Responding to the Pandemic: Paul Thompson interviews Karen Worcman of the Museu da Pessoa, Sao Paulo, Brazil

Share this article

Editors’ note:

To mark the launch of our new article section of Oral History Online we are publishing an interview which Paul Thompson conducted with Karen Worcman of the Museu da Pessoa, Brazil, in January 2021, discussing her response to the international coronavirus pandemic, which had by then been underway for a year. Two years ago, in March 2020, the UK government announced a national lockdown, since when Covid has taken the lives of over 185,000 people in the UK, and an estimated 6.1 million worldwide. It has fundamentally changed all our lives in myriad ways and oral historians have been forced to adapt their practice to embrace remote interviewing in times of acute trauma and distress. New risk assessment protocols have been developed to keep both interviewers and interviewees safe. Gradually, reflective writing about oral history during the pandemic has begun to emerge in most of the national oral history journals around the world, interrogating the role of oral historians in times of crisis.  Undoubtedly, the oral histories we have already gathered, and will continue to collect in the coming decades, will capture a tapestry of experiences, emotional insights and reflections on personal, local, national and global scales.

Around the globe many hundreds of testimony and memory-based projects have been documenting the impact of the pandemic, and these are now slowly being archived and made available. Some will feature in the post-pandemic public inquiries and policy statements which governments are preparing. Oral History has been tracing them through its news pages and the British Library will soon be publishing a database of UK-based Covid oral history and testimony projects and archives (over one hundred) as part of a guide to the Library’s Covid-19 collections. This guide highlights the UK Web Archive Coronavirus (Covid-19) Collection ( comprising 6,500 websites, together with off-air recordings of Covid coverage from seventeen television and sixty radio channels, and music and creative recordings. A major oral history collection of some 1,300 interviews with health practitioners and patients collected as part of the joint University of Manchester/BL project ‘NHS Voices of Covid-19’ – will be added over the next year – alongside other oral history material specifically focusing on the pandemic. Similar initiatives have been underway at, for example, StoryCorps, and the Columbia and Bancroft Library oral history centres in the US; at the National Archives of Singapore; at the China Memory Centre at the National Library of China; at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague; at Dublin City University in Ireland (a ‘rapid response’ oral history project inspired by Indiana University); in Finland led by the Finnish Literature Society; at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in New Zealand; and at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Here we hear how one organisation in Brazil responded to the pandemic.

Responding to the Pandemic: Paul Thompson interviews Karen Worcman of the Museu da Pessoa, Sao Paulo, Brazil

Karen Worcman and the Museu da Pessoa, Sao Paulo, Brazil

Karen Worcman is the founder in 1992 and director of the Museu da Pessoa (Museum of the Person) based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which was from the start a multimedia museum archiving life story interviews, photographs and stereo life story recordings in a computer-based form. This was before the internet and pre-digital. Any interested oral historian can follow their recent work on their colourful and easy-to follow website. To get it in English press the button at the top right – and they also offer translation into many other languages.

The Museu has so far carried out well over two hundred projects, recording some 18,000 life story interviews. Each of the projects typically has as outcomes a well-designed book combining testimonies and photographs, and an exhibition or a multi-media display, also notably elegant. Their first museum project was a ‘coporama’ for the cups of the Sao Paulo Football Club. The idea was to use the appeal of constantly flicking from one piece of information to another, which is a key new feature of contemporary culture. So alongside the cups were terminals on which you could look for clips from the 1940s onwards on famous footballers or goals – such as a snatch of film in which you can hear the roar of the crowd as the goal is scored.

The Museu has no connection with the current federal government under Bolsonaro. Fortunately Brazil is a federal state. Its chief backers have been in Sao Paulo city, especially through SESC (the Social Services of Commerce of the State of Sao Paulo). But after 2016 it played a leading role in the socialist President Lula’s government cultural programmes, which were transformed under the direction of the famous singer Gilberto Gil as Minister for Culture. Gil argued that the strength of Brazilian culture was not in its museums but in its people. So he set up a programme for more than 800 ‘points of culture’ across the country, centres of energy in the grassroots, culture as a living Brazilian popular creation. These included quilombos, communities of runaway slaves, informal maroon communities previously unrecognised. For a description of just one project using focus groups in a poor district of Porto Alegre, a southern city, see The Voice of the Past (4th edition, 2017, p 307).

