Creative Oral History
Special Interest Group: Creative Oral History
(For information on Special Interest Groups, see “Introducing Special Interest Groups”)
In 2019, at the Oral History Society Regional Network Event on the theme of Creative Uses of Oral History, held at the British Library, a number of speakers shared their expertise and creative responses to oral history. Many of those present found it inspiring and exciting. Creative approaches in the field of oral history have garnered widespread interest and attention from oral historians, creative practitioners and funders. There is growing awareness that art can be an invaluable bridge to communicate ideas, share information and involve audiences.
At local level, many site-specific community-based oral history projects have fantastic creative outputs; at a national level, in 2019 the British Library hosted ‘The Library of Ideas’, an event which opened up the potential of archives, including oral history archives, as sites of inspiration for artists and students to research and develop of their own artistic ideas.
In setting up this OHS Creative SIG, we aim to build on the momentum and interest of members to explore creative oral history work which has been around for a long time and remains a vibrant area of practice.
What is the Creative Oral History Special Interest Group?
The Creative Oral History Special Interest Group seeks to bring together Oral History Society members who are working with oral history in creative or innovative ways or who are interested in the issues and practice involved and to gather and share good practice in this field. This includes all forms of artistic practice, including, but not restricted to, art, film, creative writing and performance.
The Creative Oral History Group’s purpose in the first instance is to:
- Bring together members of the Oral History Society with an interest in creative uses of oral history and creative practitioners working with life stories, to encourage collaborations, connections and creativity.
The group intends to develop the following areas:
- Guide and assist good practice in oral history and creative practice.
- Establish an online directory of existing and past projects which bring together oral history and creative practice to increase awareness of work in this area.
- Develop tailored guidelines on ethical practice for those working in the field of oral history and creative practice.
- Create networking opportunities for oral history and creative practitioners to share collaborative opportunities, innovation, knowledge and skills, funding opportunities and best practice.
- Explore innovative ways of communicating as a group using new technology.
- Increase community engagement with creative oral history and the sharing of knowledge through events, conferences, workshops, seminars and webinars
Join the group
As a new and developing group we have an open-door policy, welcome new members and value their input. For more information or to join the group, please contact the Chair, Maxine Beuret or the Secretary, Helen Foster.
Examples of creative oral history
Colour Contacts – oral history / dance
This artistic collaboration, drawing on the Museum of London’s oral history collection, used the artist’s experiences as a defining part of the artwork. Colour Contacts resulted a multi-media dance performance piece created and performed by Beeja, a South Indian dance troop. The troop draws on the traditions of the South Asian dance form Bharatanatyam, a physical dance style combining intricate footwork with a sophisticated vocabulary of facial gestures.
In order to deliver the project, members of Beeja were invited to listen to personal stories from the oral history collection at Museum of London, which explored experiences of migration to the Capital. These memories became the inspiration for the performance piece.
Merging roles of artist and curator, the oral histories were transformed into a narrative sound piece, bringing voice, sound and music together and drawing on the traditions of Indian Classical Dance. The piece interpreted the memories, voices and impressions of those who came to live and work in London, through movement.
The resulting piece was performed by Beeja at venues including a shopping centre, underground stations and the Ealing Mela. It succeeded in taking dance and oral history out of the museum environment and reaching new audiences. The dance artists brought new perspectives, creativity and interpretation to the presentation of oral history. The results were exciting and unconventional, inspiring and thought provoking, both for the audiences and Museum staff.
Snapshots – oral history / memory-based artworks
This project involved an oral historian working creatively with spoken testimonies to create memory-based art and poetry. It explored the importance of taking time to reflect on and celebrate a person’s life and achievements and what it means to have that life story encapsulated in an artwork. It raised important questions around the process and ethics of making art from people’s memories.
Memory-based artworks came out of creative relationships between artists and people with dementia, nurtured during a 12-week apprenticeship scheme as part of a partnership between Resonate Arts and the European Reminiscence Network. During a series of lively Remembering Together sessions, participants came together to share and celebrate their lives. Everyone remembers differently, but by using a variety of tools, including sensory prompts, music, visual aids, art, movement and role play, memories were unlocked and opportunities were created for everyone to share their stories and feel valued.
The project culminated in a series of personalised artworks made by the artist/apprentices, inspired by participants’ shared stories. These memory artworks continue to act as reminiscence prompts and are important reminders of the past, giving meaning to a life that was gradually being forgotten. One carer said of her mother’s artwork, “Every time Mum looks at it, she is seeing it afresh, as if it was the first time.”
For more information contact: Sarah Gudgin.
Sarah is a freelance oral historian, creative reminiscence facilitator, trainer and artist. She was Curator of Oral History and Contemporary Collecting at the Museum of London for 15 years where she led innovative oral history collecting projects, curated exhibitions and AV displays using oral histories and worked with several artists to explore creative ways of presenting oral history. She has also worked on the London’s Voices project and developed a sound walk, Linked, with the artist Graham Millar. The experiences she has gained from creative approaches to working with oral history continue to inform her current work.
Age Exchange Theatre and the European Reminiscence Network – oral history / reminiscence theatre
The Age Exchange Theatre and Reminiscence Centre was founded by Pam Schweitzer in 1983 and she was its Artistic Director from 1983 to 2005. Her special interest in creating theatre from the memories of older people has led her to direct over on 30 professional theatre productions which have toured nationally and internationally. The work draws on topics of crucial historical and social significance, and pioneered performances by older people of their own memories, including people who have never performed before.
