Oral History in Museums

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Despite its numerous possibilities and opportunities, it is only recently that oral history has become integrated into the museum sector. Although oral history began to gain ground in museums in 1960s, still in 1994 only 35% of museums in Britain were including oral history in their displays. Even today, oral history tends to be confined to the larger, major museums in the UK. The reason I have chosen this topic stems largely from this curiosity. When oral history so obviously offers so many opportunities, why is it only recently that curators have begun to incorporate it into their exhibitions? Answering this question will be a key part of my investigation. I aim to examine the key advantages of oral history in this sector, such as its democratic, flexible and humanising effects, and compare these to the critical responses oral history has had, for instance the problem of universalising the experience of one into the experience of many. Sadly, practical issues such as funding have also constantly halted the progress of oral history, and consequently it has not yet been able to develop to its full potential as a result of the practical and ideological barriers that stand in its way.

Oral history has presented itself in a variety of formats in the museum sector. More traditionally museums have used oral history as an accompaniment to the textual and pictorial content of the museum, for instance through the use of listening posts, included as quotes within text or in audio guides. Recently, however, there has been a rise in the number of “stand-alone” oral history displays, in which oral history makes up the entirety of the museum content. This was the case with the Museum of London’s Women’s Talk exhibition, which presented a display entirely devoid of objects. The Museum of London has led the way with a series of innovative new ways of including oral history, for instance with their use of the Colour Contacts dance piece, which not was not only based on oral history interviews of experiences of migration and settlement in London, but also performed by people who had personally experienced this. The diverse nature of oral history in museums has thus made it an extremely interesting topic to cover, especially since this flexibility often results in an accessible form of history, more likely to involve a wider audience. However, critics have not failed to voice their complaints that the “stand alone” oral history approach diminishes the role of the curator in its move away from the traditional object focused approach of museums. As a result it would also be interesting to examine the advantages and disadvantages of these different methods for the presentation of oral history in museums.

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