The learning disability charity Mencap is halfway through Hidden Now Heard, a three-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. We are collecting oral testimonies from former patients, their relatives, and staff from the long-stay hospitals for people with a learning disability in Wales. We use these stories, and any artefacts, to create temporary exhibitions that are shown across Wales (with the help of an army of volunteers). As a non-heritage organisation we continue to learn a great deal as we go along.
Consent is always a minefield for oral history projects, especially one that could uncover disturbing memories, contentious accounts and potential cases of historical abuse. We separated the issue of consent from assigning copyright, as there will be question marks over former patients’ capacity to consent. We have an easy-read form that gives people as much chance to customise their experience as possible. Interviewees can choose to be recorded on video or audio, they choose the location of the interview, they can bring a friend to support them and decide how their interview will be used.
We are still wrestling with how to communicate that our project doesn’t have a particular agenda; we don’t want to uncover abuse or pretend that the hospitals were all happy places. We want the truth, and we don’t know what that is. We have conducted interviews with nine former patients to date (November 2015), and 22 members of staff. Whilst life expectancy is undoubtedly a factor we often feel that information about our project is either being ignored or not passed on. Former patients may not want to take part but we would prefer to hear that from patients themselves.
Former staff are also cautious. They are interested in our exhibitions and interviews, but not about speaking about their own past experiences or involvement. They may be worried about present public perceptions of past practice. What our exhibitions always try to communicate is that it is the system that should be judged, not the individuals.
One clear example of this is with how tea was served: from one pot that contained milk and sugar, regardless of personal preference. This shows how patients were robbed of the chance to make even basic decisions for themselves. However, staff tell us that they were under great pressure, with often just a couple of staff having to change 20 beds then feed and bath 20 patients.