These days we are just a finger click or page turn away from a popular presentation of the past. If you chose to, I’m sure you could spend a whole 24 hours just consuming history through television and radio programmes, in magazines and on the internet.
Oral history audio plays a key role in many of these presentations but the viewer or listener tends to absorb it in a mostly passive capacity. Developments in technology, like GPS and smartphones, are now allowing us to break free from our living rooms and to engage with the past in a more active way.
Jill Liddington has argued that people acquire a sense of the past through memory, landscape, archives and archeology. The use of oral history in audio walks brings all four together almost uniquely in a public history context. The result is a powerful and engaging presentation of the past. In fact, it is more than a mere presentation. The use of fragmented narrative and located memory gives each user an opportunity to share in the process of interpretation. They do not just consume the historical narrative but participate in the experience, and this allows them to develop their own meanings.
It is this use of oral history in public history that I will explore in my essay. As well as outlining the opportunities offered by audio walks and located memory, I will also look at how they are constructed and the challenges they present both to an oral historian and to a public historian.
I have already conducted my interview and I’d like to think it went rather well, definitely better than I expected. Going into this interview I had a number of hopes and concerns.
My main hope for the interview was to gain insight into the life of a Cypriot immigrant moving to the UK, the way of life, experiences, difficulties and memories. I already have somewhat of a background knowledge regarding the subject but I was really looking forward to hearing the experiences and memories of an individual instead of just reading the general facts and information. Since I was interviewing a person who has always been part of the community in one way or another since he had moved to the UK I thought it would be great to ask him about the community then and now, the differences, the growth, the factors, the difficulties it faced as a whole.
My concerns really bothered me. My main concern was regarding my questions; where they the right ones to ask? Are they too general? Are the covering the topic sufficiently? I was worried that I may miss interesting opportunities to probe further and expand the subject. I have done background reading on the subject so I was hoping that something the interviewee would say would spark a question in my head. That was closely related to my lack of confidence as an interviewer, and my lack of confidence in using the equipment correctly. I had conducted an interview before for my undergrad but it was nowhere near as ‘professional’ or ‘official’ as this and it was more informal. I was worried my nerves would clearly show and affect my train of thought.
In conclusion, most of my concerns were eased on the day of the interview (I was glad I got all the worrying done leading up to it) granted I was still nervous but once I had the initial chat with the interviewee prior to pressing the record button, I felt more comfortable and at ease. I am still not greatly confident in my interviewing skills nor my questions but I enjoyed the experience and in my opinion this was helped by the interviewee, he was helpful, friendly and understanding and he offered plenty of information for me to go on while also still allowing me to ask my questions. I did find out a great deal about the Cypriots and the community in London. Overall, I enjoyed the interview, the process and admittedly the sense of relief once it had finished!
Initially when deciding whom I wanted to interview, it was quite clear. I wanted an insight into the day-to-day professional life of a curator working for the Historic Royal Palaces. When I approached HRP with an email, I was promised that it would be circulated and that a curator would bite. Well… the unfortunate part about that is that I had no bites. However, I did have a bite but from another line. Charlotte, a part time Public History student, interns at the HRP, more specifically Hampton Court Palaces (my dream and the reason I’m here), and she told me straight up that HRP is quite exclusive. When you’re in, you’re in but until then, good luck trying to get to the core of the curators. I was a little bit disappointed but not really surprised. I figured it wouldn’t be as simple as sending an email but the fact that I had Charlotte as an insider meant that she would be a perfect person to interview. She knows a lot of the ins and outs, which is what I wanted from this interview in the first place.
My first major concern is obviously technical. I want to be sure that I’m working the equipment correctly. My second concern is also technical because I am hopefully going to be interviewing Charlotte at Hampton Court Palace. If that is the case, I need to be sure that there is no outside noise that will interrupt the feed from the microphone. My third major concern is that my questions won’t be enough. I want a quite candid interview that shows Charlotte from a pre-professional point of view. I want her to be able to talk endlessly about her reasoning behind picking the Public History program and how it will help her future career. I also want her to be able to speak candidly about her experience working for the HRP and all the insider knowledge that comes with that.
My final and most intense concern is that I won’t sound professional. In theory, it seems easy enough to interview someone. However, the more I think about it, the more nervous I become. I hope that I am able to control my nerves and make Charlotte comfortable enough to speak honestly. While I honestly believe that this interview won’t be archived or used in any capacity, it will be a very telling interview for my own personal knowledge. As long as the interview flows and I can handle myself as a professional, I am hoping that my concerns will fade away.
