Washington, D.C. Through the Lens of a Storyteller : Never so clearly have I understood that the United States was built figuratively and literally on words.

By Sarah Collins, Senior Account Executive

When I travel, “things” are always at the top of my to-do list. Monuments, art, Mother Nature’s creations, etc. – and I expect that there will be some literature when I get there to explain what I’m seeing and why it’s there. I’ve never anticipated that the narratives would become such an interesting attraction in-and-of-themselves until I visited Washington, D.C.

As I planned my trip, in typical comms professional fashion, I made a list — what did I want to make sure to see while at our nation’s capital?

  • The White House
  • Supreme Court Building (holding out hope that I would somehow run into Ruth Bader Ginsberg while there)
  • The Obama portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
  • U.S. Holocaust Museum
  • A local brewery (I’m a huge craft beer fan)

However, when I finally had a chance to explore the area, I realized, more so than any other place I’d visited, that I was taking the time to read EVERYTHING. (I can’t be the only person who has blazed through a less-than-interesting museum only looking at the pictures.) Everything I saw was built by storytellers whose words weren’t just a supporting act, but were often the star of the show.

While I’d normally find myself quickly reading for context before moving on, places like the Jefferson Monument had me lost in powerful quotes I’d probably read in a high school textbook, but long since forgotten. These words came simply and boldly, left to speak for themselves and stand the test of time.

While monuments, statues and art generally receive the most praise, some of the memorials with the greatest impact were simply words. One might think this is based on word choice, but I’d argue that the writer’s ability to look outward played just as big of a role on making a lasting impression. We’re so used to the “me, me, me” mentality, that when light shines on others, it becomes even more impactful. I often found myself so moved by the words that memorialized those of the past that I had to peel my eyes away from what I was reading to look around at the bigger picture.

For example, I was obsessed with the Korean War Memorial. In reality, it is probably 90 percent physical structure and 10 percent language, but you wouldn’t know that based on the only photo I walked away with.

I’m always looking for anecdotes, partially because of my profession as a PR storyteller and partially because I find them interesting. And they were everywhere in D.C.! Some of America’s — and ultimately the world’s — biggest or most impactful stories are being told at museums and monuments and can seem overwhelming at times. For instance, I came to love and appreciate that in the midst of an intense day visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I could find refuge in the many powerful anecdotes.

I should clarify, I am in no way implying that storytelling began with America, but I’ve experienced a connection and ultimately a better understanding surrounding the narrative of a nation I thought I already knew.

So besides an album full of photos, a fond set of memories and a heavy dose of jet lag, what did I walk away with from my visit to Washington, D.C.? A fresh perspective on my own country. Never so clearly have I understood that the United States was built figuratively and literally on words. While I may not be crafting the narrative of a nation by helping organizations communicate their stories, I’m continuing the age-old American tradition of storytelling.

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