Voices from the Shadows was a play which featured the experiences of people with dementia and their carers. Their words were delivered by two professional actors, Pamela Lyne and Godfrey Jackman, in highly charged extracts from their letters, writings and recordings. The extracts demonstrated anger and sadness as well as humour and compassion. The production was developed for the Alzheimers Society and an educational pack about dementia was also produced.
Memory Lane drew on the stories of older people who had grown up in a single street in south-east London. Built entirely from verbatim memories, it charted their lives through the decades. The play reached 85 audiences across London and the south-east of England.
Memories of War – oral history / reminiscence theatre
This play was performed by the Greenwich Pensioners’ Forum at the University of Greenwich and based on a recent reminiscence workshop and archive material deposited in the Reminiscence Theatre Archive. A group of six women and one man aged 83-97 from the Pensioners’ Forum were invited to share their memories of the Second World War at a series of reminiscence workshops. They were interviewed as a group, taking turns to speak about their individual experiences, and then contributed to a general discussion which was all recorded. A draft script was devised based on the meeting transcripts, leaving areas free for improvisation, such as childhood games, shopping queues and the blackout. These were gradually developed and fixed.
The play opened with the song ‘Run Rabbit Run’ which set the scene for the recounting of war memories, some of them intensely moving, threaded through with a spirit of resilience embodied in the performers themselves. There were stories of evacuation from London: some pleasant memories, others more disturbing, such as the case of one woman sent to a rural area and split up from her siblings. Another woman recounted the terror of the bombings as she curled her body over onto her knees and put her arms over her head; the distance between stage and audience collapsed as the audience witnessed a universal depiction of the lived experience of aerial bombardment.
For more information contact: Pam Schweitzer .
Pam Schweitzer MBE is a freelance trainer and director. She is based at the University of Greenwich where she is an Honorary Research Fellow and holds an Honorary Doctor of Arts. She founded the European Reminiscence Network in 1992 to promote high quality reminiscence work in 12 partners countries. Pam has been involved in oral history for many years and serve on the oral History Society Committee. She has given her archive of reminiscence theatre work to the University of Greenwich: www.reminiscencetheatrearchive.org.uk
Two Pints Please – oral history / photography
This project documented dairies and doorstep milk delivery, an important long-standing feature of many communities, through photography and oral history. Dairies often carry a strong local identity and contribute to the cultural heritage and identity of many towns and cities. As well as capturing this history through contemporary photography, this project also recorded oral histories from milk delivery people. The results can be seen in a range of videos which bring together interview extracts interview with urban soundscapes and stills photography.
For more information contact Maxine Beuret.
Maxine’s photography practice depicts cultural heritage in the present with a focus on Design History in the everyday. She frequently works on projects in partnership with local communities and heritage professionals. Her photography straddles a boundary between documentary and art, using content, framing and lighting to create evocative images that captures a sense of place. Her work combines photography with oral history and environmental sound to create short films. She encourages and enables people to share unspoken thoughts and memories about subjects whilst they are still part of contemporary life. Maxine is currently studying for a practice-based PhD at Kingston University School of Film and Photography.
Sounding Borders – oral history / creative writing
Sounding Borders was led by Scotland’s Sounds and Historic Environment Scotland with funding from the Esme Fairbairn Foundation. It aimed to raise the profile of sound collections across Scotland. The project used archived oral testimonies from people living in the Scottish Borders as a starting point, reflecting on their domestic lives, school lives, working lives and social lives in the 20th century. The interviews, mostly recorded during the 1970s and 1980s, were taken from the collections of Scottish Borders Archives and Scran (www.scran.,ac.uk).
Sounding Borders brought these voices out of the archives and let them speak again. It focused on the idea that oral history archives can be used as a source of inspiration for creative writing by encouraging people to LISTEN to their oral history heritage, WRITE a creative response to it, capture extracts from these creative pieces in the form of PRINT and finally have the opportunity to READ their work to an audience at the annual Borders Book Festival in Hawick.
An oral historian and writer led a series of writing workshops with local people at Peebles Library. The group were encouraged to listen to oral history recordings of locals, including domestic servants, railwayman and shopkeepers and to respond through writing in whatever form they wanted.
They drew on the recordings for historical detail in their writing, with oral history providing eye-witness accounts of, and adding a subjective layer to, events and places in the past. The voices in the archives also offered a rich seam of inspiration for the writer through the spoken word: dialect words, accents and turns of phrase were used to trigger ideas. Analogies, metaphors and images feature in spoken testimonies. There is a natural rhythm to the human voice which can offer inspiration for poetry and give the writer food for thought when considering how to pin down the spoken word on the page. This act of pinning the spoken word to the page was explored at a follow-on workshop held at the National Trust for Scotland’s Robert Smail’s Printing Works in Innerleithen where participants used traditional letterpress printing techniques to transform extracts of their written works into artworks. The project culminated in participants performing their work at the Borders Book Festival and a printed anthology of poetry and prose which was distributed locally.
For more information contact Helen Foster .
Dr Helen Foster has worked in learning, interpretation and digital archives for national heritage organisations for over 15 years. She now runs the East Midlands Oral History Archive at the University of Leicester. She is also a writer of fiction and holds a PhD in Creative Writing. Her research explores the relationship between oral history and prose. She also teaches writing in adult education and is developing her practice in Writing for Wellbeing.