I love so many things about oral history. I love the fact that people from so many different contexts and backgrounds do it – community historians, workers in museums and cultural organisations, professional and freelance historians, advocacy workers and care workers, students of many different kinds, and even the occasional academic like me – and that although we do oral history in different ways and for different reasons, we’re all animated by an enthusiasm for recording and working with people’s life stories.
I love the fact that oral history can make a difference. That ‘small stories’ can change how we understand the world, past and present; that telling your own story can be affirming and empowering; that hearing stories like one’s own – or not like one’s own – can be transformative.
I love the fact that the world of oral history seems to be populated by so many fine, fun, generous people, which may be because good oral historians are good at listening, and are interested in other people and their stories and interests (a Mexican friend once told me that she thinks it may also be because the vast majority of oral historians are women!).
I love the fact that oral historians are good collaborators. By definition we cannot work alone, and we often collaborate not just with people and their stories, but also with a range of institutions and voluntary organisations.
All of these qualities and passions were on show, in abundance, at today’s OHV symposium about Culture, Community and Oral History: Stories of Diversity, Conflict and Resilience, at MUSEO Italiano in Carlton (many thanks to the museum!).
In the opening sessions on Immigration and Australian Communities, Moya McFadzean from Museum Victoria talked us through the approaches and issues involved in making museum exhibitions about migration, culture and diversity – in a wonderful keynote opening to the day. Melissa Afentoulis explored the values and challenges of a community oral history project with Greek migrants from Lemnos, which is also the basis of her PhD; and weaver, artist and community activist Anneli Rickards explained her life’s work of recording and documenting Finnish migrants to Australia.
The second session focused on Organisations and Oral History. Gretel Evans (with Jodie Boyd) spoke on behalf of several colleagues about their Young Christian Workers’ oral history project and what they learnt about power of an activist faith, with colleagues and interviewees joining in an illuminating discussion. Marie Nunan introduced her oral history project with people who have worked and volunteered with Barwon Health, and highlighted both the value of the project and the ways in which some stories are difficult, if not impossible, for people to share.
The final panel session was about Telling Community History through the Individual. Melissa Walsh explained how the Big Issue Classroom enables people who have been homeless to narrate their life stories to groups of mostly school students, and how this social enterprise benefits the ‘guest speakers’ (who get paid) and informs young audiences about homelessness. Big Issue Classroom guest speaker Julian Ogle talked frankly and thoughtfully about his own experience of developing and performing his story. Narrative researcher and graduate student Elena Balcaiti used her narrative work about passionate sports fans, and her work with her ‘contributor’ Lee, to introduce issues about the ‘magical’ work of co-creating personal narratives and using them to make sense of bigger issues. The panel – and the symposium participants – then enjoyed a vigorous discussion of several issues from the session that also connected to earlier presentations: What are the challenges in eliciting and recording people’s life stories? What are the challenges in presenting and interpreting people’s life stories? How is life experience articulated though personal narrative, and how might that story-telling impact upon the narrator? What is the value of these types of oral history work?
I came away inspired by the diversity and value of oral history practice, and by the activist engagement and generosity of spirit of oral historians – in all our varieties.