These days we are just a finger click or page turn away from a popular presentation of the past. If you chose to, I’m sure you could spend a whole 24 hours just consuming history through television and radio programmes, in magazines and on the internet.
Oral history audio plays a key role in many of these presentations but the viewer or listener tends to absorb it in a mostly passive capacity. Developments in technology, like GPS and smartphones, are now allowing us to break free from our living rooms and to engage with the past in a more active way.
Jill Liddington has argued that people acquire a sense of the past through memory, landscape, archives and archeology. The use of oral history in audio walks brings all four together almost uniquely in a public history context. The result is a powerful and engaging presentation of the past. In fact, it is more than a mere presentation. The use of fragmented narrative and located memory gives each user an opportunity to share in the process of interpretation. They do not just consume the historical narrative but participate in the experience, and this allows them to develop their own meanings.
It is this use of oral history in public history that I will explore in my essay. As well as outlining the opportunities offered by audio walks and located memory, I will also look at how they are constructed and the challenges they present both to an oral historian and to a public historian.
I am writing you with the fond news of my essay subject. In the beginning of January I will give Graham the pleasure of reading how memory is used on television. (If one of you wants to read it as well, I can send you a copy off course!)
First, I will introduce Oral History, as it is ‘a new kid on the block.’ Than I will expand upon the advantages and disadvantages of the use of Oral History. Next, I will dive into memory and ‘truth.’ To clarify this I will use one or two case studies as television programmes. My hazard is always that I get lost in the details, that I want to tell everything about the most minor things.
I will use memory, because to me, it is the most interesting part of oral history. The selective memory tells a lot about a person. What are the silences, what does someone remember and why? And especially with editing, the television is a medium that uses and abuses memory for the good and the worse.
Oral history gives insights into the daily life of people, makes history more social. But it is contested terrain because of the memory. Memory is not traceable, and sometimes not factual. Does this mean it is unusable for a historic research?
And to conclude, I agree with Christine. How I enjoyed the experience of producing an oral history interview as well! Thank you, Graham.
A relatively new challenge is in the field of oral history is in using popular music as reliable historical evidence, particularly focusing on the period of the 1960s and 70s, as this era captured in the music of many artists through their songs, the mood of the time. Many musicians voiced political and social themes on civil rights, war, feminism and sexual freedom and through this recorded a powerful oral history of that time.
On writing my essay on Oral History in Public History I will explore the difficulties and challenges of assessing social and political history in popular music. The author B. Lee Cooper suggests that ‘song lyrics can provoke the sense of ‘social remembering’, enabling the historian to examine social change in challenging areas including religion, sex, war, poverty and drugs within that period.’ In the new seriousness of music during this era, young musicians were voicing a growing contempt of American society and politics. Many ordinary people identified with this mood, and the popularity of this music was demonstrated by the enormous sales of records. For a historian, there is much qualitative and quantitative research that could be gathered through the sales and marketing of popular music.
Reflecting on this module on Oral History in Public History , I have found this subject fascinating and thought provoking. I have enjoyed the lectures immensely and also the experience of producing an oral history interview. Thank you Graham.
Catch Alan Dein at 11.00 today, radio 4
I am going to look at oral history on the radio as the main focus of my essay on oral history in public history. I confess that this interest stemmed originally from my being something of a radio addict. What a happy coincidence then that when researching this topic for our student-led seminar I learned that there is so much that radio offers as a means of communicating oral history. Initially I assumed that what we were really talking about was oral history documentaries aimed at “the Radio 4 Waitrose/Boden” listener. However, I learned about the rich, historical development of oral history on the radio, including the legacy left by the godfather of this genre, Studs Terkel. Oral history on local, community based radio stations proliferates. There are exciting opportunities too – collaborative working with documentary makers, learning from each other’s craft – and using podcasts and other digital media to reach more varied, younger audiences. Oral history on the radio can and does reach a much wider public than might at first be thought and I want to explore this in my essay. I hope too that I can use it as a way of developing my arguments about the wider challenges of oral history in public history.