Alongside its work based on SESC the Museu has carried projects financed by over seventy large companies, the best-known their project with Petrobas, the national oil company, in 2002-10, for which they created a website which holds a thousand copies of the project book and they gave a hundred thousand copies to Petrobas workers and trade unionists. The Museu has reached out to encourage life story work still more broadly.  From 1997 they have had a section on their website for receiving people’s own life stories, or group collections, adding photos and documents, written text, audio and video. Typically they get a hundred new stories a month. They have also experimented with video recording booths, starting in 1993 with temporary tents on the city metro, where people would stop to record brief stories and often sing or dance. They now have two hundred recording booths across Brazil.

Their work is not only very innovative and of high quality, but on a scale which makes them unique in the worldwide oral history community. Just one of their projects under Lula, their ‘Local Memory at School’ programme, training children and teachers, has involved more than 1500 schools in eighty cities. The Brazilian oral history context is unique, both for its difficulties and for its achievements, but I believe that what Karen has to say about their experiences under the Covid pandemic is worth considering deeply by any major oral history centre internationally.

A note on the interview

This interview was my first attempt at a long-distance zoom phone interview. We followed the excellent guidelines authored by Charlie Morgan and the oral history team at the British Library, recording at both ends. However, we did not need to integrate the two ends of the recordings because my voice was sufficiently clear on the Brazilian recording for the transcriber Olga Saavedra. A further factor is that Karen has been for thirty years a close friend and we had already talked at length about the issues which the interview was to cover, which turned the recording into more of a conversational exchange. Nor, recording under the solitariness of lockdown, had I anticipated the emotional impact of meeting and recording at such a distance over zoom, which also shows up in the interview. At a second stage Karen has clarified much of what she said in the recording, so the version you read below is co-edited. 

Karen Worcman interviewed by Paul Thompson, 22 January 2021

[Laughter and comments are heard while getting ready for the recording]

Karen Worcman: OK so now we are recording? Let’s start talking?

Paul Thompson: 1:35 You were telling me about how you thought it different trying to achieve changes in the pandemic situation? So, could you explain about that?

W: 01:50 Well, what I told you about was that, even in the situation of the bigger crisis of the pandemic with people having to spread apart and stay in their homes it was difficult. But from the other side, what I realised after some time was that it was a chance for making changes we needed to do in our institution. For example: we wanted to get back the idea for the museum that was there from the start, that it was to be a virtual museum. But as you know and you were there, when the museum started even the internet did not yet exist. We had CD Rom. Hence, we had to do a lot of physical processes.

2:40 And more recently I had found it very difficult to rethink the museum and get … the whole team to understand, and explore the possibilities in using the new digital tools. So, there was a divide over making changes and getting the platform more meaningful, new exhibitions, and training people to work online and other stuff. People were having a lot of difficulties with that. And I think that suddenly changed. With the moment of the pandemic we felt, now we need to do that. The crisis itself brought an opportunity, even an imperative, an incredible opportunity for change. For changing the position of the institution, for trying to put it where it needed to be. But I think if we had had a normal year, we would have taken years to do that…

P: 04:10 Of course, in a way it was an advantage of having the original plan not working – a lot of your outcomes were not digital at all, like books, museum exhibitions, I think it was a good thing you did those things. I think to have just been only a digital museum would have been less interesting than if you mixed all those methods together… 

 W: 04:52 Yes, I believe that the presence of books, and exhibitions, and even interviews, they are of course stronger in emotions and contacts and possibilities. I do believe that, I don’t think you need to not do that. But you need to think what the digital can bring in.

05:20 So I can give you a very interesting example. We have an educational programme for [state] public schools as it were training the trainers. We train school teachers to develop, by themselves, an entire oral history project highlighting the value of a unique life story. Each class of kids (between nine and eleven in the beginning) select a person of their community to be interviewed. Then they transform this into a local book, a physical exhibition and a virtual collection of stories archived at the Museu da Pessoa. This was led by our own staff, who would go to different places and states of Brazil, like Piaui, or to a megacity like Rio, to train teachers there in these methods. Once a month they would go there. But when the pandemic started, we put the whole course online, and this enabled us to create much more impact.

