Oral history in London 2021

Enquiries: 2021 has been another quiet year for oral history enquiries which may reflect hesitancy around conducting oral histories in person, or perhaps enquiries are seeking advice elsewhere.

Islington’s Pride project. I started the year completing work which I began in 2020, to conduct oral history interviews for Islington’s Pride project, focused on collecting, archiving and sharing material from the Islington LGBTQ+ community. The project has installed 50 LGBTQ+ heritage plaques across the borough representing a cross section of the rich LGBTQ+ heritage of Islington.

The oral histories covered a wide range of topics and interviewees talked candidly about issues such as coming out, sexuality, the HIV/AIDs pandemic and Section 28, as well as reflecting recent transgender debates which are on-going. 

The sensitive nature of some of the recordings has raised wider questions around how we deal with subjects that may be highly contentious; how content is handled in archives afterwards and the consequences interviewees may face for their views. Is it appropriate to close off material which may cause offence to others at the risk of angering interviewees? And could this result in accusations of censorship? What do projects do, if interviewees want their views to be known? Is there a danger that a content warning could be a flag to draw people to look at the interviews that seem to be controversial? 

For each interview we conducted a sensitivity review and logged our decisions, so that they were clearly recorded.  The OHS GDPR pages will be useful to anyone pondering these subjects, including an explanation of sensitivity reviews. https://www.ohs.org.uk/gdpr-2/

Imperial War Museum, 2nd and 3rd Gen. Holocaust Project. During summer 2021, I carried out a very challenging project for Imperial War Museum, which focussed on producing content for the new Holocaust Galleries which opened this autumn. I was required to conduct 12 oral history interviews, lasting between 2-4 hours in duration with second and third generation descendants of Holocaust survivors. The interviewees not only spoke about their family’s experiences of the Holocaust, but also about the continued impact of the Holocaust in their lives today.

The interviews were filmed and carried out over 7 working days, with 21 participants – some in groups of 3. The intense work schedule and the subject matter of the interviews was emotionally demanding and at times harrowing for both the interviewees, as well as the people involved in the recording. However museum and visitor feedback about the films has been hugely positive and they are a really valuable contribution to the field of post-memory and Holocaust studies.

The experience has highlighted a number of concerns about wellbeing and the need for better support for freelancers, working with challenging content, as well as the need for improved working practices. After raising these concerns with the Oral History Society I am pleased that the subject of wellbeing will form the basis of our next Reginal Networker CPD event in Jan 2022, which it is hoped, will be the starting point for developing Wellbeing Guidance for the OHS webpages.

South London Gallery, Grow Our Histories Project. I have been recording 9 long length interviews with community activists, artists and residents living and working in Peckham, reflecting on the effects of regeneration and talking about continuity and change in their lives and everyday experiences. The interviews have captured the atmosphere of Peckham and some of the tensions between old and new comers, but have also created a contemporary local history of the area through the lived experiences of the interviewees. Their stories weave together, agree and contradict, shed light on the positive changes in the area as well as illuminate some of the darker corners of local history.  They also show the love that people have for Peckham. The project was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and is a collaboration between the South London Gallery, Southwark’s Local History Library and Archive and Peckham Townscape Heritage Initiative. 

Creative Oral History SIG. In addition to the above, I have continued to be involved in the management committee for the Creative Oral History SIG. This year despite the restrictions, our membership continued to grow and we now have 46 members. We have initiated a welcome information pack for setting up a SIG by the OHS; set up the Creative Oral History page on the OHS website, helped with the relaunch of the OHS website and maintained a Facebook group and Twitter account.  We have also started a creative practitioner’s guidance document and a mapping project. 

We have held a number of events including Bringing Stories to Life, Oral History and Creative Expression in June 2021; taken part in Oral History and The Media Conference, July 2021; launched an informal networking event- the creative oral history practitioner’s forum, Oct 2021 and hosted a Christmas gathering on the subject of Being Heard, with a several guest speakers.

We are also planning for Performing Oral History, a day symposium at University of Greenwich, Tuesday 12th April 2022. Do join us!

Scroll to Top