Let's hear it for oral history - Museums Association

Let’s hear it for oral history

Rob Perks celebrates the pioneering work in oral history that has transformed the way museums engage with audiences
oral history
Rob Perks
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Illustration by Charlotte Ager

When I was a fledgling curator in Bradford nearly 40 years ago, oral history was viewed by the profession with some suspicion.

Pioneering oral history collections existed, such as those at the Welsh Folk Museum in Wales (which started as early as 1958), the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (1967), and the Imperial War Museum (IWM) (1972), but even these made scant use of the rich audio recordings in their own displays.

For a long time, oral history was thought of as complementary to material culture rather than something that could be at the forefront of exhibitions to transform engagement with audiences.

That began to change in the 1980s, partly through the advent of a new breed of social history curator, with many working in community contexts where oral history was a means of sourcing objects from local people who then worked with curators to interpret their own lives and communities in ways relevant to them.

The Oral History Society (OHS) held its first conference about museums in 1985 and Sian Jones from Southampton Museums reflected that “oral historians rubbed shoulders with museum workers, and the latter group could not but feel that we had arrived rather late for the party… faltering and hesitating on the brink”.

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The first issue of Oral History Journal dedicated to museums followed in 1986 with contributions from the National Maritime Museum, Beamish, and Norfolk Rural Life Museum. April Whincop from Lancaster Maritime Museum wrote: “Ten years ago the use of taped voices in museum displays was unknown. Oral history work involves a shift of emphasis. The situation that used to be the object of the trained historian’s study now becomes the subject.”

Birmingham Museums, Edinburgh’s The People’s Story, Croydon Museum’s Lifetimes display, and The Discovery Museum in Newcastle were further champions of the new approach, and the Museum of London followed, appointing oral history curators to lead new oral history-based displays. In Bradford we fought long and hard for exhibition space for oral history.

The Social History Curators’ Group was an important force in changing attitudes and by the late 1990s oral history was widely understood by curators and museum educators.

As our world becomes ever-more digital and intangible, physical objects will simply not be able to tell the story – that gap will be met through oral history

The advent of the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund) fostered this change and Stuart Davies drew on his experience with Kirklees Sound Archive to develop the Heritage Fund’s support for intangible heritage, which has done so much to embed oral history in present-day museum culture.

This in turn has led to healthy debates about representation and the way that oral history can accord a presence in museums for groups traditionally absent through a paucity of artefacts: these include people with African, Asian and Indian heritage, those with disabilities and members of LGBTQ+ communities.

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Personal testimonies have encouraged visitors to engage with difficult subject matter: the IWM’s Holocaust displays, which have been redeveloped as the new Holocaust Galleries in October, is a good example.

Another key change has been the advent of new technologies. Using sound in displays in the 1980s meant editing open-reel tapes with a razor blade, splicing extracts back together, then transferring the compilation to a cassette playback machine, which frequently broke down.

Today, visitors can access digital sound on their own mobile devices; curators can gather high-quality digital audio and video at low cost; and contributors can submit testimonies direct to websites. Analogue oral histories, long-neglected in museums, are being digitised and rediscovered, many through the British Library-led Unlocking Our Sound Heritage initiative.

Importantly, oral history has crept beyond social history curators into the realm of arts and crafts-based display and latterly into the mainstream of all museum practice.

Interviews with artists and their subjects have become a routine feature of exhibitions. Tate Britain’s 2016-18 Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery placed oral history at the centre of the exhibition for the first time, with the art understood through the testimonies.

But there has been a price to pay for moving into the mainstream. Funding cuts over 40 years have put an end to standalone oral history curators in museums.

Perhaps the legacy of oral history’s impact on museums over the past four decades can be measured by the success of the prevailing participatory museum model: museums created with people not for them. As our world becomes ever-more digital and intangible, physical objects will simply not be able to tell the story – that gap will be met through oral history.

Rob Perks recently retired as the lead curator of oral history at the British Library, London

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