Because when you develop the project in one city, place or state for a whole year you will have only that place. But this time, for example, we opened a call for museums in the state of São Paulo and from that call twenty museums wanted to participate. So, we selected ten different museums from the state of São Paulo and we asked: ‘Do you want to be trained by the Museu da Pessoa how to create a small nucleus of the ‘Museum of the Person’? If you have the objects in your museum, how to use them to create such a small nucleus. And we were able to work for months. We had, in three days, more than 500 people inscribed from all over Brazil! 

07:25 So I think the digital can bring in new things. I think that what was happening was because the pandemic brought a change of mindset, and hence the opening for this opportunity. 

P: 07:47 Can you explain the political situation. I think people will be surprised that with Bolsonaro as President, it is still possible to do things like this in Sao Paulo. 

9:33 W: I think since Bolsonaro got in the federal social and cultural politics was really horrible, they tried and they keep trying systematically to erase what has been done before. It is very sad. Before we had this politics coming from Lula – the previous socialist President – to empower local groups, empower community museums. We had a change in approach to indigenous people, through the idea of creating new memories in, for example, quilombos[communities formed by runaway slaves – another example is the Maroon communities in Jamaica]. And even before Bolsonaro, during Lula’s impeachment these gains were being undermined. But since Bolsonaro got in, he even closed down the Ministry of Culture… 

11:09 In Sao Paulo I think one thing is national, and the other thing is that you have state politics too. Sao Paulo is a very strong state, an amazingly strong state because it is the richest state of the country, but the Governor of Sao Paulo is a right-wing guy too, so he also took away some of the support for cultural things. We also have the mayor of Sao Paulo – ok, he is better, he is not a real great guy on that, but he is better. So, there is a political moment, mainly focusing on social, cultural issues, that is bad, it’s bad for all the institutions and NGOS in Brazil. 

12.15 With the Museu da Pessoa what happened to us amazingly is that just one year before, just a year before Bolsonaro got in, we were talking to BNDES (the national bank of social and economic development). And we were for like three years talking to them to get some institutional support, means, money to digitise the archives, money to enhance the platform, the institution and communication. And, after three years of very hard work, we got this money.

13.10 It started in 2018 and it is finishing this year, this money, which was like 5 million reais.   When it started was almost two million dollars, but the reais dropped in value, so now it’s one million dollars. It’s amazing, but anyway with this kind of money we had a very strict plan to work. And now, we have the whole archives digitised. We had interns, we had volunteers and now money was coming from this project. This was like a ‘blessing’ that I always say, we had for the Museu de Pessoa. So sometimes you have a kind of magic to have support in the middle of this mess. That meant we did not get into a real crisis, in that we had money to do institutional work, money we didn’t have before. 

SESC (Social Services of Commerce of the State of Sao Paulo), the funding institution which has been our principal long-term support in Sao Paulo, got into a very difficult situation during the Bolsonaro government and they are still in a difficult situation because when he got in Bolsonaro wanted to erase SESC, to get all its money. So SESC have got 30% less money now and they went into a very strong political fight to survive. The big funding partners of the Museu de Pessoa, and many cultural and artistic organisations, everybody got in some difficulty.

15:00 Do you remember our project on memories of commerce?  We were doing three different projects in Sao Paulo and we had to stop them because of the pandemic.  We had many projects that stopped. So it was not an easy year. Of course, now it’s still a very difficult one, reinventing and getting on with many projects that we had stopped in the middle, not knowing how to work with our team. It was a very intense year but we passed it through. 

I was telling you of course what you get out of the crisis. It is crazy because the crisis is a national crisis, because corona here in Brazil is a strong crisis on top of another crisis, which was the political crisis we were having already. So, surviving and changing is what we are trying to do, and I’m very proud that we took all these challenges to do good new things. But there are crises and there is tension. For example, all the Brazilian theatre institutions use the tax benefit law, but they keep changing the law, not giving you the money from the law. So, it is very complicated. What I am telling you is that it is not just good things, it’s very tense and difficult things. But you know Brazil has always been very difficult.

