Rob Perks

Oral history in museums is under attack

Rob Perks, Issue 113/12, p15, 02.12.2013
News that the Museum of London is axing its oral history curator, a post created 20 years ago, is the latest in a worrying trend that has seen oral history posts disappear at Beamish, Newcastle, Bradford, Bristol, Croydon and Southampton.

Elsewhere, notably at the Imperial War Museum, where oral history was pioneered in the 1970s, the active collection, archiving and interpretation of people’s memories has been relegated within a generalist curatorial job description.

We are seeing not only the impact of public sector cuts, but also the revival of the old chestnut that oral history, and community outreach in general, are luxuries in these straitened times.

Or worse, 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). No full-time permanent oral history post now exists in a UK museum.

The irony of axing oral history expertise and centres of excellence in museums is not only that a wealth of knowledge is being squandered, but that it comes at a time when more oral history is going on in museums than ever.

A Museum Practice seminar in March on oral history practice was sold out, and demand from museums for British Library/Oral History Society training is at an all-time high.

Oral history-based exhibitions remain popular with the public. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) continues to invest in museums’ oral history, but for how long is uncertain amid concern about the lack of capacity to archive data.

Worrying numbers of oral history projects are struggling to find heritage partners and places to deposit their interviews.

The HLF is an enthusiast for museums’ oral history because it believes that it can effectively deliver closer and more committed audience engagement, greater cross-generational and cross-community involvement, and new collections with a wide sense of ownership. Retaining oral history curatorial expertise in museums leverages these considerable benefits and ensures continuity of knowledge.

Thankfully, there are museums that value oral history, such as the Foundling Museum, Experience Barnsley and St Fagans National History Museum.

They are showing what can be done with properly resourced oral history collecting and interpretation, where the benefits of process and product give local people a stake in their museum through sharing their memories and experiences. Isn’t that what museums are for?

Rob Perks is the secretary of the Oral History Society and lead curator of oral history at the British Library