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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Reflections on an Interview with a Zookeeper

The apprehensions I had prior to conducting the interview failed to have alleviated by the time Monday arrived and on Tuesday I still didn’t feel entirely positive about the experience. I really felt I had prepared for the interview. I know the subject well and am familiar with the secondary literature but I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared for something you’re about to embark on for the first time. The interview itself got off to a little bit of a bumpy start. I think it would have been helpful to have perhaps met the interviewee before the interview itself, just to break the ice and get to know each other a little. At the beginning it felt a little awkward but once we got going and settled into a rhythm, that soon subsided. The only other thing was, I had complied with a request to send a list of themes and at the beginning I felt a bit like the answers had been rehearsed. I had avoided sending specific questions for this reason so was a little thrown when my interviewee offered up large chunks of narrative and answered a number of the questions I planned to ask later, all in one go. But that’s the thing isn’t it, to be a good interviewer you need to be prepared for that to happen, to be flexible and to deviate, and while I thought I was prepared for that, it took me a while to find my feet and relax into it. I’d say after about the first 15-20 minutes things were more at pace and the rest of the interview developed more naturally. Questions arose as we went on which I asked and I was always met with a response. You could tell the interviewee was passionate, proud and well informed about zoo keeping and that made for a fascinating interview.

There are some rookies mistakes on the recording. I thought I had communicated by nodding and miming, but I didn’t do that all the time. Especially at the beginning I had this really annoying habit of responding or repeating phrases – what that was about I don’t know. I can also be heard at one point to say “I don’t know what to ask you now” – doh! Aside from that and a few other things, I actually really enjoyed it and learnt an awful lot. There were some really interesting anecdotes and I learnt new information about the profession, especially the interviewees role in some significant developments. I soon realised that I was in the presence of someone who has been very influential in the zoo keeping community. His pride at that came across but so did modesty – it was interesting to see that develop.

I walked away from the interview feeling that it could have gone better, but on reflection and having listened to it back, I’m quite pleased with how it went. All the questions I had intended to ask were answered, as were many more and I achieve my intention of discovering why the interviewee followed this career path, how he got to where he is today and where he thinks the future of zoos is headed. I really enjoyed the experience and learnt a lot about interviewing technique as well as the theme itself. In fact I have had another reply and am keen to follow up this lead as well.


Interview with a Zookeeper: Concerns and Hopes

My interview is scheduled for tomorrow and while there is an understandable degree of apprehension, I am also looking forward to the opportunity to conduct my first oral history interview.

I have a few concerns about the interview but most are things that will be appeased once it is underway. For example, I want to make sure I get there on time and set up quickly as not to eat into our time too much and I also hope the room the interviewee’s team have booked is quite enough for a good quality reading.  I also share Nicola’s concern however, about how my interviewee will react to questions relating to his early life. I am interested to explore where this interest and passion originated and think questions regarding early life could help build up this picture – but with this section falling early on in the interview it could make for a more difficult beginning as we ‘get to know each other’.

However, aside from administrative issues I’m feeling quite comfortable with the task before me. It was a huge relief to find someone who was willing to volunteer and so I am determined to make the most of this opportunity. I have prepared a few questions, outlining specific themes I hope to cover, but am prepare to deviate from this and respond to the conversation we end up having. I don’t want it to feel rehearsed or disjointed and hope that the conversation will evolve naturally without too many referrals to my prompt sheet. My main hopes however are that I will walk away with an understanding of what a zoo keeper understands their role to be and what motivated them to pursue this peculiar line of work and that the interviewee will have walked away having enjoyed the experience.


Interview with a Zookeeper – Elle’s Topic Choice

Having an interest in the development of zoological collections, I would like to use this opportunity to interview a retired, or near retiring zookeeper. My undergraduate research focused on the nineteenth century so it would be interesting to learn more about twentieth century developments, especially from the perspective of someone who has worked, ideally for a long time, in a zoological organisation. I would like to combine both the life story and thematic approaches in order to understand what led the individual to pursue zoo keeping as a career and to understand their responses to changes in the profession.

Some example questions might be:

  • What led them to this profession? What influence did childhood visits have?
  • What role did a passion for wildlife play? Did money or career aspiration affect their choices?
  • What changes in procedures have they witnessed?
  • What changes in public attitude do they feel have occurred?
  • Do they have an opinion about the effects of the media? E.g. TV (progression from Animal Magic and Anthropomorphism to the likes of Animal Park, Animal Maternity, The Zoo etc.), Twitter, Facebook etc.

With people like Damien Aspinall calling for zoos to be systematically closed over the next 20-30 years, in favour of the conservation and protection of wild animals in their natural habitats, I wonder how long it will be before zoos as we understand them, cease to exist and the role of zookeepers diminished. I hope by interviewing a zookeeper to add at least one of their voices to the historical record.

It’s a topic I have huge interest in, both academically and personally and so if I can find an interviewee, I’ll really enjoy doing this project. However at the moment I seem to be getting stonewalled and am struggling to find anyone from this profession who’s open to being interviewed.