Heard but not seen - Museums Association

Heard but not seen

Carrying out oral history projects during the pandemic has been challenging but rewarding. Deborah Mulhearn reports
oral history
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Deborah Mulhearn
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Illustration by Charlotte Ager

Oral history interviews have traditionally been conducted face-to-face but the pandemic meant that much of this work had to be done remotely. This has been challenging but has also led to some new and innovative ways of recording people’s memories. Some of this has stretched the boundaries of what oral history can be.

The Guardians of Sleep project (see box) is the first time a museum has collected people’s dreams. It is part of the Museum of London’s wider Collecting Covid project, where objects related to Londoners’ experiences of Covid are being acquisitioned into the collections under a rapid response system.

“Early on in the pandemic, it became apparent that people’s sleep patterns were shifting, and their dreams were also changing,” says Foteini Aravani, the digital curator and project lead for Guardians of Sleep.

“We realised it was a specific way in which we could tell the story of the pandemic for future generations. Rather than a life story, as is usual for oral histories, it was a snapshot of London life.

“Museums are good at collecting factual material, but we wanted to make a collection that reflected the heightened anxiety and emotions of the time.”

Interviews were held on Zoom by the Museum of Dreams, an online research centre at the Western University in Ontario, Canada.

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“We knew we lacked the skills to deal with the deeper emotional issues that revealing dreams could trigger and the university’s psychoanalysts and trained clinicians provided a safe environment where interviewees could feel comfortable,” says Aravani. “The specialists had a rigorous ethics process to manage the interviews.”

The pandemic made oral history projects challenging to carry out. Museums were faced with the stark choice of shelving projects or pressing ahead despite the difficulties.

Freelance oral history producer Emma Golby-Kirk was working with Salisbury Museum on an intergenerational project, Changing Places, Common Ground, when the last lockdown started.

The project, which had already been delayed by the earlier lockdowns, involved teenagers and elderly participants interviewing each other in pairs. But while schools were ready to go, older people remained fearful of people coming into their homes.

Zoom was an obvious alternative, but it was rejected from the start. “We’ve all had enough of Zoom,” Golby-Kirk says. “People want engagement.”

Instead, Golby-Kirk developed a Covid-safe risk assessment plan with the museum to offer solutions including outdoor classrooms, care home gardens and a marquee at the museum.

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“Interviewing outdoors is not ideal,” she says. “You need windjammers for recording and it could be cold and windy. But indoors, everyone had to wear masks and was socially distanced. It’s difficult for people to hear, especially if they are older, because you can’t see each other’s faces and read each other’s cues.”

Covid also altered the content, with the project being about more than bringing people together and sharing milestones.

It also helped to build people’s confidence to mix again. And Covid itself has become central to the conversation.

“The two age groups have been the hardest hit – they have lost more than a year of their lives at a time when it is a big sacrifice,” Golby-Kirk says. “Younger people are keen to start their adult lives but are stuck, and older people are perhaps thinking about how the last stage of their lives has been cruelly curtailed by Covid.”

On the record

Covid-19 has pushed museums to explore new technological possibilities for recording oral history remotely, and the British Library oral history team has published three versions of remote recording guidance since April 2020, hosted by the Oral History Society (OHS).

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On another, more traditional, oral history project for the Museum of Oxford  Golby-Kirk used Zencastr, a high-quality podcast platform where people record directly from their computer. Unlike video-conferencing packages, quality is the priority.

“For one interviewee that I wasn’t able to meet up with as normal, I sent a cheap microphone through the post to her instead,” she says. “She was in her 90s – don’t ever underestimate older people – and she had no problem finding her way round Zencastr. It’s a multi-track platform so I can use verbal cues and edit them out later. While you lose some of the richness you would have with a face-to-face interview, the quality is excellent.

“Zencastr has been a brilliant tool,” Golby-Kirk continues. “While the technical challenges have pushed us, and we have sometimes had to compromise production values, it has also broadened our horizons.”

While the technical challenges have pushed us, and we have sometimes had to compromise production values, it has also broadened our horizons.

Emma Golby-Kirk

The NHS Voices of Covid-19 project by the University of Manchester, an extension to the established NHS at 70: The Story of our Lives, will be archived by the British Library. It traces the impact of Covid through a wider lens as it includes recordings with interviewees made before coronavirus. Many have continued to contribute testimony about the pandemic via phone interviews. Material recorded amid current events is very different to a reflective interview after time has passed.

“We expect to embed questions about Covid into all our future interviews and may well consider Covid-specific projects in the years ahead,” says Mary Stewart, lead curator of the British Library oral history team.

“The material we will collect will have a different perspective to the interviews captured in the midst of the pandemic, and in years to come we hope to use our varied collections to reflect on these different types of testimony.”

The pandemic has also given rise to many ethical and practical issues to consider while interviewing.

