Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Saturday, July 14, 2007

There is something special about stories


There is something very special about story telling. I love it when people tell me stories.

When I was little I made my mother tell me stories, in return for being a good girl and drinking up my cup of Milo before going to bed.

My brother used to tell me stories too. The more stories he mesmerized me with, the more I pestered him for more. I used to wonder where he got all his stories from. It was later that I realized he got them from the Bible!

I have been inspired by the great stories I hear from museum and art gallery guides here and abroad. How I wish I was like them - informative, confident, captivating and entertaining in the way they talk about the exhibits!

And so, I decided to volunteer to be a docent (guide) for the Asian Civilisation Museum recently. It turned out that training is conducted on weekdays every week. I was asked if I would like to be a ‘’greeter’’ instead, as training is held on Saturdays for two weeks only.

I went for the greeter training expecting to meet pretentious arty farty people. Instead, I met a great mélange of really nice people from all walks of life. To the surprise of even the organiser, many of them work in IT, some in manufacturing, and some are admin support staff. One secretary actually enjoy going to historical sites for vacations, and hopes to go for more such holidays with new friends made in this group!

Many of them are just ordinary office workers like you and me. Of course we are all arts lovers of some sort, but we do not make a public song and dance about it to the world. Some have dedicated precious time and energy for years as volunteers, and are back these two weeks to help the organiser train newbies like us. Contrary to what you think, there are only three ‘’expat housewives’’ – one British and two Japanese. They have all been bored with all the ‘’tea and coffee that one can drink after a year’’ and find ‘’tea drinking wives too hollow’’ and so decided to do something different. And they are the most enthusiastic of the lot. One of them eventually found a demanding full time job, but her husband encouraged her to spend more time on volunteerism instead!

I told my Japanese banker friend who is visiting, that I could not hang out with her today because of my volunteer training. She was amazed that I would spend seven hours on Saturdays, for two consecutive weeks, for volunteerism. ‘’I would not do anything like that for free, ‘’she said. Perhaps bankers are rich because all they think of is making money. Perhaps that’s why none of the volunteers – old timers or newbies – come from the banking industry.

Even my boss teased, when I told him that my group are not arty farty fake-accent speakers: ‘’the bankers, the rich, the arty farty all have a life and are smarter lah – they leave the hard work to honest hardworking people like you with no life to do all the training, greeting and guiding. They just turn up to enjoy!’’

Straightforward, straight talking IT people who don’t talk glibly are passionate people too. Their passion for history and culture transform them into great story tellers, making visitors happy and appreciative, and in turn you see their eyes light up, their smile brighten their own faces as they enthrall us with their narration.

I am most impressed by a lady who is effectively bi-lingual. I had attended her guided tour on the ‘’Mystery Men of China’’ a few months back in Mandarin. Her Mandarin was impeccable; she was enthusiastic and showed that she was very familiar with her subject matter. I had thought that she must be a history or Mandarin teacher in school.

Today, as she helped to train us, she explained in English, and told us that she actually works in IT, and had attended her training as a docent in English, and had to do her own research and translation in Mandarin after her training!

In the working world, we often hear the cliché, ‘’it is the people that make the company what it is.’’ At the Asian Civilisation Museum, it is the volunteer guides and greeters that make the difference.

As a greeter, our role is to add a human touch to the museum, lend a helping hand to the receptionist and cashiers, and offer nuggets of information to visitors. As a docent, the impact on visitors is even greater. When I roamed the Museum on my own and read the information next to the exhibits, I was detached. But at the training, when the docents explained and interpreted from what they had researched and weaved in stories of the past, the artifacts took a life of their own, and even the most mundane-looking exhibit looked interesting.

When we introduced ourselves before the training, we were told to share our reason for wanting to volunteer. Most of the reasons given were simply, the love for museums locally and overseas, and the fond memories we had as children when we visited museums. Before the days of computer games, video arcades and chat rooms, the museums were our hang out and learning places.

Many, many years ago, I used to pop by the National Museum nearby after church to view the art exhibitions. More recently, I remember spending the occasional lazy Sunday afternoons at the beautiful vicinity of the Asian Civilization Museum, as well as viewing the special exhibitions held there. For me, it’s the best way to have the time for myself, enjoy my own company, and find myself, while learning about other civilizations from the exhibitions and stories.

Yes, there is always something special about stories….

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