“Everybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was lettin’ themselves know how they believed the world worked, the right way and the way that was not so right.”*
I come from a family of storytellers. Most people do– we all have those family legends that are brought out at the holidays, when all the cousins get together, and someone retells the time when Uncle Bob was a boy and his father convinced him that he could read Bob’s mind, or when Cousin Gina found the pies that were going to the bake sale and stuck her fingers in all of them. My family has stories, too (ghosts in the pipes, death narrowly averted at the circus, motorcycle accidents, angry nuns), but the craft of storytelling in our house is as valued as the content.
My grandfather was a champion storyteller. He could turn the most quotidian trip to the grocery store into an epic comedy of errors. His descriptions of the characters in his stories had the sharp efficiency of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, capturing the essence of the person in a few quick but amazingly precise strokes.
I didn’t quite realize how extraordinary his talent was for a long time– not until I’d heard a whole lot of stories told by a whole lot of people.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately. I think a lot of what we do at museums is tell stories. It seems pretty obvious–isn’t it also how humans make sense of the world, taking the information we have and figuring out what part is the beginning, what part the middle, and what part the end? But it isn’t always called storytelling in museums. “Stories” and “storytelling” (if used) often seem connected with programming for children, or for programming that is thought of as lighter fare. Instead, I often hear “content,” “narratives,” and “didactics,” but less often the word story.
There are lots of ways to connect with art. Sometimes I look at a work of art in a museum and am focused on wanting to know who made it, when, where, for whom (just the facts, ma’am). But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to hear the story of the piece– its provenance, the people being depicted, the biography of the person who made it– if my grandfather had gotten a hold of it. Certainly, he would have told a story. It isn’t the only way to connect to a work of art, but in talking with friends, family, visitors, kids, adults, volunteers, something that I often hear is “what’s the story?” So I’m curious to know why it is a word that (in my experience) isn’t used as often. I wonder if it is the connection to childhood (bedtime stories), or that the word story might imply a fictive element, or something else entirely. But I also wonder if the aversion to using the word story also sometimes has an effect on the ways in which we engage with art, with visitors, with our work at the place where the joyful experience of hearing a good story, told well, lives.
*The clip is from the film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, from the section of the film featuring novelist Harry Crews.