Today the collection and use of oral history in museums is more popular than ever before. Some institutions like the Imperial War Museum and the National Museum Wales have had longstanding oral archives that have informed their displays for decades. Recent years have seen a diverse range of museums, from maritime and social history to military and industrial, setting up or supporting projects focusing on memory collection.

Oral testimony in exhibition displays has a powerful impact on visitors. Hearing the voices narrate first-hand accounts of events being portrayed in the exhibitions adds an immediate, personal and emotive perspective. Audio or video content engages audiences of all ages and levels of interest more effectively than traditional text-based interpretation.

New digital technology now offers exciting and innovative ways to present this material – both within and outside museum buildings. Museum audiences can now access people’s stories on sound posts, audio-visual screens, digital interactives and trail apps. The personal and aural nature of such content makes it more accessible and appealing to audiences of all ages, abilities and interest levels. Oral testimony also lends itself well to the expectations of modern audiences for museum visits to be engaging, interactive and relevant to them.

Oral history in UK museums

Many regional and local museums in the UK hold oral history archives related to the social and industrial history of their areas. Some of these collections stem from community-based projects set up in the 1980s to document the histories of those whose lives were not represented in existing museum collections. The focus then, as now, was on actively involving local people in this process and to encourage a sense of ownership of their heritage.

Since the 1990s support from the Heritage Lottery Fund has been instrumental in the growth of oral history in museums. Museums are setting up or supporting heritage projects that include some element of oral history recording. The emphasis is always on the training and enabling of local people to record, archive and present the heritage of their area.

Whether it is Titanic survivors (SeaCity Museum Southampton), former pupils at the Foundling Hospital (Foundling Museum), local people’s memories (Experience Barnsley Museum, People’s Story Edinburgh) or workplace memories of railway workers (National Railway Museum), miners (National Mining Museum Scotland) and naval personnel (National Museum of the Royal Navy) museums across the country are presenting personal stories in their interpretation.

Further Reading

  • J. Cassidy, ‘Migration memories on multi-media at a museum’, Oral History Association of Australia Journal, 2003, no. 25, pp. 90-95.
  • H. Clark and S. Marwick, ‘The People’s Story – Moving On, Social History in Museums, 1992, vol. 19, pp. 54-65.
  • S. A. Crane (ed.), Museums and Memory, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000.
  • S. Davies, ‘Falling on deaf ears? Oral history and strategy in museums’, Oral History, 1994, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 74-84.
  • 6P. Davison, ‘Museums and the reshaping of memory’ and H. Deacon, ‘Remembering tragedy, constructing modernity: Robben Island as a national monument’, both in S. Nuttall and C. Coetzee (eds), Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa, Cape Town and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • A. Day, ‘London’s Voices: exhibiting oral history’, Oral History, 2006, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 95-104.
  • A. Day, ‘Listening galleries: oral history on display’, Oral History, 1999, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 91-96.
  • A. Day,’They listened to my voice’: The Refugee Communities History Project and Belonging: Voices of London’s Refugees’, Oral History, 2009, vol.37, no. 2, pp. 95-106.
  • B. Factor, ‘Making an exhibition of yourself: museums and oral history’, Oral History Association of Australia Journal, 1991, vol. 13, pp. 44-48.
  • A. Green, ‘The exhibition that speaks for itself: Oral history and museums’, Oral History Review, 1997, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 53-72.
  • D. Hyslop, ‘From oral historians to community historians: some ways forward for the use and development of oral testimony in public institutions’, Oral History Association of Australia Journal, 1995, vol. 17, pp. 1–8.
  • S. Jones and C. Major, ‘Reaching the public: oral history as a survival strategy for museums’, Oral History, 1986, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 31-38.
  • T. Kushner, ‘Oral history at the extremes of human experience: Holocaust testimony in a museum setting’, Oral History, 2001, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 83-94.
  • C. McEachern, ‘Working with memory: the District Six Museum in the new South Africa’, Social Analysis, 1998, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 48-72.
  • B. Nasson, ‘Oral history and the reconstruction of District Six’, in S. Jeppie and C. Soudien (eds), The Struggle for District Six: Past and Present, Cape Town, Buchu Books, 1990, pp. 44-66.
  • R. Perks, ‘Ellis Island Immigration Museum, New York’, Oral History, 1991, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 79-80.
  • R. Perks, ‘Working knowledge: Oral history’, Museum Practice, 2004, issue 25, pp. 44-61.
  • R. Perks, ‘Oral history in museums is under attack’, Museums Journal, December 2013:
  • W. Rickard, Nikita, S. Evans, S. Reeves and G. Cameron, ‘What are sex worker stories good for? User engagement with archived data’, Oral History, 39, 2, Spring 2011, pp 91-103, explores the use of sensitive interview data in a museum setting.
  • L. Taksa, ‘Globalization, memory and industrial heritage – remembering and forgetting the noise, jobs, skills, conflicts and camaraderie of a forgotten era’, paper presented to the XIIIth International Oral History Conference, Rome, June 2004.
  • J. K. W. Tchen, ‘Creating a dialogic museum: the Chinatown History Museum experiment’, in I. Karp, C. M. Kreamer and S. D. Lavine (eds), Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, pp. 285-326.

For Museums Association members only: