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.

Hopes and Concerns: Inside the Asylum

If I’m honest, I have a lot of concerns about the interview, mainly due to my lack of experience. I have interviewed people before for my radio project, but not like this. My main concern is coming across as nervous, and then making the interviewee feeling anxious. However, with adequate preparation I’m sure it won’t be as bad as I imagine it now. And on that note, being fully prepared and creating a full interview out of nothing is also daunting. I think the next major concern is going to be the topic itself; whilst it is an area I have a great interest in, mental health is also a sensitive subject and you can never know what they might tell you. On a similar note to this I am worried about asking the ‘right’ questions, and knowing when to follow a certain train of conversation, even if it means having to completely improvise.

This being said, I am actually excited about the interview. It’s different to what I have done before so it will be interesting to conduct research in this way. I am also hoping to learn how mental health institutions developed from the asylum to the psychiatric unit. Attitudes towards mental health are the primary interest to the interview, I am particularly interested in whether the attitudes followed the changes in the type of institution or vice versa.

In The Asylum: Experience of Mental Health Nursing in London

I have a strong interest in Victorian Mental Health and Asylums, but unfortunately, as of last week, there are no more Victorians alive today. As such I have been brought into the 20th century and plan on interviewing a retired mental health nurse from one of the asylums along the ‘Surrey Belt’ (an area home to most of London’s asylums). I want to focus the interview on the experience of the asylum across the 20th Century; what changed, the treatment of the patients and the attitudes towards mental illness (and those who suffered with it), but also why the nurse chose to go into this particular field of nursing. I also hope to be able to spend some time focusing on male patients that the nurse has come into contact with, commenting on any stigma that they may have faced in relation to their gender, as masculinity and mental health is a specific area of interest for me, although the main goal of this interview is to understand the changes in the asylum. I had initially thought about interviewing a male patient about his experience in the asylum/psychiatric hospital or of mental illness more generally; however, I was concerned about the ethical issues that might accompany an interview like this.

I want to try and trace the shift from the idea of the asylum to the psychiatric hospital, and from the limited understanding of ‘madness’ to a knowledge of mental illness. Although, this transition has not been a smooth one, and, even today, people suffereing still face a strong stigma about their illnesses.