Why Should Museums and Archives Engage with Oral History Specialists, including Academic Experts, in Producing Their Oral History Strategy?
Since the 1950s there has been an increased focus on ‘history from below’ in terms of a broader and more inclusive social history and these academic specialisms have also influenced museums and archives to include more oral histories. Traditionally, folklore, oral traditions and word of mouth cultures valued narratives that were passed down as sources of history but gradually printed sources became more valued. Since the formation of the British Oral History Society in 1973, after a more informal conference in 1969, academic historians began to use these techniques as ways of capturing the history of those excluded from traditional archives, and highlighted that archives and museums were often themselves sites of power in that collected historical documents were often the records of the ‘winners’ and the privileged.
Now oral historians can span a range or roles; including volunteers and non academics. This democratises history itself, since a range of people can participate in 'making history'. However practitioners across a range of academic disciplines have also highlighted that oral history is not an easy option, as it is sometimes considered to be, and specialists have developed the method into rigorous ways of recording, understanding and archiving narrated memories. International collaborations in narrative and memory between oral historians in the 1980s, led to the formation in 1996 of the International Oral History Association
Although there are many ways of doing oral history, the common phrases used in projects are both 'history from below' and 'uncovering hidden histories'. These include a lot of connectivity with women's history, black and ethnic minority histories, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender histories and the history of medicine, particularly new specialisms such as gerontological focus on the memory of older people and ageing, such as new dementia research.
What Would JJHeritage Advise When Strategic Planning An Oral History Project?
Scale, Scope and Strategise at Bid Stage
Many projects begin from a position of seeing oral history as a relatively cheap form of research, when its primary reason is a commitment to the majority of lives rather than the few that become enshrined in archives and so have a social commitment to equality and diversity. This can often mean when putting bid for funding together that oral histories are given a small consideration because the 1. Scale 2. Approach and 3. Overall Strategy have not been agreed and realistically costed by the project team. It is at this bidding stage that you really need to involve an expert. It is better to have a small, successful proof of purpose strategy and then bid for more funding when you have proven the need for more interviews than over-reach by trying to do too many interviews of varied quality on a small budget and then have less rigor in your outcomes.
The Past-Present Dialogic or…If Your Project Uses Volunteers, Agree The Overall Approach, Standardise and Provide Training to Ensure Rigor and Quality
I’ve been doing oral histories since I was first trained in 1998 and an important principle is the past-present dialogic, which in plain English means that people are both the actors and subjects of their own histories, when interviewed. There is an important sense of ownership, not for the museum or archive, but the individual concerned and the role of the interviewer is to collaborate. Those who impose, shape through omission or neglect of a detail, or interpret are not respecting the right of the interviewee to tell their own history their way. See the Oral History Society guidelines for instance.
This is very important to us at jjheritage, as a common mistake of small and start up museums is to appoint a volunteer oral history co-ordinator who then uses volunteers to conduct interviews and another set of volunteers to transcribe interviews, and cannot describe their overall strategy or methodology. This lacks rigor and is fundamentally disrespectful to those being interviewed, and of course limits the value of the source to future generations. By involving specialists early this can be avoided and greater consideration given to intersubjectivity and the power relations between interviewers and interviewees, the responsibilities of researchers and the researched.
So, Who Provides The Narrative and What Aspects of Memory Should Be Recorded?
Academic researchers have been clear on ‘the challenges of the transcript.’ What they mean by this is that most of us edit ourselves, in speech, all the time either through intended omissions, exaggerations, figures of speech, the ability to recall and event, the emotions provoked through remembering and so forth. So, does the transcript record everything: the pauses, the repeated verbal ticks (erms, hmms, and so on), the changes of mind and contradictions, laughs, exclamations and so forth? Or does the transcriber edit, and if so to what extent? Increasingly, oral histories are digitally recorded for release as audio material, and here also ethical dimensions exist. What if the person makes a remark that could be inappropriate in the public domain, or is discriminatory, or could be hurtful for a living person or the deceased? What if the memory of an event is contested, since it is now generally accepted that a single event can be remembered very differently by people who experienced it? The processes of remembering are also being subject to more scrutiny and an emphasis on interviewing younger people, who have traditionally been excluded more from oral history studies than older populations. These delicate ethical debates require a standardised strategy at the outset so that exceptions can be managed in relation to the overall collection policy. Strategies can be adapted, but provide an overall framework in which to amend on a case by case basis.
Bridge is not considered by most people to be an Olympic sport but several of the world's leading 'mind-based' contests have been called Olympiads. Rixi Markus and Fritzi Gordon were one of Britain's most prolific women's pairings after World War Two and Jean has interviewed Fritzi's niece to find out more about her Aunt's career and life.
jjheritage are currently involved in a number of oral history projects in relation to motor sport, the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, football, cricket, volunteering and hockey we can provide bespoke advice for your project how to begin, from planning and strategy to archiving the final interviews and dissemination activities. Let us help you to develop your project, in a sensitive, rigorous and strategic manner. It’s a uniquely rewarding way of doing public history and my most recent interviewee, 100 years young and who took me out to lunch (rather than the other way around), has inspired us to do more work in this important socially aware field of history, heritage and memory.