I think we had like fifteen years maybe, of a better context which was under Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2003) and Lula (Luis Inacio Lula da Silva 2003-2010) as Presidents. But when the museum started the President was Fernando Collor de Mello , known as Collor], a very authoritarian and oligarchical person that got impeached in 1992, just seven years before the dictatorship ended, and we were living a very complicate economical scenarios – inflation, crisis. So, I don’t think Brazil is an easy country. It’s surviving in a place where it was not easy to survive. That gives you some resilience, right? 

17:49 P: I can remember, when I was teaching at Campinas, UNICAMP, that when you got paid you ran off to the bank as quickly as possible, transferring the money into dollars. You had this payday queue of academics.  

18:12 W: That would be at the beginning of the 1990s, when people discovered that Collor was taking the money from everyone, so everybody started running to get their money out of the bank, because he froze the bank’s funds. Which was crazy, imagine the money that you have reserved during your lifetime, he said that you now can’t use it. And the money of the companies. 

Collor’s policies affected the whole society.  I remember an expedition I did myself recording life stories in the Amazonia. This project that started formally in 2006 and finished in 2013, was called ‘Memories of Brazilians’. We had done about six different expeditions around Brazil and recorded like 300 life stories. One of these expeditions was along the Amazon River, and we recorded some stories in a place called Obidos. This was a really beautiful historical city lost in time, once a place for planting, growing, processing and exporting Pará chestnuts, still a strong, characterful place. The Collor policy had a disastrous impact there because it drove all the big producers and many of the smaller ones to bankruptcy. When I went back twenty years later I found that the guy I was interviewing was still trying to pay off his debts from the Collor period.

So for a long time, it’s a crazy country Paul, crazy country.  

19:17 P: So now we can move on and you can describe some of the new things, you’ve been doing in the last year?

19:27 W: Well first there was a big difficulty. We were in the middle of changing the platform because of that money we got from the national bank, but it didn’t work, we needed more time as always. So we said, ‘Let’s create a new platform, like a transitory one, let’s book a whole programme online, of exhibitions’. The first exhibition was called ‘History to Inspire during Difficult Times’. 

20:13 It used small stories of a maximum of two minutes, of people that we already have in our archive, to create small videos of inspirational stories. And we published the stories on Instagram. It was one of the first online exhibitions published on Instagram.

20:32 For example, one of the stories was about Geraldo Prado, a guy that created an amazing community library at the middle of Bahia, [the largest state in north-east Brazil] that was the biggest rural library in the world. He was very poor. But he learned how to read and write, and then when he was like eighteen he came to Sao Paulo to work as a janitor, to help his uncle… He had amazing stories. 

And then after that, he took a course to study, he liked to study, and then he tried to get to the university to study medicine. And of course, he never got to study medicine. He realized that – ‘I want to go the University of Sao Paulo, which was a very hard university to get in’. This was in the 60s /70s and he realized that there was a Chinese course, there were no candidates, so he applied for that and he got it! [Both laugh]

I love this story! So he got into Chinese and he moved on to history and he became a historian and he started to collect books, books, books. And then he had his amazing idea to create this community library in his home town. He’s collected  more than one hundred thousand books there now. 

22:16. And he also fought the dictatorship – in a guerrilla organization. It’s a beautiful story. So, we edited his interview that was 4 hours long into a two minute story – became an inspiration. 

Another story. Edmisio is a pastor, a pastor not a priest, an evangelical guy. He was going to marry and he had a small house in the middle of a slum here in the west zone of Sao Paulo to be married. But he went at night to talk to the people who were smoking crack and he would say: ‘Come to my house to be changed’. He took as a mission for himself to go, during the nights, and give coffee and blankets to people that lived on the streets. He also went to talk to drug dealers and drug addicts. So, one of these moments, one of these guys, who was sleeping in the streets, asked him if he had the courage to take him to his house. He took him there. After that he started a mission and received more than 40 people in his house to help them change their lives. They were drug addicts, beggars, thieves and so on. His story was used as one of the stories of our exhibition. They were all inspirational stories of resilience and creativity, which we put on Instagram and on an exhibition platform.           

