Oral History in Museums Under Attack

Rob Perks, Oral History Curator/Director of National Life Stories at the British Museum in London has written a commentary for the British publication Museums Journal, entitled “Oral history in museums is under attack.”

In it he notes that the Museum of London has eliminated the post of oral history curator, at the same time that other institutions throughout Great Britain are doing similar things. Now, he asserts, no museum in the UK currently has an oral history curator. He attributes this to tightened museum budgets eliminating “extraneous” posts and reducing outreach efforts. “Or worse,” he says, to the idea that “that all modern curators are oral historians (they are not). Or that oral history has been subsumed within the new field of “digital” curation (it has not).”

It is certainly true that digital technologies have made sharing oral histories easier than ever before. Presently there is a lively discussion on H-OralHist about best practices for online distribution of oral histories. The ubiquity and ease of use of YouTube as an audio distribution platform makes posting oral history clips a breeze. I have done this here, on this site.

But surely it is shortsighted to believe, as museums throughout the UK seem to hold, that anyone can do oral history, whether or not they have training. Interviewing is a skill. It can be taught, but it cannot be assumed. Indeed, this lies at the root of my personal distrust of some of the interviews collected for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress and StoryCorps. Put baldly, many of those oral histories are poorly done. Interviewers, however well-intentioned, commonly squander the opportunities they are presented with. and they don’t necessarily see the challenges inherent in the work.

To give but one example, presently I am interviewing a nurse who served in Vietnam. (For the time being I will withhold her name until the interview is complete.) Now, in my personal opinion, Vietnam nurses, and probably all trauma nurses, have exceptionally difficult jobs. The evidence gathered in this interview to date would tend to justify this claim.  I’ve heard stories about treating civilian casualties, about grief, suffering, and more.

In this instance, the interviewee and I have taken pains to try to mitigate some of the emotional difficulty caused by revisiting wounds – – physical and emotional – – that are 40+ years old. We have tended to keep our interviews about an hour long, consciously taking breaks, and working to decompress when the interview was complete. This is because oral history, when done in depth with the intention of producing a public document of historic value, moves beyond the superficial “life script.” It tries to access subjective truths about the past. This is hard, hard work, for both the interviewee and the interviewer. Someone pointed out to me long ago that oral history done at this depth begins to resemble a quasi-therapeutic relationship. The result, we both hope, will be the production of a document that will have value to researchers in a range of different fields with different research agendas, in years to come.

In order to produce a document of this kind you have to have a willing interviewee, along with a historically informed, well-prepared interviewer.

Interview preparation requires reading in secondary sources, and interpersonal skills training. Oral history as practiced in museums, in the Veterans History Project, and in StoryCorps should take these requirements seriously. Perks is right, not all curators are oral historians.

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