Human-to-human interaction, Mariposa Museum Director Karla Hostetler said, is what distinguishes oral storytelling.
“When you read a book and you’re in isolation, it’s wonderful, but you’re in your own world,” she said via phone last week. “[Oral] storytelling is about human connection: talking to somebody else and passing on an idea. There’s a lot of back and forth and laughter.”
These kinds of stories, she said, have been around thousands of years and help define everything from how we live to who we are.
“When you think about it, culture is a collection of other stories people tell themselves about who they are, how they live and where they come from,” she said. “How people define themselves often starts with ideas or stories they have about themselves.”
It was with this thought that she and the staff at the Mariposa Museum put together its most recent exhibition, “Renewing Energies: Fairy Tales, Heroes, and the Wisdom of Stories,” on view through December. The show began as a lighthearted summer installation showcasing museum puppets and folk art but soon became much more. Hostetler was inspired by the success of February’s Dawnland Storyfest, which featured some of the state’s most prolific oral storytellers.
“It’s such an ancient art, one that, at the moment, doesn’t get wide acclaim. … I fell in love with the art form and was really impressed with the people who came [to the event],” she said. “Sitting around the fire telling stories and looking at the stars is one of the oldest things people have done.”
The exhibition brings to life some of the world’s most cherished tales with a little help from museum puppets, costumes, folk art and photography. Aladdin and his flying carpet, Sheherazade from Persia’s 1001 Nights and the monkey army led by Hanuman from India’s Ramayana story all make appearances, and at various stations, kids can watercolor paint like Beatrix Potter, write in Egyptian hieroglyphics, try on costumes, put on puppet shows and play instruments from Mariposa’s collection. Woven throughout the show is an underlying tale about the evolution of storytelling, from oral to written forms, and the role books have played in preserving cultures and changing society.
This weekend, the museum celebrates the oral storytelling tradition with two events. One is Friday night under the stars at Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm, featuring storytellers Simon Brooks, Papa Joe Gaudet and Matt Krug. Brooks will also be around the next day for an event featuring stories about “wee folk,” presented with Lauretta Phillips.
Brooks said he’s been interested in the medium all his life — as a kid, he wrote them down, and when he worked at a London youth hostel, he told them aloud. But he really got the bug when he heard an amazing recount of the Battle of Hastings.
When he moved to the United States, he practiced storytelling at his job as a children’s librarian, and today, he’s an old pro, traveling around the country (though mostly in New Hampshire) to share the tradition. Ninety percent of his stories are folk and fairy tales and legends, but he’s constantly on the lookout for new ones in books and online.
“It just grew and grew,” he said via phone. “I just knew that this was what I was supposed to be doing.”
His tales, he said, are relevant to all ages, and he dispels the idea that these kinds of stories are only for kids.
“Most of them are for adults, and they’re really powerful. They contain lots of riddles about life,” he said.
Hostetler said she and the staff at the Mariposa are passionate about this exhibition and about its message to continue this tradition.
“I think it’s really important that this art isn’t lost. I think with modern technology making people more and more disconnected, storytelling has become more important than it ever has been, but in a completely different way than it used to be. Before, it used to explain everything to us in the universe while being a fun way to spend the evening with families, before TV and radio. It’s more important now because I think people are losing the ability to connect with each other,” she said.
As seen in the July 16, 2015 issue of the Hippo.