The next exhibition was about narrators, people that tell stories in Brazil. And then for the second semester we dedicated ourselves to a whole programme called ‘Black Lives’. Because before the pandemic we were planning to put a big exhibition in the Museu Afro-Brasil. Have you been there? An amazing and beautiful museum. It’s huge, it’s in Ibirapuera, that beautiful park….

24.45 This museum was special, because the founder is an amazing artist, a black artist from Bahia, Emanoel Araujo.  He had this amazing collection of the work of these artists, and their tools, everything about black culture, African culture, black culture in Brazil and he gave it to the museum. It’s a huge space, full of all of that. So we had invited him to use the photographs in our archive of people from black lives – such as of people marrying, beautiful photographs like that – for a special exhibition. 

When the pandemic started we were not able to do that exhibition anymore, so we created a whole programme to make our own online exhibition, we invited a curator to create the venues and used family and personal photographs from our archive; and then we opened our archives of stories of Black Lives, and we opened a call for black artists, young black artists to create small videos on the stories. Then we curated an educational programme (about the stories) which was an open call. And then we began interviewing ten amazingly interesting black people. So it was a whole semester dedicated to opening the archive for collaboration and we had the living lives, telling live stories with artists. A whole cultural programme online with the theme of black lives. I can send you the link after if maybe you want to see it.(

27:29 P: Can I ask you, you used more video at the start than audio, is that right? 

27:40 W: Yes. But now during the pandemic, we opened a new channel, a channel that was on Spotify, you know Spotify? It’s a platform of audio, and now we are creating amazing podcasts, which are much more interesting than the videos. I like the videos, but the videos have to be short. But now with these Black Lives programmes, each week we are launching a new podcast based on the interviews. Which is like you have a three-hour, or a four-hour interview, to which you add a forty-minute podcast. It is much more interesting because then you can go right through the lives of the people. This was an innovation during the pandemic too. So now we are going back to working on audio programmes. But yes you are right, since we have known each other, I’ve been working with video. But my preferred product is now podcasts, which means I came back to the traditional thing, to listening, yes.

29:05 P: Well, I’m all for doing more with video and it’s not been easy, in England to get that going. But I think there is an advantage of having both, because with the video you can involve shots which give a sense of where the stories happen, and that is very, very positive. But if you just have images of a group of old people talking about their early lives, it isn’t so powerful, because you are getting in your head the old person, instead of trying to imagine what it was like back then. It’s easier to imagine if you’ve got some other evidence, an old photograph for instance. 

And on top of that, there’s the whole problem of the continuing changes in technology. So that the risk is that you spend all this time recording in one system, then you realise that it’s useless as there is no machines that will play it any longer.

30:57 W: Yes Paul, the money we got from this bank was exactly because we had videos or audios that we couldn’t play anymore. We spent a year looking for a VHS machine, but there is no VHS anymore. We had to research to see who had a VHS to sell, to buy this VHS machine, to put in the tape and transfer it into a digitalized form. Technology is a strange thing, because you think you are preserving but the CD Roms, the diskettes, but then you find you can’t play them anymore. But the digitalisation now, maybe is going to work better. We discovered these people in Norway, PIQL ( , who had developed a new technology that lasts for 500 years. LTO, which uses magnetic tape. So we made a partnership with them, part of our archives now are in Norway. 

33:00 So these were all things that we were able to do because of both our new funding and changes in mindset. But if you have the money, you don’t necessarily change your mindset, you don’t need to go anywhere. So, I think it’s a mixture of being open to the new, dealing with the crisis and having someone to support what you can do. 

Can I tell you one initiative which I think is very interesting? We are going to make an online exhibition on the idea of creating a memory of this pandemic moment. We have a global pandemic and then we thought, what happened to the Spanish flu? We know that 50 million people died, we know what happened, but we don’t know how people lived that. So maybe we should open a journal, an online journal called ‘diarios para o futuro’, diaries for the future. 

33:50 So we invited people, thinking we could create a collaborative archive of our daily lives, opening with the new tool called  Videoask with which people could send in audio, video or text, daily documenting their lives. 

