Oral History, Public History and Heritage

Wishing to integrate what I will learn during the MA in Public History with my interest and personal knowledge on heritage, I will be focusing my essay on the upsides and downsides of using oral history when tackling heritage issues. Indeed, I want to get a deeper look at how testimonies can unveil hidden aspects of heritage that would not necessarily be exposed in broader heritage organisations or projects. It is notably the case with projects on cultural landscape and agricultural heritage, the use of technologies or even bringing light to life «below the stairs» in historic houses. Oral history is a quite recent route used to render heritage more accessible to the general public, as, for example, the Heritage Lottery Fund has included oral history projects only since 1998. Yet, it is now a very proactive solution to allow people to be heard, to tell their own story and contribute to preserving not only a built heritage but also an intangible heritage. There remain however challenges, the main one being what can be considered as «heritage» and what is worth preserving. It seems like very obvious statements but that can pose a challenge for an organisation or a group wishing, for example, to fund a project through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Furthermore, heritage is a very political term and with it comes an added obstacle for oral historians to show the interest of some projects.

Preparing to delve deeper into the world of historic houses

As the deadline is getting closer, reality sinks that we will be conducting interviews in a few weeks. My first and most concern with regards to the project is that I have not yet found someone to interview. I have been asking around my contacts in the historic houses world for advice and suggestions, but have not received any. I will definitely be pushing to find someone in the following weeks to be ready to interview someone at the end of March or early April. My other concerns regard the interview in itself and the adequate preparation I will be putting into to make sure the interviewee and I go through an enjoyable experience. Once the interview is underway, I am concerned about the possibility of letting my nerves take over and fall short of meaningful questions to ask my interviewee. It could also happen that the questions do not inspire the interviewee to give me a proper answer. I am furthermore concerned that a question I might ask would be misinterpreted negatively which would damage the rapport with my interviewee and lose his/her engagement in the conversation. Understanding that the person might talk about sensitive issues, I want to make sure to be supportive and encouraging during the whole process.

Nevertheless, I have high hopes that this interview will provide me, and potential listeners, the possibility of uncovering the reality of historic houses owners and enable me to have tangible evidence that there are misconceptions in our society about them. Having exchanged with many owners through my previous work experience, I do believe that there is a negative portrayal of them in the media, politics or society. These people care deeply about heritage and history, and preserving it for our generation and the next. I do hope this will come out of the interview process as it is the main theme I want to focus on and question the interviewee about. I also hope the interviewee engages with the project, feels at ease and opens up about the subject in an in-depth manner. It would make the project something quite meaningful and usable by heritage associations and organisations.

From this experience, I hope my interviewee gets his voice heard and is happy with the results. As for myself, I am most looking forward to getting a deeper look into someone’s life and experiences, and be surprised with what I will learn.

Historic Houses Owners: Demystifying the Preconceptions

When thinking about the subject for a new research in History, it can first be a daunting source of anxiety and headache. What era of history? Who, when, why? The BIG questions. There is just too much of our world’s history that is fascinating and an almost infinite range of subjects and approaches. And then, when it comes down to an oral history project, there is the added challenge of thinking about living memory. So when I started thinking about my own project, and, glancing at the general question of «What sort of topic would (I) like to explore?», I immediately thought to myself: It has to be something I am passionate about and that I want to dig into deeper. So I narrowed it down to one of my many interests in History, which is the study of Cultural Heritage, e.g. historic houses and castles.

Prior to doing the MA in Public History at Royal Holloway University of London, I worked at the European Historic Houses Association. And an issue that was raised day-in and day-out was how no one wants to listen or give voice to owners of historic houses. There is this perpetual stigma that these men and women are rich, pretentious people, roaming in the small circle of gentry and nobility and never leaving their gilded cages. This could not be further from the truth. A vast majority of these people strive to keep up their country’s heritage and history, maintaining and protecting these properties, objects and gardens to their best capacity, all the while drowning in debts and backlog repairs. Issues arise with death and inheritance, and with a generation that no longer sees the interest of being the owner of such astounding properties. Richard Compton, President of the Historic Houses Association, underlined at the Historic Houses Association General Assembly in November 2014 that «some new inheritors seem reluctant to move from their small and comfortably manageable houses into the often large, rambling and expensive “big” house.»

It is, as such, my intention, if possible, to produce an oral history interview with an owner of a historic house to delve into the issue of what it truly represents to be responsible for preserving such emblems of history and culture. To let their voices be heard, and to help them reflect on the upsides and challenges, as well as letting them recall their own history with the property. Indeed, in the majority of cases, the current owner was born and raised in the house, from a family that has inherited the house from generations past. Their story is as such intertwined with the history of the property and the surrounding areas. I would like, as such, to give owners the opportunity to tell their own story, that I imagine will be far from what the medias, politicians and popular opinion credit them to be.