RHUL, HISTORY MA Public History Alumni Seminar #1


Dr Hanna Hagmark-Cooper:
From corner to community – Museums sharing authority in a Facebook world

Dr Hanna Hagmark- Cooper will talk about her work as the Director of the EMYA nominated Aland Maritime Museum as well as ‘Facebook as a way of collecting materials for museum exhibitions’.

HHC MIn April 2012 four men, all of whom had worked for the Gustaf Erikson (GE) shipping company, met up to plan and organise a summer get-together for former GE employees. As they exchanged memories and photos, they discovered an emotional need to collect stories and pictures from their past working lives (the 1950s onward). The men formed a Facebook group: ‘We who have been to sea in GE ships’. It proved to be immediately popular. Today the group has more than 550 members and still growing. In doing so, fulfilling a social necessity to re-member.

Members of the group post pictures from their time on board various GE ships: to date, more than 8,000 uploaded photographs. Information is exchanged about old friends, details of ships and ports. Together the members are creating a memory bank of life at sea in the second half of the 20th century. In doing so, they are meeting a historical need. The maritime historical records of Åland have very little on this period. Most of the existing material is concerned with the classic tall ships. Modern, engine-powered shipping is largely absent, in terms of objects, photos, archival material and stories.

In my capacity as director of Åland Maritime Museum, I was invited to join the group and survey the collected material. I was immediately struck by the significance of the collection. What made it particularly fascinating was that this was a story told from a crew perspective: ‘history from below’, if you like. The idea of an exhibition quickly formed and in 2013, as part of the 100th anniversary exhibition of the GE shipping company, Åland Maritime Museum produced an exhibition based on this collection. Members of the Facebook group co-curated the exhibition, which included not only a selection of photographs, but also the members’ commentary.

The exhibition was very popular and I believe serves as an example of how museum staffMuseum-exterior can work together with self-identifying groups in local communities, thereby sharing authority. While the paper will outline some of the challenges involved in cooperative working, I will demonstrate how museums through using social media can make otherwise marginalised histories available to wider audiences and how it can serve to place the museum at the heart of the community it seeks to represent. As a direct result of this cooperation, a new Åland project is now underway, in which a selection of the photographs will become part of the museum’s collection.

For more information about MA Public History Alumni seminars and activities, please contact: Dr Graham Smith.

An Indian female Doctor’s perspective on the NHS

I know an inspiring lady called Phyllis . She is a retired doctor who came from India to this country to study medicine in the early 1950’s. It would be interesting to discuss the barriers she encountered both on racial and gender grounds. Was it difficult to obtain a place at the right university in the UK? It could not have been a commonplace that a woman would study medicine  in Britain in the same way that it is today.  I would like to discover the process she went through to qualify?

I will explore some of the challenges as well as opportunities that occurred both whilst training and when she began practising as a Doctor. Which field did she specialise in (if any) and how has that field of medicine  advanced over the decades?.

The topic is significant for public history as I hope to discover some of the changes in her field of medicine as well as her knowledge of some of the organisational changes to the NHS. I would like to know her views on improvements in health care and were she feels there have been lost opportunities.  It will be interesting to obtain an Indian woman’s perspective on Britain’s health service and the journey both she and the institution has made. Moreover it will be important to discover why she chose her particular field and ask weather  she was directed/ persuaded to practice this specialism by her peers or University teachers? It is also important to record an interview with an individual who came from India at a time of social change for both Britain and India.

Challenges to Oral History after the “Digital Revolution”

What have been the repercussions of the increasingly digitised world that we live in on oral history? Well, the repercussions have doubtlessly been felt by all operating in the field of oral history, whether good or bad, or more likely, a complex concoction of the two. This has been fuelled by our inherently complicated relationship with technology. The world we live in is, on the one hand, mesmerised by technology, and observes changes as undeniable progress, but, on the other, it fears the future and the exponentially increasing power of technology over our lives. My essay will address the new challenges incurred by oral historians as a result of the so called “Digital Revolution”.

Gone are the days when oral history was conducted and then placed in the archive, unheard,OH mix tape for eternity. Though of course many are left unheard, we now have the technology to make oral history records available to the masses, but is this necessarily something we should be striving for? There are ethical, logistical and academic concerns to consider first. Accessibility will be the focal concern of my essay, namely, what issues arise from making oral history available online?

Oral history has increasingly come under the jurisdiction of public historians, we see it being used by television makers, museum curators, and even, theatre producers. It has been used by Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) projects to engage with communities and promote social cohesion. This propagates the understanding that anyone can do oral history. Indeed, there is nothing to stop anyone, whoever they may be, from conducting their own oral history project, posting it online, and allowing the public to pass comment. This has been heralded by some as a democratisation of the past, but is this an accurate interpretation?

My question is this, does digital oral history mean bad oral history? Does opening up, or indeed, conducting oral history specifically for a digital audience automatically make it less academic, less credible, less worthy? Or has the use of technology, and the opening up of oral history records ‘put the oral back into oral history’?

I have asked a lot of questions because digital oral history is a diverse area. I have chosen to look at accessibility because I feel this is the strand which has had the most significant impact on the way oral history is conducted and interpreted. I argue that whilst increasing accessibility can be a wonderful thing which promotes the utilisation of oral history, we should not open the field entirely to public scrutiny without addressing the serious ramifications.