Then we created another experiment, which was a seven-day journey: a journey through your own memory. We asked people to try to visualize their first memory in life, the second day they were supposed to find an object at their house to tell the story of it and from that on. It was an exercise in recreating life stories within the space, with an object, with the memory from the seven days, from the first memory to how you see yourself in the future. 

Now we have 530 small stories and we continuing to do it in the same way. We have got some partnerships with Holland, and in Germany. We are also partnering with a research group of psychoanalysts led by Paulo Endo at the University of Sao Paulo, who have been collecting dreams from anonymous people during the pandemic, they have around two thousand dreams. Now with our partners in Holland we are creating an online exhibition at this moment; and with other partners we are organising a pandemic archive. So this is a very interesting initiative directly generated by the pandemic. 

37:07 P: It is easy to get lost in all these different projects. Is the memories of the pandemic perhaps the biggest one, is it?

37:28 W: I think that was one of the biggest initiatives, the others were online virtual cultural programmes made up of exhibitions, online interviews and open calls to people to collaborate, mainly for Black Lives.

37:47 P: That’s all about Brazil is it? Then there’s Black Lives Matter, which is also about Brazil, is it? What have you got in that? 

38:12 W: Black Lives were made as an online exhibition – a beautiful exhibition, made of photographs and some stories, an art piece. It’s made of four episodes and was made by an artist using the photographs and the stories of our archives. There was also an open call, to put out the stories that we had in our archive, we made them available in text and in a whole video, and young black artists created small videos out of this. So, this is a collaboration, editing videos about these stories. And another thing was interviews, we did interviews using zoom and so we had these interviews and we have audio podcasts.

39:28 P: So are there any other big initiatives that you have launched?

39:32 W: Yes, the other initiative was that we transformed the whole method of our educational programs, which we called the ‘social memory of technology’. Some organisations or communities or schools to pick up the method, they do it themselves. So we made this programme on a very interesting platform. It’s not just telling you how to do it online, it’s a whole programme that we have developed. We hired people for that who are specialists. It’s called ‘structural design’, it’s how you use this online platform, to help people to learn things now. (  You can do a university like that nowadays. 

40:30 W: So we keep this with our method. We formed a group of a hundred educators and ten museums, all online, and I think this is a transformative initiative, because we were able to work with the whole of Brazil. So now we are launching a programme that is called ‘Each School a Museum’. How you transform the memory of your own school. We are going to launch it with a national open call for public (state) schools. This was an important initiative, we had to design it. It was a development from our earlier educational work with the Lula socialist government, which involved projects with several hundred schools. It was a re-edition, a re-learning from that, yes. 

41:45 P: Now I wondered if you had any projects on feminism?

41:57 W: Yes, this year we started to understand that as a Museu de Pessoa we should have the curatorship of our own stories. Because all these years we kept doing projects, right? Project here, project there, educational project, project memory, bababa. But since last year we started to have our own curatorship, online. Black Lives was the big launch of our curatorship.

This year it’s all dedicated to what we call feminine lives, we are going to work a lot on feminine stories using our archives, recording new lives, organizing an exhibition about women. We are also partnering with some English researchers to work in the Maré network, a network organized by activists, in the Complexo da Maré, which is an agglomeration of sixteen favelas in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone, the largest complex of favelas in the city, where more than 300 thousand people live.

43:02. The project is led by Cathy MacIlwaine of Kings College, and Paul Heritage from and Eliana de Souza e Silva, one of the founders of the Maré Network. They want us to work with interviews on resilience and violence and on resilience and art. This whole year will be about women and also about indigenous people. 

We are finishing a match funding. Ah – the last thing I am going to tell you, is about match funding. Have you ever heard about crowd funding? Crowd funding? Match funding means there’s this big bank, you get this person to give one real or one dollar, or pounds, the bank puts two. We created the match fund to help young educators, and indigenous people, to record the life stories of their old people. Because they were dying of Covid, we lost a lot of old people that were living in the tribes because the Covid got there. There’s an African saying, one old person that dies in Africa, one good person that dies in an indigenous tribe is a whole library that burns. So, the match funding, we have the support of Ailton Krenak, a national and international thinker and indigenous leader, saying, one person that you record in a tribe, is a whole library you save. Almost completed, and then we are going to teach online, three tribes in Brazil (Guaranis, Nawas and Tupinambas) , so they can make the stories of their old people. So this is a big initiative now, feminine lives, big initiative. But it is still a pandemic year and we’re still back at home and we can’t go to these indigenous tribes. So we are going to make this first attempt online. 

