Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Learning from Svetlana

29th October 2020

It goes without saying that museums are story-telling spaces.  This is true whether you are thinking of the stories that attach to individual artefacts.  Or the bigger stories that underlie the displays and give them shape and coherence. Or the stories that the guides and the object-handlers tell us.  Or the stories that are missing but make their absence felt. Or the stories that we tell ourselves as we daydream our way through the museum’s galleries.

Facts are facts, but stories imply people and emotions and beginnings and endings, and museums are full of them.

So it makes sense to talk about good storytelling as part of the skills we need for making museums.  And a good place to start is with the extraordinary storytelling skills of the Belarusian writer and editor, Svetlana Alexievich.  She’s been described as the greatest practitioner of oral history ever known.  In 2015 she won the Nobel prize for literature. Her books gather up stories and bear witness to the griefs and tragedies of 20th century Russia – World War 2, the Afghan War, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl disaster.  She marshals many stories and many voices. How she unfolds these stories is moving, touching and extremely readable. She edits beautifully to find the heart of the narrative. Her ear for a good story never fails.  She can make you cry (and she’s never afraid to do so) in half a dozen brief sentences.

And if your museum tells the story of many people – a community, a city, a holocaust, a genocide – then Svetlana Alexievich is doubly relevant. Because Alexievich believes that the novel fails when faced with a huge number of characters and so she’s developed a literary genre that can give voice to huge numbers of people, often voiceless, who have been caught up in big, historical events.

I have been reading ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ (her book on Russian  women fighting in World War 2), and also ‘Second-hand Time’ (on the fall of the Soviet Union). ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ is especially interesting because she gets her effects through the accumulation of many short stories – which museums do too.

I am filled with admiration but also looking to pin down what it is that makes her writing so moving and so readable.

For my money these are the things that make her writing sing –

  1.  She knows why people talk – their urgent, overwhelming need to tell their story.
  2. And also where they talk – in kitchens and bedrooms and queues for food.  Her overheard scraps of conversation are wonderful – ‘It’s a coup.  What’s going to happen to our country?’  ‘There’s been no uprising in my house. The bed’s in the same place it was last night, the vodka’s no different.’
  3. She knows that it can take time before people are ready to open their mouths. She is endlessly patient and will drink tea, try on clothes, talk recipes, sometimes for a whole day, waiting for the memories to rise to the surface.
  4. She looks for the phrases and sentences that sing out.  ‘I was so young when I left for the front I even grew during the war,’ (said by a Russian woman partisan).  ‘Our lives went by just like that, they simply flew by, without leaving a trace.  You won’t find any trace of us anywhere,’ (said by the old woman Marina remembering backbreaking labour during the war in Soviet Russia).  And she never tries to damp down the emotions of the speaker nor to disguise the peculiarities in the way they talk.
  5. She knows how to catch the listeners’ attention by a story’s paradoxical details.  ‘It wasn’t all misery in the camps. My father met a lot of educated people. He never met people that interesting anywhere else. Some of them wrote poems. The ones who did were more likely to survive,’  said Elena, remembering her father coming back after years in one of Stalin’s labour camps.
  6. And she knows that behind the story’s words is the shape of the story, how it rises and falls, turns on a detail, comes to an end. Often it’s the shape of the story that gives it its poignancy, its ability to catch our breath and bring tears to our eyes.

We are increasingly acknowledging that museums are storytelling places. If we are looking for great storytellers, from whom we can learn, than Svetlana Alexievich is up there with the best of them.

The two  Svetlana Alexievich books mentioned here are –

‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich

‘Second-Hand Time’ by Svetlana Alexievich

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