability in the digital: gender, technological imaginings and maternal subjectivity’. Feminist Review 110 (May 2015).

Research highlights how the stories told to us (mis)inform our own experiences.

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Before writing our own stories we can start to think about ones we're already familiar with.

Who tells them and how (books, newspapers, paintings, photos, adverts)? What impression do they want to give? How should we respond? Have they affected us?

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Media images and semi-mythologised 'real' life stories. You CAN survive labour and emerge with flowing, silky locks!

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Families, friends, antenatal classes - they can all influence how we think about ourselves.

An epidural? Not for me, thanks. I'm having a natural birth (or at least that was the plan...)

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A Sudocrem advert showing happy (sleep deprived, out of their depth) parents.

Is this the story new parents tend to want to project?

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From here we can go on to consider...
- What are our own experiences?
- Did they match up to our expectations?
- What were the twists and turns and what did we learn through hindsight?
- How did we try to remember (or forget) it? With photos? Telling others? Social media?
- Did we focus on some moments and ignore others?
- Who might we want to tell about our experiences and why? How will it benefit them?

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Sometimes we might want to tell a different side of the story (and not necessarily to sell something).

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Embracing a messy approach

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So how can we get our stories across? What if I'm an analogue storyteller?

Not everyone wants or knows how to engage and tell stories digitally. Our lives are complex, so we need a more complex, 'messier' approach:

A Manifesto for Digital Messiness!

"[...] So this project will highlight the complicated nature of online identity management and the need to reject the ‘digital by default’ and ‘smart cities’ agendas as arbitrary measures of success for digital interactions.

It will make the case for a ‘messier’ articulation of digital’s potential, and in doing so celebrate citizen-centred initiatives and activism that sees beyond the uncritical claims made for digital as a force for good."

Harte, D. 'Why a Manifesto for Digital Messiness?'. Online at D. Harte 2014, A Manifesto for Digital Messiness, viewed 10 December 2015, http://digitalbydefaultmanifesto.com/2015/04/23/why-a-manifesto-for-digital-messiness/#more-8

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Facilitated sessions can start out with sharing ideas and building trust, going on to express these in a range of ways.-

Museums should be part of the process, as partners in the collaboration, but not play a didactic role.

Example: Mind mapping and sharing ideas at a CCN+ 'Girls Making History' workshop. Participants rebranded the project (formerly 'Girls@Risk') and determined their own objectives.

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Making videos and film poems and a documentary, as part of the CCN+ 'In/visible and un/fixed communities' scoping study.

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Artists demonstrating a sound installation which challenges perceptions about the role of women in the miners' strikes, as part of 'Rewriting the Hack'.

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Creating design fictions with groups, such as the Brixton Pound community, as part of the Sans Duty seed project.

All of these projects involved skilled facilitators who worked with community groups to identify and tell their stories.

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An image from the Wellcome Collection's publically accessible digital archive.

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What if I don't want to put my family snapshots online?: Privacy and safeguarding.

We need to consider:

- Trust building and group agreements
- Yarn allows us to present ideas without using personal content if we don't want to, by linking to content on the web to illustrate passages.
- Using resources from museum archives.
- Moving away from narrative as 'true stories': embracing creativity and pluralism; stories that weave together as a mesh and suggest different perspectives
- The option to share experiences anonymously.

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Example passage:
"A friend had had a difficult experience of forceps delivery, so I was worried about that. In the event, it was fine".

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Example: using images from the Thackray Medical Museum's collection to describe experiences

e.g. "I felt like a lost my identity after giving birth; everything was about the baby."

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Can we expand on the idea of online exhibitions to reflect the different processes used and reach diverse audiences?

Hybrid online/offline exhibitions would challenge the dynamics of authority between museum and audience on more levels.

Digital engagement should compliment the existing museum experience, rather than providing a substitute.

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Creating content (digital or otherwise)

Non-digital workshop outcomes can be recorded in digital formats (photographs, audio files, videos, etc.), but...

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We've looked at three ways in which oral poetry has been reinterpreted for new audiences:
- text
- vase painting
- film

None of these negates the other - they enrich our understanding and spawn new responses.

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A tapestry of stories, told in different ways, invites continuing engagement by allowing audiences to make their own connections and juxtapositions.

This is what good museums do. It's why we visit them more than once.
Digital resources and outputs should do the same.

Experiencing an exhibition is co-creation in itself. Effective exhibitions should allow the visitor to navigate freely (avoiding the IKEA experience).

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So what happens to the content we've co-produced? Yarn allows us to play with stories but does it end there?

New exhibitions? Creative works? On/offline discussion forums and groups? Anticipating this would be missing the point.

Letting go is liberating.

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