Oral history in Wales in 2020

Oral history in Wales in 2020

by Beth Thomas and Emily Hewitt

2020 was a difficult year to keep abreast of oral history in Wales.  It has also been a challenge for projects that have had their fieldwork curtailed by lockdowns. 

Following on from their successful project recording the experiences of women factory workers in the post-war years, Women’s Archive Wales have embarked on another oral history project.  Setting the Record Straight: safeguarding the records and voices of women in Welsh politics aims to capture the voices and papers of the current and former female Members of the Senedd (previously known as Assembly Members, AMs) elected to our national parliament during its first twenty years.  From the beginning, the Senedd has exceeded the proportion of women among its Members compared to other similar legislative Assemblies and Parliaments.  Following the elections of 2003, the Senedd achieved the status as the first legislature to achieve a gender balance. Despite the challenges of lockdown, WAW has succeeded in undertaking video interviews with 37 female politicians so far.  Their stories relate how they became engaged in politics, what difficulties they encountered, their particular political interests, the campaigns they championed and why.  Project information and clips of interviews are also available on the Senedd‘s website.  

With AHRC funding, Cardiff University have partnered with St Fagans National Museum of History to undertake research into the experiences of two groups of people at different stages of being refugees in Wales.  Sri Lankan Tamil refugees arrived in waves between the 1980s and 2010, when civil war ended in Sri Lanka.  Syrian asylum seekers have been claiming refugee status since the start of the civil war in 2011.  Both groups are well represented in Wales.  The oral history recordings will be archived at St Fagans and will be made publicly available, with the permission of interviewees, as a learning resource for present and future generations.  The project aims to raise awareness and support refugees in their struggle to thrive and belong.  Covid-19 and the inability to meet face-to-face has been a huge challenge to project fieldwork but progress is being made.  The project’s website is available in English, Welsh and Arabic. 

In a year that has seen Black Lives Matter become a global movement, it is good to note two oral history projects in Wales that have worked hard to record the contribution of the Windrush Generation to Welsh life.   

Using the arrival of the Empire Windrush ship at Tilbury in June 1948 as their starting point, young people at Pentrehafod School, Swansea worked with older people of West Indian heritage living in Wales to learn about the experiences of subsequent ‘Windrush generations’. Led by the African Community Centre in Swansea, they learned about the significance of the Empire Windrush, subsequent migration from the Caribbean as well as the life stories of people with West Indian heritage living in Wales today. Through interviewing people who arrived to work in Wales in the 1960s and 1970s from the West Indies, young people have explored changes in global industry and understood the skills and expertise these workers brought to the UK. Funded by Young Roots Heritage Lottery, the African Community Centre have partnered with the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Tata Steel to provide the young people with a range of resources and skill-sharing experiences. More information and videos of the project can be seen on the African Community Centre’s website.

Another Windrush oral history in Wales is the Windrush Cymru: Our Voices, Our Stories, Our History project.  Led by Race Council Cymru, this project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported by Windrush Cymru Elders, Black History Wales Patrons, National Museum Wales, Wales Millenium Centre and People’s Collection Wales. Their exhibition, Windrush Cymru: celebrating the lives and journeys of a generation, delivered in partnership with the Senedd and St Fagans National Museum of History, is now scheduled for the Senedd Oriel in September 2021. The recordings will be archived at St Fagans National Museum of History. 

The OHS’ Oral History Guide for Schools, written by Julia Letts and Helen Lloyd, has now been adapted for use in Wales and the Welsh Curriculum. The resource is available in both Welsh and English versions on People’s Collection Wales, with links to school projects already uploaded onto the website:  https://www.peoplescollection.wales/learn/oral-history-guide-schools In June, PCW launched a project inviting teachers to Create a Digital Time Capsule with their pupils, either remotely or when they return to school. The Oral History resource created jointly with the Oral History Society was promoted as part of this project. It was also promoted on Hwb, Welsh Governments hub for digital learning resources. 

The Voices of Swansea University, 1920-2020 oral history project has now been completed, featuring 89 interviews with previous staff and students of Swansea University. The project was conducted by University historian Dr Sam Blaxland, as part of research for his book Swansea University: Campus and Community in a Post-War World, 1945-2020 (University of Wales Press), which was published in the summer of 2020 to mark the University’s centenary. As part of his research, Sam interviewed individuals from a huge range of time periods, subject areas, and job roles, including students, academic staff and non-academic staff like technicians and secretaries. The interviews have been deposited at the Richard Burton Archives at the University.  A selection of edited clips of the interviews are featured in Swansea University: Making Waves Since 1920, an exhibition about the history of the University. The exhibition is hosted at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, and due to run until August 2021. 

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