Museums are thing-worlds – it’s what makes them so peculiar and compelling – but even thing-worlds need words sometimes. And so, because words are what I love, I’m pursuing a slightly geeky obsession to understand how things and their words work together. I don’t suppose this is the last time I’ll be posting on the subject.
So here are two very different ways in which things and their words work together, both of which I saw last week.
The first I almost missed as I was going through the National Portrait Gallery. First I saw the poem, or the shape of it, printed on the wall, and then I saw the painting next to it, of a young man, skinny, poised and enigmatic, with a far-off gaze and the folds and shadows in his robes and turban of a beautiful, greeny-white. Truth be told, I would have rushed straight past this painting; it was the surprise of seeing the poem next to it that made me stop and stare. And although the painting enhanced the poem, the poem (which is by Ben Okri) also enhanced the painting, breathing life into it, puffing out its meaning, setting it free to float. The poem is called ‘Diallo’s Testament’. ‘I am one,’ writes Ben Okri in Diallo’s voice, ‘on whom providence has worked its magic reversals. Behind me are silent stories, like a storm . . . ‘ The poem meanwhile sits on the wall with the same chunky presence as an artefact.
Later I ask someone who works there what visitors do when they read this poem. ‘Sometimes they cry,’ he says and I think, ‘Good, that’s what museums ought to do to people.’
The second example is quite different. This time I am sitting beside the Thames at Greenwich on a morming when the river is breezy, sunlit and empty. I am talking to a museum storyteller called Richard Sylvester whose job it is to take a concept – say, Empire – and to weave a story on the spot and perform it to the audience, to be accurate and informative, entertaining and enlightening, to keep the audience’s attention whether they are two or seventy-two, to let them be part of the story-making and to send them away wanting to come back.
I ask him what made him become a storyteller and he tells me it began when he was beachcombing along the shores of the Thames. He was picking up 18th century clay pipes and noticing the initials SB on them, which turned out to stand for Sarah Bean, whose family ran a business making clay pipes from Crane Street which is just round the corner. And that, I think, is the heart of it – a thing, a place and out of the two a story, which is more often than not a fragment of bottom-up history – the history and memories of ordinary people, the kind of history that until recently was not even acknowledged as such.
It’s not easy being an oral storyteller. It’s an art form (and it is an art form) whose status has been under threat ever since Caxton developed the printing press in the 15th century, whereupon the printed word gained the upper hand – and has it still. The written word has status because we believe it will last for ever. But the spoken word is different – it comes and goes and drifts like smoke, although it is remarkable how swiftly the right words can go straight to the listener’s heart.
The conversation loops around. We wonder if you tell stories better with an object in your hand – and maybe even better if the object is authentic? – and whether the listener also listens better when holding on to a thing? And we wonder why it is that children always ask, ‘Is that a true story?’ even when quite plainly – to adult eyes – it isn’t and decide that the question must be a compliment to the storyteller’s skills. (‘Wow, you mean a dragon took it – I so want to believe that.’)
I ask him to give me a good example of when a thing and its words have worked beautifully together and he describes a time when he was commissioned to tell a story about Prince Frederick’s Royal Barge. First he got the audience singing with him, ‘The river is deep, the river is wide, row your boat to the other side’ and then, because he wanted them to have the physical, visceral feeling of what it was to be a waterman (all of which he researched), he described the water man sitting in his boat in the river, waiting for the tide to turn, and judging the moment of change from how the weed in the current stopped flowing in one direction, became still and then flowed in the other.
As he speaks I am standing beside the 18th century boatman, looking down into the clear, brown waters of the 18th century Thames, watching a thread of green waterweed, how it stretches itself in one direction, then pauses and stretches itself out in the other. ‘Ah,’ I think, ‘it’s that detail that makes it work. A nice bit of storytelling.’
By Rachel Morris