Stewart says: “Are interviewees and interviewers in the right emotional and practical state for an interview? This was especially pertinent during periods of lockdown where many people had pressing concerns such as their own health, the health of friends and family, financial burdens and caring responsibilities.”

A sleeping taxi driver in Lime Street, City of London, c. 1990 Paul Baldesare
Guardians of sleep

The Museum of London was expecting about 50 responses to its call out last year for its Covid-related project, but was overwhelmed when it received nearly 500 emails detailing the dreams of Londoners.

“A common thread was that they were all very vivid, perhaps because our lives under lockdown were monotonous and therefore our brains were overcompensating for the lack of stimulation in everyday life,” says Foteini Aravani, the museum’s digital curator and project lead for Guardians of Sleep.

“People were dreaming differently rather than about different subjects. There were still a lot of classic anxiety dreams, but they were more vivid. They also recalled a lot of detail, so if a tree featured, they would remember not just that it was a tree, but also its colour and the shape of the leaves.”

The dreams were whittled down to a shortlist of 50, and from these 20 were collected, with some used for an online exhibition over the summer.

“We wanted to tap into the first-hand experience,” says Aravani. “We are trying to bring to the surface the concerns and anxieties that usually stay in the subconscious.”

Aravani says that when the pandemic started, museums bombarded their audiences with online events and activities. “But maybe people wanted to talk – we opened the door to that,” she says. “It’s simple in concept but it’s not part of our usual role.

It has helped us rethink the museum object: what we collect, for whom it’s collected and who is doing the collecting. We don’t want to treat our audiences just as passive receivers. It’s not about expertise and knowledge, it’s about the people. And we want to involve the people in what’s happening now.”

Time to talk

The British Library is archiving several projects that have captured the pandemic as it has unfolded, including the Life in the Time of Corona project, run by the Ming-Ai Institute and funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The project has recorded testimony from Chinese communities in the UK about the impact of the pandemic, capturing important stories of China-UK links and examples of discrimination because of the virus’s original outbreak in Wuhan. 

“Oral history practitioners have been having online discussions, workshops and mutual help sessions as we navigate this new way of working,” says Padmini Broomfield, oral history consultant and OHS regional network deputy co-ordinator. “As we try out different technologies and methods, we are able to share tips and advice and are finding these conversations incredibly helpful.

“And the irony is that it is precisely because we have all pivoted to online working that we are now able to connect and ‘meet’ each other more often. Even the online training I have delivered recently for volunteers had some advantages as it was split over multiple shorter sessions. So, in the future, I think blended events would be really good for greater engagement from OHS members and the public.”

Broomfield has found both advantages and disadvantages to remote interviewing. For example, two researchers from a University of Southampton team, who developed innovative PPE equipment and had donated one of their prototypes to Southampton Museums, were interviewed over Zoom. The interview documents the development, trials, and manufacture of this kit in a race against time.

“I found it was easier to arrange to meet busy professionals at times that may not have been practical for in-person meetings, and we could meet over multiple sessions,” she says. “Without long travel times I could complete more and longer interviews.”

Some people are unable or prefer not to use online methods, of course. “This meant we had to base some decisions on who we could reach online,” says Broomfield. “Audio quality, which for the most part was better than I expected, could be variable and dependent on internet connections.”

Helen Foster runs the East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA) in the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester and currently leads the Silent Archive project. The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and aims to create a new collection about menopause for the EMOHA.

I decided to reframe that period of pandemic as a time for experimentation.

Helen Foster

“If we define oral history as the recording of people’s accounts of things that happened in the past, then this project stretches that definition,” she says. “In the Silent Archive, interviewees reflect on menopause in the past by recalling the experiences of mothers and grandmothers, but we are also gathering current testimonies to record menopause experiences for future researchers.”

Foster believes the form particularly suits women’s histories and experiences. “Oral history enables women to talk about menopause, often seen as taboo, in an open and frank space, and in their own words,” she says.

“Our interviewers are volunteers who are experiencing or interested in menopause and many of them have been interviewed themselves. It de-medicalises a very medicalised subject.”

The project stalled in the first lockdown, but Foster kept up momentum as much as possible by adapting it to run online.

“I decided to reframe that period of pandemic as a time for experimentation,” she says. “Instead of approaching the project as an oral history project, it’s now all about ‘spoken testimonies’ in a range
of formats. Some women have started to record personal audio diaries about menopause.

“Our volunteers have continued to create interviews remotely, using Zoom; not the best quality-wise, but we’re still capturing something vital here. And it also reflects the times and places in which it has been captured in these extraordinary days.”

The Silent Archive aims to be a seedbed for collections of other subjects under-represented in oral history archives and Foster hopes to continue the audio diaries as part of the ongoing work of the EMOHA.

Despite the challenges, lockdown has been used fruitfully to pilot ideas and experiment with oral history methods and formats, and the time invested will serve future researchers, curators and audiences exceptionally well.

Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist

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