The use of Oral History in Museums.Posted: March 24, 2015
With aspirations for a change of career and becoming a public historian in a British museum I decided it was useful to research and write about the uses of oral history in museums.
Knowing virtually nothing about the use of oral history in the sector I decided to consult the Oral History Society’s archived articles to see the different methods and curatorial planning that has taken place in museums in the last 30 or so years. I was fascinated to find that oral history resources have been used in enhancing the story of human experience both here in the UK and the rest of the world.
My reading has not surprisingly included some of the theoretical concepts embedding oral history, but also the differing delivery methods of using oral history both in a gallery situation and online. I have learnt why utilising oral history in museums is important –for example, providing contextual information. That it is a key feature of research for both national and local institutions. That it is a useful tool for the democratisation of history. That its’ interpretation can sometimes be problematic –between what the scholar wants to learn and what the interviewee want to communicate. That there can be problems relating to design space, the amount of time to organise and deliver and the challenge of changing technology. I have also learnt that using oral history in a museum project has to be a collaborative process between the museum, the narrators and other organisations that may be involved in its delivery.
The reading has informed me that oral history can be used as a restorative and re-interpretative process, particularly when a society has repressed its past to suit its political masters. This illustrates the challenge of presenting history within living memory. Moreover, that in the modern age, oral history can act as a tool to encourage debate on historical or contemporary issues that grab public attention. Witness the use of the ‘Belonging: Voices of London Refugees’ at the Museum of London. I have also discovered that oral history can stand alone in an exhibition environment. The current climate for museums is tough and the collection and archiving of oral sources is underfunded, but this does not mean society should ignore the valuable contribution this method of delivering history provides.