‘Moving Memories’: The Oral History Australia Conference 2017
Dr Cheryl Ware is an oral historian with interests in histories of health, HIV/AIDS, and sexuality. She currently teaches in the School of History at Australian National University.
I was fortunate to attend the Oral History Australia Conference was held in Sydney from September 13-16. The conference was an incredibly thought-provoking experience. It brought together oral historians working on memories of trauma, migration, activism, family histories, and digital histories, among other areas. The diverse range of speakers and research topics led to three days of meaningful discussions about working with communities, ethics and informed consent, key themes in oral history, and innovative ways to communicate these histories to wider audiences.
The conference was true to its theme, ‘Moving Memories: Oral History in a Global World’. Presenters demonstrated how memories can move across time and space, with papers that explored stories of migration, seeking refuge, belonging, and individuals’ connections to place. The panels on family histories and intergenerational memories were particularly striking reminders of how memories move across generations (Alex Dellios' conference report provides a important overview of the sessions on family memories). ‘Moving Memories’ also reflects how we are emotionally moved by the memories that emerge during oral history interviews. I presented alongside others who were also exploring individuals’ memories of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Scott McKinnon’s analysis of the connections between gay men’s memories of HIV and AIDS activism and more recent natural disasters, and Robert Reynolds’ and Shirleene Robinson’s discussions of the valuable work of volunteers during the HIV and AIDS epidemic were especially touching.
I was also intrigued by discussions about the significance of silence, which was a key theme across many of the individual papers, plenary sessions, and performances. Such discussions were apparent from the very first session with Dr Indira Chowdhury’s keynote address. Dr Chowdhury spoke of both the silence regarding the Partition of India in 1947 and how this silence was challenged with the emergence of oral history interviews in the 1990s. She also raised concerns that the Partition will be, once again, wiped from public memory in favour of histories of Indian nationalism. Nien Yuan Cheng has provided an insightful examination of Dr Chowdhury’s keynote and the discussion that followed.
Professor Dalia Leinarte’s keynote about her work on the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women Committee was especially engaging. Focusing on ‘silence and amnesia’ in the biographical accounts Eastern and Central Europeans in aftermath of World War Two, Professor Leinarte explored reasons why interviewees may remain silent: the pain of reliving traumatic experiences, stigma which prevents individuals coming to terms with their experiences, and interviewees’ deliberate efforts to hide these memories. Oral historians continually deal with silence in interviews. Together, Dr Chowdhury’s and Professor Leinarte’s keynotes presented compelling assessments of identifying, analysing, and challenging these silences.
The use of oral history as testimony was most clear during the panel: ‘The Power of Storytelling: Listening and Writing for the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse’. Pip Newling, Ruth Melville, and Sally Zwartz spoke about their experiences as writers for the Royal Commission. With the permission of the survivors, they listened to the recorded discussions with commissioners and wrote de-identified narratives based on these oral testimonies. These narratives will feature in the Royal Commission’s final report that will be delivered to the Governor-General in December. The panel raised important points about how individuals bear witness as speakers, listeners, readers and writers. They also reflected on the choices they made as writers, especially regarding what parts of the testimonies they include and what parts they leave out. The panel led to important discussions about the choices individuals make when turning oral testimonies into written documents.
The idea of choice was perhaps a more implicit theme that ran throughout the conference, especially regarding discussions about methodology: who we choose to interview and which questions we choose to ask. We also make careful choices when we disseminate research findings, be it through films, interactive websites, podcasts, or in academic writing (or conferences!)
Another important theme was the role of activism in oral histories. The roundtable discussion by Scott McKinnon from Oral History NSW, John Witte from Rainbow Voices Hunter, Shirleene Robinson from Pride History Group, and Sarah Rood from the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives was a testament to how community groups have utilised oral history to bring previously unheard voices, and histories, to a wider audience. Having listened to oral history interviews collected by some of these groups, I was really interested in hearing about their ever-expanding collections and innovative use of technology to communicate these LGBTIQ histories to the public (PridePod and Daylesford Stories are especially notable examples!), and plans for the future.
Other panels, including ‘Activism and Advocacy’, ‘Gender, Sexuality and Trauma’ and ‘Community Development’ also dealt with various forms of activism. Victoria Gwyn delivered a deeply moving paper whereby she interweaved her personal experiences working at the Australian War Memorial with a broader commentary on how oral history can aid advocacy and inclusion for minority-identifying individuals. Oral history and activism also emerged in different ways. Lynette Shum from the Alexander Turnbull Library in New Zealand recounted providing oral history training to individuals affiliated with 79-day occupation of Moutoa Gardens in Whanganui in 1995. As Lynette mentioned, the area made international headlines earlier this year when the Whanganui iwi won a longstanding battle to have the Whanganui river (pictured) granted the legal rights of a person.
The conference not only provided an important platform to share research findings, but it also created a supportive space to discuss the practical, methodological and ethical issues that can arise when conducting and analysing oral history interviews. Storage was another key issue that emerged. This was addressed most explicitly during the final plenary session titled ‘New Directions in Oral History’. The presenters, Alistair Thomson, Siobhan McHugh, Hamish Sewell and Sarah Rood, with Paula Hamilton as the chair, reflected on new uses of oral histories and factors to consider when we explore the most suitable ways to preserve oral history interviews. This will be an ongoing discussion as we deal with new technologies that make interviews accessible to wider audiences while abiding by the restrictions interviewees place on the recordings. The important message, however, was to work with communities to ensure the interviews are preserved and accessible in the years to come.
Finally, I would like to thank Anisa Puri, Scott McKinnon, Paula Hamilton and Virginia McLeod for organising such a rich and engaging conference.
Below: Whanganui River, which gained legal personhood under the Te Awa Tupua
(Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017.
Published with the permission of the photographer, Oliver Strewe.