I am excited that my interviewee has had a long career in the police force (spanning more than three decades) giving the longevity of experience. I am hoping to discover how a police officer makes sense of their identity through day to day roles; experience of publicised events; and images in media and public opinion. I hope to discover a personal experience of such a career and in doing so will base questions around these themes:
Early life, schooling and aspirations
Early career, becoming an officer and initial experiences
Roles and responsibilities
Policing 1980s Britain
Reflection and opinion of images surrounding police
Reflection and opinion regarding changes in policing over time
My interviewee is a colleague of mine and so there should be some degree of comfort in which we can both, hopefully, talk at ease. He is often telling anecdotes derived from his past career in the police force and I am excited to gain more detail and understanding into these. However, I am also concerned that knowing him personally (although not particularly well) I may find it difficult to probe for challenging/controversial or personal insights. That said, he seems more than comfortable, and dare I say enthused, to talk about his experiences. He is a humorous and opinionated man so I should at least find the experience fun and interesting.
I have a few concerns. I am anxious that I will miss suitable opportunities to probe for further detail and understanding, or to clarify unclear dialogue. Whilst I will plan for more specific, as well as ‘open’ questions, I want the conversation to naturally follow the lead of the interviewee’s responses. I am also rather nervous of constantly seeking clarification/ understanding, although I am trying to dispel this with thorough secondary reading around the police.
Whilst I am looking for a career focus rather than a life history, I am still concerned there may be more to cover than I will allow time for.
Finally, I am apprehensive that my nerves will show during the interview and this may affect my ‘authority as interviewer’. Whilst I want the interview to be a shared experience and jointly lead by question and response, I require my questions to make the principle framework of the interview. Given that the interviewee has built a career on interviewing and analysing others, I feel this will be an interesting experience for both of us!
I have a few concerns about the interview. Of course, I‘m afraid I can‘t handle the recording equipment, that I will forget to push the record button or that something will be wrong with the sound levels. On the other hand, I worry that I won‘t ask the right questions, that those questions stir up very unpleasant memories of my interviewee and that he will feel uncomfortable or even depressed after the interview.
I really do hope to get an personal insight of what it was like to be a child during the Second World War in Austria. I‘m looking forward to talking to my interview partner about this time and I‘m also – somehow – looking forward to being „the interviewer“ with the dictaphone. I‘m used to finding the answers to my questions in books; it‘s a relief to talk to people about their experiences for a change!
Planning my interview has proven to be increasingly stressful and prompted more concerns that I expected originally. So far the largest difficulty I had had to overcome has been finding an interviewee. Because I recently moved to the UK from the United States, I have virtually no relationships with any adults in the area. Luckily, I have received a very promising lead from Dr. Matthew Smith at the Egham Museum and have a number of back-up options should that fall through.
My main concern is that my questions and the topics which I wish to explore may be seen as too probing or personal. The woman I will likely interview was a child during WWII and her mother worked at a local ammunitions factory; I am interested in discussing gender during and after the war but I don’t want to step on any toes in doing so. Also, I am interested in expressions of sexuality but do not know how to approach that topic in a delicate way. I am hoping to gain more insight into this issue through the readings.
My second concern is related to my own abilities as an interviewer. In an undergraduate class, I was assigned an oral life history as a final project. We were encouraged to interview members of our own family (simply for ease of access). I found myself unwilling to ask probing questions and struggled to stick with a definite them. Hopefully, however, this can be attributed to a lack of training and preparation and also my relationship with the interviewee (my grandmother).
In terms of hopes for my interview, I would like to gain a greater insight into England during the Second World War. Most of my knowledge on the topic is US centric so I am excited to see the topic in a new context. I also hope that my interview will make the experience of war, especially one on such a large scale, seem more human to me instead of historical and academic; I hope that I am able to illustrate the importance of her experience, her story, and her voice.
On a much more personal level, I hope that this interview gives me a deeper connection with Egham and England in general. Though a full-time student here, I still feel transient, like a perpetual tourist, and I trust that learning more about this community will change that.
Isla’s post also reminds me that I now need to prepare for the interview I’ve agreed to undertake. Some of that will have to be about method. It must be more than a decade since I undertook an oral history interview with a translator (it’ll be Sylvia this time). There is not much literature in this area. Luckily, however Bogusia Temple has just published a relevant article in Oral History (Autumn 2013, 14,2; 100-9). This article is much more than a ‘how to’; it raises key questions about how language produces identity, and shapes our worldviews. Bogusia also suggests ‘casting a wider net’ and considering other disciplinary insights into cross language work and translation.
I will also need to get up to speed with the history of Roma. Briefings by the Support Group help here. There are some excellent materials produced by the group, including from an earlier project with the Museum of London ( sadly the Museum no longer does this work). However, I will still need to identify other reading. I’ll begin by searching Google Scholar…