Within the next two weeks I will have completed my interviews for the Women in Science Oral History Project. Due to the fact that this is my first oral history project and that the history which I present will be vital to the archives at Royal Holloway, I have had to put a lot of thought into the processes leading up to the interviews.
Before contacting my assigned alumni I had to make sure I had enough background knowledge on her life and her education. From the information in her student files I discovered that my subject graduated from Royal Holloway in 1947 and went on to pursue further study at many prestigious institutions before landing a job in the medical research field. Therefore, she is clearly a very well educated and elderly woman and I will need to take both of these factors into account when conducting the interview
My assigned alumni had also prepared some short notes within the files that I was sent. Within these she expressed her concern over the content of the interviews. She specifically requested that the interview should be conducted under her maiden name and should primarily focus on her working life and education at Royal Holloway, not her private life. The subject’s privacy and wishes are of upmost importance within this process; therefore I will be complying with her requests. I hope to be able to gather interesting and relevant information while adhering to my subject’s wishes.
Speaking to the subject over the phone prior to the interviews was a great way for us to get acquainted with each other. I believe that our 20 minute conversation that included introductions, further explanation of the project and the arrangement of interview dates helped to put us both at ease about the upcoming interviews. She was even kind enough to send me very detailed instructions for the public transport I need to find her house. I am looking forward to meeting my subject for the Women in Science project. I believe that her long and seemingly very interesting life will make a vital oral history for the often-overlooked story of women in science.
Before the first interview with a Bedford College science alumnus, I was anxious about the quality and quantity of my questions – would there be enough? Would they relate to her life at all? I had pretty much no idea what her life story was – had she continued with science after Bedford? Was she married? I even asked a friend to pretend to be a 70-year-old lady to try and work out if the questions would work! (Bizarrely, most of his answers were accurate to my interviewee’s life!)
Heading into the second interview, the nerves are back. I want to improve on the errors I made last time: asking some questions which were in hindsight leading, missing out some meta-information from the beginning. But I’ve already asked all the ‘easy’ questions: we covered early life, college, and career extensively in the last interview. What I now need to go more in depth about her scientific work, and the traumatic experiences we somewhat skated over last time. I need to ask about gender in science without imposing a narrative of discrimination on a lady who might not have felt that way – as somewhat indicated by previous answers. For these subjects, I’m on unfamiliar turf – we covered the more solid terrain of college food and career trajectory in the first interview. But I’m a bit stumped for more questions; we both ended the last interview questioning what more there is to say. Hopefully I can recapture the rapport we developed in the last session, and allow her to look further into her memories of her life.
It feels slightly odd capturing a life history for an archive but not for my own historical project. While we’ve been given a particular brief, it feels like a bit of a disadvantage to not have a personal agenda I’m searching for. There are no questions I have to ask for use in a project, only to ensure the best and most useful oral history interview possible. I want to cover all eventualities, to assist the college, future researchers, and of course, the subject herself.
I’m planning to interview a former groundsman at Horton Mental Hospital, formerly Horton Asylum, in Epsom. The former admin block, which is now expensive housing, is pictured above. This will be a second interview. In the first we talked about his childhood – he’s a local boy born and bred – and his time working at the hospital as a young man in the late 1970s. He talked about his job and his recollections of working alongside patients in the gardens. His is an interesting perspective; his job meant he was literally and metaphorically ‘outside’ the hospital. Although he got to know some of the patients, much remained mysterious – their comings and goings, the inner workings of the hospital and even the conditions from which they suffered. He was part of a team charged with making sure the hospital grounds looked attractive; an important consideration for the Horton’s management from the time the hospital opened in 1902. His memories of this part of his working life were generally positive, and although he recalled that some of patients suffered greatly from their illnesses, he gave the impression he thought the hospital was a reasonably good environment for them.
After he left Horton, my interviewee lived and worked in the Middle East for some years, where he married and became a father. He touched on what it was like to return and live in Epsom with his wife and daughter after the hospitals had closed, and I would like to explore the layers of his experiences of the hospital – as a child growing up in a town where it was a significant presence, as a worker there, and as someone returning in middle age and reflecting on the meaning of those experiences both at the time and now.
I would also like to explore his relationship to the physical place in the second interview. In particular, I would like to talk about the Horton water tower (on the left of the photo, behind the admin block). Water towers were an iconic feature of Victorian and Edwardian asylums; their ‘brooding, majestic’ presence was evoked by then Minister of Health Enoch Powell in a 1961 speech advocating the closure of the country’s mental hospitals. This listed, but rather industrial, building survived the demolition of most of the hospital’s infrastructure but was pulled down in 2012 after a long-running campaign by local people who felt it was unsightly and out of place – and possibly dangerous – on the modern housing estate that had been built around it. I must declare an interest here; I have always had a slightly romantic view of two historical Epsoms geographically separated by the town centre. Until 2012, you could glimpse both from the end of my road; on one side the grandstand at Epsom Downs symbolising posh, equestrian Epsom and on the other (and much closer to me) the water tower at Horton, associated with pauper lunatics and the ethnically diverse working class area that developed around the hospital cluster. When the water tower came down I felt it was part of an ongoing process of the town turning its back on an uncomfortable history. My interviewee, to my surprise, saw it completely differently. He was clear that although he thinks the hospitals should be remembered, to him the tower was a symbol of oppression and he’s glad it came down. I was taken aback partly because his own memories of life at the hospital did not seem particularly negative. On reflection, I thought about the research he told me he had done into the history of the hospitals and I wondered if he was taking a wider view of the historical experiences of patients. I am interested in the relationship between this dual perspective of his own personal experiences and the historical view he has formed from his reading.
My main concern about the interview is that we will not be able to pick up the rapport I felt we established in the first interview, and that therefore he will be unwilling to explore his memories in more depth and consider their meaning for him. Perhaps he will feel that he has already said what he wanted to say – in which case I feel a bit anxious that it will be down to me to prompt and encourage his recollections. Conversely, he knows we share an interest in the history of the hospitals, and if things go well I am aware that I must make sure that the focus of the interview is his memories rather than his research.
Reading about and discussing group oral history interviews last class got me to start thinking about alternative ways of conducting oral history interviews than the traditional one-on-one method. Although the group interviews had several downsides, including individuals being silenced by the rest of the group or topics being rapidly changed, they offered unique insights into how individual memory can be influenced, suppressed, and even altered by the power of collective memory. This alternative approach made me interested in how memories can be transferred across generations, from those actually experiencing events to their descendants merely retaining the accounts which they are told.
Both of my grandmothers have long had an interest in retaining and uncovering the family history. I grew up hearing stories about their lives, and stories that they remember being told by older members of the family, whether it was their parents or other extended family members. When I try to recall some of these stories, many of them are vague and seem very distant from myself. Others, I can almost quote word for word because they were told to me many times. Some of them I found more interesting than others, and will occasionally share them in conversation when topics make me recall them. However, I am stuck thinking about the accuracy of these memories. After all, we know that our own memories are fallible, and that they are constantly changing throughout the course of our lives. How much more would these alterations to memory build up if they are also transferred between multiple people? It is like trying to play the telephone game.
This research would not be an effective way of gaining information about a particular event, however, like the group interviews, it has an alternative benefit. Looking at how memories can be transferred between multiple people can help oral historians, psychologists, and sociologists to better understand memory retention and transmission levels of people who are not primary owners of the memory. This can help to analyze how contributing factors, such as changing public perception and personal interests, influence the levels of retention. With the telephone game, the purpose is to see if, or to what extent, meaning can be transferred from the original individual to the last individual through multiple participating bodies. This would be interesting to see if the core meaning of memories can be effectively transferred, despite the fact that subsidiary details may be altered or tweaked by memory over time or the desire of the teller to increase the stories interest value for the listener.
The idea of oral history in dance was really intriguing and after my presentation I decided to write my first essay about it. Essentially there are not many examples of oral history being used in dance but with a wider perspective of research I think that it will be an interesting topic to look into. Undoubtedly the most challenging aspect of the essay is to find a way to combine oral history and public history within this specialized field that is dance. This is the part which, while it definitely troubles me the most, it makes me think that it is not that peculiar because dance is a performance towards a specific audience; therefore the public is always there and the challenge is to succeed in engaging with it further than the performance of the dance itself.
As I previously stated there are not many examples of oral history in dance -however this is not the case in theatre. The main example I will look into is Jeff Friedman’s ‘muscle memory’ project, in which he choreographed the testimonies of two dancers and the result was brilliant. Another example is the ‘Dance Oral History Project’ of New York’s Public Library which collects testimonies from people that dedicated their life and work to dance. I will look into more examples and I hope that in the future dance will be a more researched oral history topic; there are definitely interesting aspects to it so that oral history could engage more actively with it!
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.
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.