Oral History in Public History – A Few Brief Thoughts

I’ll freely admit that the shear breadth of this topic and the fact that I can’t help but feel that oral history is public history has at times caused me to question what on earth I’ve written my essay about. I’ve chosen to focus my assessment on the use of oral history in museums, which is probably one of the more contestable areas in which oral history is used but one I am more familiar with. There has been a general shift in the approach museums now use when designing exhibitions, with a greater tendency to incorporate technology and place new emphasis on the idea of visitor interaction. Museums are very different places now from those I remember when I was younger and even more so for my parents. In terms of oral history, there has been greater incorporation of it in museum displays and it has proved really effective in engaging public interest and especially that of those who might normally be disinterested.

Oral history is hugely versatile in the way it can be presented and before taking this course I hadn’t appreciated that fact. It was really surprising to me to hear that music, drama and even dances pieces have all been based upon oral testimonies. Oral history offers a new way in which to communicate the recent past and it is this that I find particularly appealing about oral history and what makes it so valuable to public historians.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this course when it began but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve got my second interview lined up for this week and am even contemplating how I can use oral history in other projects further down the line. I love the fact it places the individual’s story at the heart of the narrative and values everyone’s experiences and to me, that’s why it is good public history. It involves ordinary people in recording the past and invites those same people to engage with it through new and dynamic mediums.

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One Comment on “Oral History in Public History – A Few Brief Thoughts”

  1. Graham Smith says:

    Glad you’ve enjoyed the course and I very much enjoyed learning about the changing role of zoo keepers from you. As you hint at there is a plasticity about oral history – it can be used and reused. This is one of the things that appeals to museum curators. That and the way in which existing materials can be reinterpreted and re-contextualised using oral histories.


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