45:29 P: The last thing I want to make sure that we talk about is the volunteers abroad. Where, how has that happened? You told me you had over 200 volunteers.

45:49 W: Volunteers yes. We started a volunteer’s programme, one or two years ago now, and now because of that funding money we have a person dedicated to that. She created an interesting drawing on how to work. The first step was to ask volunteers to make revisions of the transcripts (grammatical, words, etc) because you know like I do, how it is difficult once you record the story to transcribe it, to make revisions – you put it online, it’s a hard work, expensive work. So we opened a call for volunteers, so we had a line, people waiting to be trained, to edit stories and we had a go at three thousand stories. And we are going to beat that goal, at the end of this year. So now we have volunteers to help organizing our archive and to raise its quality and also help spreading and communicating our actions. …  [Phone call interrupts]

So now we have more or less 250 volunteers, some even from outside Brazil – for example, if we want to transcribe something in English for the people that create the themes of the video. Now we have more or less 250 volunteers in Brazil and outside of Brazil. It is amazing! I think for the future. But not just for the future of the museum. 

51:01 W: When we start having volunteers across the world, it will be great. Volunteers have been a great discovery for us. I know England has a lot of volunteer work, it’s a tradition in England and the United States. I think it is a cultural thing, volunteering.

There is lots of solidarity in Brazil, but there was not this idea of volunteering formally, and we got this training with people that are working with that. And when we started this ‘Programa Museo’ we couldn’t believe the museum could have 800 volunteers, a thousand. Because then you can really create, really grow without having to have thousands of money behind it. 

52:24 W: And it’s much more interesting. I had just read this report on the volunteers in which volunteers said how important this has been to them during pandemics to do this work. So amazing, amazing, it was beautiful.

53:51 W: I think transcribing can be very interesting, but it has to be a specific kind of person that can do it. What I found interesting is that the volunteers could edit, revise. It’s hard. And putting minutes in the video also, thematising the video, and they are really doing it. It’s hard work but they really love it.

58:37 W: But do you know the Memory Studies Association? This is a very new association, I really like it because it is an interdisciplinary association, from the Memory Studies journal. They have oral historians and museum people and teachers who work with memory. It’s really interesting. They had a meeting in Madrid, Spain and it was like a 1000 people there, big, big. They are going to have a meeting in Colombia. They were meeting in Warsaw, but then we created local groups and I got into a local Latin American group which is organising a specific Latin American meeting on memory studies in Colombia. 

1:00:14 P: Well that sounds very interesting! So we are running out of time, we were supposed to have finished by now [he chuckles], are we alright? Have we covered everything do you think?

1:00:45 W: I think the main things we covered. But the most important thing to think about is one sentence I told you on the phone in the call we had the other day. It is about the choice you have when you have a big crisis, no? You have a big crisis, what do you do? Of course you have a very difficult time. But if you look and see the opportunity in the crisis, then you are able to create innovation. So, these things I told you were innovations in our history in the Museu da Pessoa, within the institution, and we opened up new horizons to the volunteers, through the open calls, to be more collaborative. So it was an interesting year. Though hard. I think that the Museu da Pessoa is going to be a different institution after that.

W: 1.02.28 PauI, you know what I mean, I think this Memory Studies Association is new, I think it is interesting. From the beginning they want to be interdisciplinary. The Brazilian Oral History Association was very academic and hard to change. Memory Studies are very open to other kinds of initiatives. 

P: I’m keen on it. Well in fact there’s a new chapter in The Voice of the Past.

W: I read it, it’s about memory studies, you wrote a chapter there. I re-read your book, you know, so [laughs] the new one you gave me. Look, it’s all marked. I read it all. Be proud of me!

P: Oh really

W: Yes, yes! 

P: Oh brilliant, thank you. 

About the author

More OHJ Online

Scroll to Top