Essay 1: Oral History in Museums

By the 1980s around 50 museums were in possession of oral history collections, by the 1990s the use of audio/visual elements within museums was beginning to take off, at around the same time the Museum of London created the specific position of Oral History Curator. Within the last few years this position has been axed, yet oral history/testimony is becoming evermore ingrained in our expectations of museums and exhibitions. But what are the problems and advantages of oral history in the museum environment?

In doing research I have found what feels like a never ending list of problems with oral history, and if you were sizing up the pros/cons, the cons would probably exceed the pros in length, but in no way will they exceed them in weight. One of the biggest issues, which has been raised continuously is the problem of audio vs. visual. This isn’t necessarily a problem with oral history itself, but more a question of how it should be displayed. Many feel that audiences, especially younger ones, have grown up expecting to see as well as hear, that people want to see what the narrator looks like, see their emotion, and that many will get bored of just having to listen. But in contrast to this, others are arguing that visuals will distract from the audio, and result in a passive audience who won’t engage with the testimony on the same level as if they were just listening, which encourages more active concentration.

There is also a concern about how audio elements should be presented. Sound bleeding can be a major problem if you don’t want to have to rely on audio guides or headphones. The Imperial War Museum is well known for it’s telephone handsets which visitors pick up and listen to, which is a great way to engage the audience in listening. But what if you want an ‘ambient’ sound, as it is referred to? Curators then run the risk of having too much sound in one place, losing ambience and coherence. The display of oral history prompts the most debate and arguably the most challenges, but there are other, slightly more mundane issues. Money being one, although less so now, the quality of older recordings, and where visual elements are incorporated, the editing process can be tricky, and there are some who simply feel that museums are not the best places for oral testimony.

But testimony adds so much to an exhibition, with the risk of sounding cliche it brings the history to life just that little more than objects do, and it is certainly a rich and engaging source. I will explore these issues through the essay, using examples of exhibitions/museums which have engaged with this source well, and not so well. I firmly believe that, despite a plethora of challenges in using and presenting testimony, the richness of oral history makes it an important part of any story, in almost any setting.


One Comment on “Essay 1: Oral History in Museums”

  1. Graham Smith says:

    (How about a photograph?) Two thoughts (1) Other sources compared to oral history only seem relatively unproblematic, because historians fail to understand and ignore the problems of using these sources; (2) Video is also an archiving challenge in terms of the size of the data generated and the lack of an agreed international archiving standard,

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