The power of stories
Working as a Visitor Experience Host at the National Museum of Australia was a strange experience over the summer of 2019 –2020.
During the first weeks of January, Canberra’s evacuation centres were filled with people from Cobargo to Tumut. Some had left their homes only with the clothes on their backs. A lot of them were families with children who had witnessed terrifying events. The Museum offered evacuees in these centres free tickets to our main exhibition as an opportunity for reprieve from their circumstances and a distraction for children.
During this time, I met a woman who had arrived at the Museum alone. Her only belongings were her clothing and handbag. She was from an area near Cobargo and when I asked her what the purpose of her visit was, she told me:
‘I’ve come from Cobargo and I don’t know if my home is still there They gave me this ticket at the evacuation centre so I just came here’.
She seemed to be carrying the shock of her experience with her.
As hosts it’s our job to help people get the most out of their visit. . For me, a good visitor experience requires hosts to leave their problems at the door when they come to work, so they have the space to provide an experience for guests, whatever their circumstance on that day. In times past this has been fairly easy, but things were very different this summer.
I also had concerns for people I love whose properties, livelihoods and lives were under threat. These were places I was personally connected to, that I’d been cut off from for months due to the fires. In moments I could, I would duck into a quite space to refresh the Fires Near Me app. It was as if watching the fire like a hawk gave me some kind of control over the outcome; knowing full well it didn’t.
How do you leave your problems at the door in times like these? How can you provide experiences for people who are inconsolable, at a time when you feel threatened not only by the loss of people and places you love, but also by the very air you’re breathing? And does what I do really matter in the scheme of things?
The answer to that last question is that yes, it does. It matters incredibly.
It’s the ability to show kindness and compassion to a fellow human when they’re in need. It’s the ability to show them stories of connection, joy, strength and resilience that could help them to process their experience. To me, that is powerful.
The Black Summer taught me that we as humans have an innate capacity to pull together during these times. In a world that can seem so politically, socially and economically divided, our capacity to see each other as humans in need when it really counts is something to be cherished.