‘Moving memories: oral history in a global world’
Perspectives on the Oral History Australia Conference, 2017
Dr Johanna (Jo) Kijas of Kijas Histories has been an independent professional historian since the turn of this century, working for National Parks and Wildlife Service, local councils, museums, government departments, the State Library of NSW and was one of the Generations interviewers. She lives in Lismore on the Far North Coast of NSW.
Seated in the Grand Lodge of the Sydney Masonic Centre (SMC) Conference and Function Centre in downtown Sydney, with trains rumbling overhead and wry reminders of the auditorium’s past, we began three days of engaged and stimulating presentations. I’m a consultant historian from Lismore, Northern NSW, and was lucky enough to gain one of the Oral History NSW bursaries to attend the conference. My professional work in environmental, Indigenous and community histories has nearly always included oral histories. However, it was my long-term voluntary work at the New Italy Museum on the Far North Coast that drove my desire to engage with colleagues this year and think about intergenerational memories as they impact story telling at the Museum. My other trail to follow was the practice of oral history, especially in the digital age.
Picking one’s way across the conference terrain is always a challenge for me. Happily, of course, the start of each day’s journey was clear with the plenary sessions. We were generously welcomed to Country by Uncle Chicka Madden and introduced to the array of themes by the OH NSW president, Anisa Puri. The next two days’ plenary sessions were powerful and challenging, where different ways to understand and read silences in oral history testimony about trauma, loss and remembering across generations were particularly evocative. Dr Indira Chowdhry explored tensions between silenced memories of Partition and the national focus on celebrating Indian independence, while among her devastating stories of Eastern and Central Europe, Professor Dalia Leinarte suggested that sometimes silences occur because there is nothing to say. She discussed ways she has tried to use oral history for social change, particularly amongst ignored and silenced women.
The final plenary panel looked to future directions in oral history at home and abroad. Professor Alistair Thomson reminded us of some of the revolutionary moments that have led to our confident professional practice today and where the 'sensory turn', 'embodied histories' and the 'history of emotions' might take us into the future. One of the key challenges that he raised regarded future-proofing our interviews, where he argued that the national and state libraries are probably the only really safe places into the long-term future. Sarah Rood took us through a high-energy Prezi presentation on new technologies and oral history. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to grimace in recognition at her early career memory of poorly recorded interviews, where the focus was on content and not on sound production. Today the landscape has changed radically as we upload the voices of our interviewees to the web, meaning that high quality sound production is now essential for us all. Dr Siobhan McHugh cheerfully offered podcasting as the solution to most things, when it comes to continuing the oral history tradition of democratic, accessible and discoverable story telling. She pointed out the intimacy of podcasting as, usually wearing headphones, the story is directed straight into one’s ear as a personal encounter. Hamish Sewell closed in locating stories in place, describing projects conducted with often vulnerable people where they can have agency. He then returned to the concern of safeguarding interviews, sharing stories of audio archives that have disappeared, even from large institutions. This dominated much of the discussion that followed as comments turned to bit rot, unusable digital files and redundant technologies. Ethical practice and adapting and expanding professional standards as new technologies democratise oral history recording were also discussed. Despite the many challenges ahead, the concluding remarks centered on the exciting prospects that have opened as we present oral histories in new and ever changing ways, and to new audiences across the globe.
Once the plenary sessions finished each day, a road map was needed. Unavoidably, there were many difficult T junctions and unbridgeable parallel paths. My most enjoyable day was Friday, where my journey focused on the practice of oral history in its diversity. I was thoroughly engaged by Ass Prof Janice Wilton’s roundtable romp through teaching and learning oral history. Janice had gathered an eminent and varied panel from academia (Dr Sue Anderson), the National Library (Shelly Grant) and consultant oral historians (Elaine Rabbit and Sarah Rood). Each person was asked to provide two issues of significance to them when teaching oral history process. They included dealing with the digital revolution, ethics and responsibilities, maximising the sound environment, cultural differences and protocols, the importance of research and listening skills, understanding how memory works and the constant need to reflect on one’s own practice. Lively discussion emerged around the differences between oral history interviewing and journalism, the essential requirement of consent and different ways to get it, preparing interview questions, the reasons for doing interviews and what one plans to do with them. Strategies were swapped. I wanted some help on strategies in conducting our open-ended, life-story interviewing style, while also managing to elicit the snappy podcasting gems. Anyone offering a NSW workshop?
After lunch, I attended the thought provoking session ‘Being an interviewer and an interviewee’. Dr Jodie Boyd, now a practicing oral historian, reflected on her experience of being on the other side as an interviewee and the disquiet she felt in the aftermath of the interview. She noted that little has been written about the narrator’s experience of the interview process. Despite having volunteered for the project and enjoyed a convivial interview, her disquiet emerged on reflection about her place on the outside, where the power of the interview remains in much part with the interviewer. Her experience led her to acknowledge the inequality of the interview process and she is now working through how that impacts her current practice as an interviewer. Kelly Navies from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture reflected on her journey as an undergraduate to uncover the story of her great-great-grandmother who was born into slavery and lived to over 100 years old. Kelly interviewed relatives across the US, leading to a career which has included interviewing hundreds of African Americans about their histories. She reflected on how her own position as an African American woman has influenced her oral history collecting and telling.
The variety of papers and people across the diverse ‘oral history community’, nationally and from abroad, made for a lively and motivating conference. I promise never to conduct an interview in a café and I’ll think differently about silences. Thanks to a great conference team: Anisa Puri, Dr Scott McKinnon, Virginia Macleod and Dr Paula Hamilton.