When I was a rookie curator in Bradford almost 40 years ago, oral history was viewed by the profession with some suspicion.
Pioneering oral history collections existed, such as those of the Welsh Folk Museum in Wales (which began in 1958), the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (1967) and the Imperial War Museum (IWM) (1972), but even these have made little use of the rich audio recordings in their own screens.
For a long time, oral history was seen as complementary to material culture rather than something that could be at the forefront of exhibitions to transform engagement with audiences.
This began to change in the 1980s, in part thanks to the advent of a new breed of social history curators, many of them working in community settings where oral history was a means of sourcing. objects to the local population 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 museum conference in 1985 and Sian Jones of the Southampton Museums said that “oral historians rubbed shoulders with museum workers, and this latter group could only think that we had arrived quite late for the party… tottering and hesitating on the brink ”.
The first museum issue of Oral History Journal followed in 1986 with contributions from the National Maritime Museum, Beamish and the Norfolk Rural Life Museum. April Whincop of the Lancaster Maritime Museum wrote: “Ten years ago the use of recorded voices in museum exhibits was unknown. Oral history work involves a change of focus. The situation that was once the object of the trained historian’s study now becomes the subject.
The Birmingham Museums, The People’s Story in Edinburgh, the Croydon Museum Lifetimes Exhibition and the Discovery Museum in Newcastle were other champions of the New Approach, and the Museum of London followed suit, appointing oral history curators. to direct new exhibitions based on oral history. In Bradford, we fought long and hard for an exhibition space for oral history.
The Social History Curatorial Group played an important role in changing attitudes, and by the late 1990s oral history was widely understood by curators and museum educators.
As our world becomes more digital and intangible, physical objects simply won’t be able to tell the story – this gap will be bridged by oral history.
The advent of the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund) fostered this shift 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 anchor oral history in the present day of museum culture.
This in turn has led to healthy debates about representation and how oral history can grant a museum presence to traditionally absent groups through a dearth of artefacts: these include the original people. African, Asian and Indian, people with disabilities and members of LGBTQ +. communities.
Personal testimonies encouraged visitors to tackle difficult topics: the IWM’s Holocaust exhibits, which were revamped as new Holocaust Galleries in October, are a case in point.
Another key change has been the advent of new technologies. The use of sound in screens in the 1980s meant editing open reel tapes with a razor blade, stitching together clips, then transferring the compilation to a cassette player, which frequently broke down.
Today, visitors can access digital sound on their own mobile devices; curators can bring together high-quality digital audio and video at low cost; and contributors can submit testimonials directly to websites. Analog oral histories, long neglected in museums, are being digitized and rediscovered, many thanks to the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage initiative led by the British Library.
It is important to note that oral history has crept beyond social history curators into the realm of arts and crafts-based exhibition and, lately, into the mainstream of all practices. museums.
Interviews with artists and their subjects have become a routine at exhibitions. Tate Britain’s 2016-18 Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery placed oral history at the center of the exhibition for the first time, with art understood through testimonies.
But there has been a price to pay for entering the mainstream. Funding cuts over 40 years ended independent oral history curators in museums.
Perhaps the legacy of the impact of oral history on museums over the past four decades can be measured by the success of the dominant participatory museum model: museums created with people and not for them. As our world becomes more digital and intangible, physical objects simply won’t be able to tell the story – this gap will be bridged by oral history.
Rob Perks recently retired as Chief Curator of Oral History at the British Library, London