Our Day started at 4 am on Monday 30th June -luckily the day was bright enough to almost wake us up and following a relaxed, caffeine fuelled, train journey we arrived ata a frantic, peak commuter-time, Kings Cross Station. In route to Queen Mary University’s East End campus, where we were to learn all about new technologies and how they are applied in oral history and in gallery environments. The conference organiser, Eithne Nightingale, a PhD candidate based at Queen Mary’s and the V&A Museum of children had collaborated with the AHRC and Creative Works, London, in order to stage this most informative of events.
The day consisted of our sessions interspersed with well-deserved tea and lunch-breaks and opened with a paper given by, Padmini Broomfield – a freelance oral historian with many years’ experience in recording and using oral testimony in a variety of contexts. Padmini has previously delivered training workshops at universities in the UK and abroad. She is also a Trustee and Regional Network Deputy Co-ordinator at the Oral History Society. In her paper, Padmini argued that as oral historians we are constantly playing catch up with new technologies, both in the literal process of recording interviews, and the latest innovations in presenting them. She then proceeded to give a case study of the ‘Titanic Story’ exhibition, which she had worked on at the SeaCity Museum, Southampton. In this popular instillation, Padmini discussed how ‘oral histories’ both the scripted and first-hand historical accounts were used to bring both life and meaning to narratives which are primarily delivered through text panels, artifacts and interactive displays. As a purist she was initially against the insisted use of sound effects weaved into oral history narratives. The pinnacle of the exhibition was a mock court room which played oral recordings read in verbatim from the original titanic trail transcripts. The success of this was measured by the fact that enthusiastic museum visitors happily sit through the entire fifteen minute presentation thus proving the benefits of oral history in this particular groundbreaking way.
Padmini proceeded to discuss a project overseen by Mark Woods called ‘Suitcase Stories’ Which shines a light on post war migration stories from individuals from mainly Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Caribbean, Uganda, China and Poland. Al Jonson provided the artifacts for this project such as clothing and historical cultural objects. This exhibition also saw WW2 evacuee children, German POW’s and war brides provide oral testimonies. The interesting slant on this project was again in the presentation whereby the oral histories came to life on opening on each individual suitcase thus keeping the audience in control of which particular narratives they wanted to hear.
Halima Khanom and Olivia Belle gave a joint presentation on the wondrous world of animation as a tool of showing oral history in a public space. They showed how utilizing old traditional technologies mixed with up to date knowledge can completely transform the oral history experience. Rather than talking about it just follow the link so you can judge the effectiveness for yourse3lf – enjoy!
In terms of physical technology there can be fault in any information passed to us by Sarah Lowry. An experienced Community and Oral historian frequently affiliated with the Museum of London. During Sarah’s paper she warned of many pitfalls in exhibiting oral histories in open spaces. For example, her first-hand experience of the ‘bottle-neck’ effect of presenting testimonials to large crowds in small spaces. Accordingly she argues the use of space must be considered to be as important as the medium pf presentation and the narratives themselves. Sarah controversially then argued for the use of smartphone technology in the recording of oral histories. She suggested that the sound quality is perfectly acceptable through this mode could prove problematic in the archiving of such material. She certainly saw that these technologies are where the future of oral history lies. furthermore, she presented the argument that using old technologies in new ways can prove to be as effective as using new technologies themselves though often prove to be much more cost effective.
Here is an example of her ‘Foundling Voices’ exhibition which shows the low cost and innovative use of speakers dangling with audio recordings:
This thought was echoed later in the day by Michael McMillan who spoke about his instillation inspired by ‘black hair’. Here he recorded recollections taken from his participants in which they discussed their relationship with their hair. However, what made this exhibition even more enjoyable was the creative way members of the public were invited to sit under hairdryers as sound bites of the audio recordings were played through them whilst they were positioned in a barbershop setting. Again this is an imaginative use of old technologies in presenting oral histories.
Indeed, the highlight of the day – and this was I am sure unanimous – was Michael’s presentation who also detailed his exhibition called ‘The Front Room’. This was basically a series of oral testimonials given by individuals on ‘black culture and childhoods’ during the 1960s and 1970s. He used a mock-up of the archetypal ‘front room’ as extracted from personal memories of early black migrants’ homes based on their interpretation of the British front room. He spoke of this setting as a catalyst for inspiring his participants to relax and talk, owing to their nostalgic responses to the material culture. He then combined these ora;l testimonies to the instillation and it became an art exhibition in its own right. Resulting in an amazing and unique presentation!
This led him to discuss how memories are emotional recollections thus may also be ‘factually’ contested. He further detailed how the oral history interview is dependent on a power relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee. Accordingly, he argues the interview, becomes a performance. To help to combat this he explained that for him the interviewer has the duty to share his/her own experiences in order to remove the ‘interview power dynamic’ and replace it with a conversation of shared memories thus resulting in a more ‘honest’ recollection.
All in all a great day was had at Queen Mary’s and we came home with very many things to think about: including the use of space, the use of technologies and the relationship between interviewer and interviewee in oral histories. But obviously we couldn’t so any of this until we’d managed to catch up on our sleep!
By Razia Parveen and Charlotte Mallinson