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    Lessons for Family Historians and Memoirists from the Smithsonian

    Faced with the need to close and renovate the west wing of the Smithsonian's American History Museum, interim director Marc Pachter had a problem: what would happen to all the beloved and famous objects housed there, like Kermit the Frog, or Archie Bunker's chair ?

    The museum staff solved the problem by selecting just over a hundred objects for display in a new exhibit titled American Stories. These objects were chosen to symbolically represent the larger American story.

    Courtesy of Krossbow under Creative Commons

    “We wanted to create an exhibit that would give people an introductory experience to American history,” explains curator Bonnie Campbell-Lilienfeld. “…this was supposed to set a context for the rest of the museum.”

    Memoir writers and family can learn a valuable lesson from the way the Smithsonian dealt with its problem.

    Too often writers, particularly first time writers, believe that the way to improve their book is to include more details. A bit more research, another interview or two to collect a few more facts or another story will make the book better, they think. They would be better served to think as the Smithsonian staff had to, how can I do more with less?

    A shift of the author’s mindset from, “How do I include all of the material I have?” to “How can I choose the best material to tell my story?” can make for a much more interesting book. It will mean focusing on crucial turning points, events that embody particular values or character traits, moments charged with emotion, or stories that capture the essence of particular moments in time.

    Here’s an exercise that will help you decide what gets into your book:

    You are a movie director who will make a film of your life (or your family’s life). Your movie can only be two hours in length, so you’ll have to make some choices. Think of the twenty scenes that you will use to tell your story. Once you have chosen the scenes, think about how to use vivid details to portray them dramatically.

    I am sure that as you go through the exercise, you will see how the result will engage your audience in a way that dutifully reporting everything you know never could.

    To read the full story of the Smithsonian’s new exhibit read the article The American History Museum’s New Approach to Telling “American Stories” on the Smithsonian Magazine Blog.

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