Oral Histories/Museum Histories: How can oral history be used to research museums?

The Centre for Design History at the University of Brighton is hosting a series of online lectures and a workshop on using oral history to study museum histories. Co-organiser Andrea Potts (PhD researcher, University of Brighton) reflects on how she uses oral history in her own research.

In recent years, researchers and practitioners have begun to use oral history to study museums. Yet it remains an underdeveloped method. What makes this area of research distinctive? What opportunities does oral history offer and what challenges does it present?

While there are many kinds of museums, several key attributes can be identified. They foreground material culture and amass collections that are cared for, interpreted, and displayed. They are professional spaces, staffed by people who occupy a broad range of roles. Museum professionals manage and interpret collections to produce exhibitions, educational programmes, marketing campaigns and so much more. They each have specialist skills and knowledge as well as personal attachments to what they do. Museums are also institutions, with their own governance structures, funding models, and bureaucratic processes. In producing a history of a museum, then, we need to attend to the various facets of a museum. Oral history has the potential to shed light on how each of these contribute to how museums function as well as subjective and personal experiences of them.

Exhibiting Colonialism

In my own research, I use oral history to shed light on how and why the colonial past is represented in certain ways in museum exhibitions. I look at the recent past, studying permanent exhibitions that have opened since 2017 in several national museums in Europe. I interview those who work as curators and interpreters, who hold varying levels of seniority. Oral history calls for a focus on processes of memory making. It prompts me to consider how interviewees are seeking to present an exhibition and their role in producing it and to interpret their implicit allusions to alternative narratives. There are numerous issues to grapple with here but also fruitful opportunities.

Subjectivities

While oral history has traditionally been used to make visible marginalised voices, my interviewees cannot be accurately described in this way. They are all white museum professionals who hold prestigious roles within national institutions and present highly academic forms of knowledge. Oral history can attend to the ways in which their lived experience – and privilege – shapes how the colonial past is represented in museums.

It can also interrogate how museum professionals seek to present themselves. My interviewees often explicitly distinguish themselves from museum audiences, emphasising a professional and academic identity. Yet, at times, they deviate from what feels like a ‘script’ and allude to popular cultural memories of colonialism. This suggests that museum professionals are influenced by the professional identities that they value but also the societal norms that they are less cognisant of and even wish to distance themselves from.

Collaboration

Museum exhibitions are produced collaboratively. Members of a core exhibition team regularly consult with one another as well as members of other departments and partners beyond the museum. My interviewees discuss instances of productive knowledge-sharing as well as fraught negotiations and disagreements. At times, interviews result in conflicting memories of the exhibition production process itself. How can the complexities of producing an exhibition, and of memory itself, be captured within a coherent exhibition history?

Developing a Shared Practice

Oral Histories/Museum Histories is a series of online lectures and a workshop, hosted by the Centre for Design History, University of Brighton between June and July 2022. This is an exciting opportunity to reflect on how we use oral histories to produce museum histories and to develop a shared practice as a research community. I hope that you will join us!

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