Oral History in Museums

For my first essay I plan to look at the usage of Oral History in museums. My interest in this topic comes from the many ways of displaying Oral History in a museum and the impact this may have on the listener. Do you present Oral History as just audio coming from audio stations setup around the museum? Do you compile a video to go along with the auditory portion? Or do you include subtitles or transcriptions to provide the listener the information? Each of these presentations have benefits and drawbacks and as a presenter you must choose the one that will present the interview in the correct sense. You must be wary of how each of these presentation methods may change the way a listener will receive the message given. These are the major impacts I wish to explore. I hope that through my further exploration of these topics I will further understand my knowledge of the impact of displaying Oral History will have on a museum visitor.

Business History and Oral History

The challenges and opportunities involved in using business history and oral history will be my focus for essay 1. My content will include the historical relationship between the two areas as well as the way in which business history uses oral history to tell a companies story or the stories of individuals that worked in a particular institution. Many businesses today have seen the need to inform people about their historical past and create a personal connection between the business, employees and customers.

Although this subject area was not what my presentation was based upon, after hearing the presentation given several weeks back and seeing all of the ways business history and oral history overlap, I feel it will be a very interesting and broad topic that I can make my own.

Hopes and Concerns: Interviewing a victim of Terrorism

This comes along a little late, but nevertheless better late than never I suppose. I feel like my concerns are probably bigger than my hopes at the moment since I am still unsure about who I will be interviewing for this assignment. I have not yet received a solid response but still hoping to create an interview based in the field of terrorism. I actually came across something very interesting quite recently which I wasn’t aware of. We have all of course heard of the 7/7 bombing attacks at King’s Cross in London in summer 2005 I actually remember it quite well because a couple of days after the attacks it happened I was traveling to London for the very first time, what a strange welcome that was!

Anyway, something, or someone rather, I hadn’t heard of before is Sajda Mughal. She was actually present during the attacks and compared to the 52 victims who were unfortunately killed, she survived, witnessed, and decided to dedicate her life to persuading extremist to swear off violence. At the time of the attack, Sajda was 22 and gave up her career to form the JAN trust, a women’s charity that helps women from ethnic minorities, including refugees and asylum-seekers, to integrate society. Besides helping those women, she also aims to stop young people from being radicalized.

When reading her story I knew it would be difficult and delicate to create an interview either with her or with other women part of this charity. Quite frankly, I am not an expert on Islam, not close to being one actually, but I know that if I decide to do an interview in this direction I would be rather thrilled to interview someone like Sajda and not only understand what it must feel like to experiment something such as terrorism, but also understand her stance, and those of other Muslim women in a society such as Britain, in which hundreds of young people have already left to join the Jihad in Syria.

As a whole I am having extremely mixed feelings about this interview. On the one hand I am considerably stressed not having received a formal response, and on the other, I am really looking forward to this interview and to be able to look back at it thinking that this was perhaps one of the most enriching and exciting experience of my academic life so far.

The Role of Oral History in Business History

The use of oral history in firms and business companies can be perceived as a rather boring and perhaps not so useful one – that was my opinion anyway before I started working on my presentation. However, after starting doing some research and reading a couple of articles on the topic it became obvious that oral history played an important role in the industry. Our society is practically ruled by big business owners and ambitious entrepreneurs who fuel and expand our economy yet until the mid twentieth century very little was told about their role and the impact those businesses had on society as a whole, including those considered as the ‘marginalized’.

What can be learned then? Well, a majority of things. On the one hand oral history enlightens us on the role of entrepreneurs of course, not just their success but also the difficulties which shaped their careers; whilst on the other, we get to hear the voices of those affected either positively or negatively by the growing and constantly changing impact of businesses.

I will divide this essay quite simply, first look at the changes gradually brought by the creation of oral histories in the field, and then analyse the various opportunities and challenges involved in the process. We are all aware that oral history as a whole is a combination of both; the identification of sources, the selection of the interviewee, the relationship built between both interviewer and interviewee, and so on, are elements which will determine the success of failure of an interview present in all historical fields. Yet there is no doubt that oral history uncovers the multiplicity of experience, and is a challenge in itself to the claim that there can be a single true universal story.

In the field of accounting, written works such as Plant-closing Decisions and the Market Value of the Firm, by David W. Blackwell, M. Wayne Marr, and Michael F. Spivey have looked at the closing of plants in the light of their impact on stock market figures, and much less on their impact on displaced workers. The bringing in of oral history has allowed us to understand the effect this had on individual workers negatively affected by unemployment for example. It can also enlighten us on what mistakes there are to learn and what can thus be avoided in the future, interviewed employees can also useful when recruiting other employees and so on. With regards to the entrepreneurs themselves, as Ronald K. Mitchell points out, oral history ‘demystifies’ the common norms which constitute their expertise, we are able to explore a different side of their careers, how did their really become successful entrepreneurs? What constituted their choices? How long did it take them?

Yet we should remain aware that this can also imply that in certain cases entrepreneurs may not be keen on revealing certain mistakes, or negative figures of their businesses. Some interview data may also be regarded as strictly supplementary to core business documents and subjected to little evident analysis. As well as opportunities, challenges are equally important to identify in order to make the best use of oral histories, especially in the field of business which is an extensively competitive and difficult arena to become part of, not just as an employee but also as an interviewer.