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The Story 2019

Yesterday I went to The Story, “the one-day conference about stories and story-telling,” which was celebrating its tenth event. As always it was a lovely day at the Conway Hall, with interesting speakers and a friendly audience.

My favourite talk was by Alison S. M. Kobayashi who spoke about her performance Say Something Bunny, which I’d never heard of but has been running for a while in New York. It sounds brilliant.

She started, years ago, with a scratchy found recording made in the 1950s on a wire recorder and gradually pieced together what was being said and who was saying it. Given the terrible sound, and that she knew nothing about its origins, this sounded like a great process of detective work to discover all that she did, including pinning down the rough date, meeting one of the people from the recording, and identifying the episode of the almost inaudible radio show that this recording was recorded over.

Having laboriously transcribed the overlapping dialogue, and done all this research, she then put together a performance. It’s structured around a reading of the dialogue, as if it’s a play, with each of the small number of audience members being given the role of one person on the recording (not that they have to actually do anything). She then plays a bit of the recording, stops it, talks about what’s been said, what she discovered, and how…

I’m not sure I’m doing the work justice and no doubt there’s more to the performance than we saw in her talk. It not only sounds like a fascinating project but the talk itself was also great and very slick. Part of it involved a brief simulation of the show — everyone in the audience had a few pages of transcript with which to follow along, and part of the performance was played on the big screen, coordinated by her collaborator. In front of it, she did her part of the performance in sync to the video.

Anyway, it sounds like a great show, and it looks like there are tickets available in a couple of months for any of you in New York.

The other talks were also interesting. One of the things I like about The Story is that it’s people talking about things they’ve done, and how they did them, and why. There are no hasty reckons, no rambling half-thought-out ideas based on a blog post… just people talking about things they’ve done and achieved. It’s pretty certain that each speaker knows more about what they’re talking about than anyone in the audience which, at many conferences, isn’t a given.

Out of the rest I also really enjoyed Sara Wajid’s talk about diversity in British museums (she’s Head of Engagement at the Museum of London). I must admit the topic had the potential to be less-than-thrilling but she was very funny, very frank, and it was all interesting. She discussed the difficulties of making some exhibitions relevant to today when the archives are full of papers and artefacts collected by the largely privileged, white, male institutions of the British Empire. And about what it’s like to work in such excessively white places, and how she started the now big Museum Detox group by getting friends to ask strangers to meet her in a pub one evening.

She also described trying to find the right environment in which to have people develop something — like planing a new exhibition — which she likened to being that of the TV writers’ room (or our idealised fun version of it). The participants need to feel safe to run with their ideas but also a bit on edge, not entirely certain of themselves. If you’re only safe — like, say white men who have worked at the same institution for decades — the chances are you’ll produce the same old results each time. If you don’t feel safe, and are worried about doing things wrong then, again, you’re likely to produce something safe and unoriginal, but for different reasons. As she put it, “People of colour in museums don’t have a sense of ‘I can fuck this up and no one’s going to really mind’”. Having enough support to feel safe and having a this-might-be-our-only-chance attitude, can help to create interesting results.

So, well done everyone. What a nice day. I only wish I’d caught up for longer with some of the friends I saw there. Hello!

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