Dangerous Oral Histories: Risks, Responsibilities and Rewards
On 28 and 29 June this year, over 200 people gathered at Queens University, Belfast to discuss and debate Dangerous Oral Histories: Risks, Responsibilities and Rewards. This first joint conference hosted by the Oral History Society (OHS), the Oral History Network of Ireland (OHNI) and the QUOTE hub attracted academics, community group representatives and individuals with a personal passion for oral history from places as widely spread as Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Mexico and South Africa. The programme was bursting at the seams – plenary and dynamic presentation sessions, interactive workshops and 100+ speakers filling out 24 panel sessions held across the two days. This was the first time I had attended the Oral History Society’s annual conference and I was particularly struck by the professional organisation and delivery of the whole event. There were high levels of interest in, and support for, everyone’s contributions. A really inclusive environment for budding and expert oral historians alike.
It’s hard to summarise such a mammoth event in a couple of paragraphs, so this blog focuses on my takeaways from the conference. It includes references to sessions I attended and replays a number of quotes picked up from other attendees that I spoke to.
Contributors put forward diverse definitions of danger. Topics included physical, psychological and emotional danger that recalled genocide, abuse and conflict, across political, social and religious boundaries. Presentations on oral history methodologies and governance highlighted danger by identifying the risks associated with individuals’ privacy, the future use of recordings and their safe storage. Ethical dilemmas were aired, such as how to protect the vulnerable without ‘flattening out’ their testimonies from the historical record. Not unexpectedly, the new General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) popped up everywhere; discussion and debate that will inform evolving guidance of the legislation and its implementation.
Over two days, in formal settings and during networking opportunities, we reveled in the excitement of oral history, the historical method that exposes us to illuminating and inspiring challenges. For example, when we are engaged in Recovering evidence, disrupting lives? The risky business of uniting archival evidence and oral history, or when a project participant on The Journey to Recovery: Narratives of Addiction asserts that they are being asked the wrong questions if the researcher really wants to get to the crux of the issue. We evaluated the value of oral history, ‘a powerful history’. Its ‘moral force’ enables us to ‘uncover hidden voices’ across nation states, in government institutions and within the home. Panel sessions such as Exploring Difficult Oral Histories of Families and Women, Trauma and Silence allowed access to historical sites not usually visited by empirical historical methods. Fluid memories in a fixed museum: Remember Bhopal Museum, India was just one example of how recording and airing individuals’ subjectivities challenges listeners to ‘re-evaluate dominant narratives’. We also considered the legacy of oral history; the rewards that can be reaped by future generations if researchers navigate their way through the wishes of interviewees, and the requirements of GDPR to manage the risks of archiving dangerous oral history for public access.
The unique and rich nature of oral history testimony was continuously and consistently reinforced during the conference. At the same time, all delegates were reminded of the methodological issues that surface on a regular basis. With social events before, during and after the conference, everyone went home with minds, eyes, vocal chords and limbs invigorated, but perhaps also desperate for a quiet weekend.
For more highlights of the conference, check out #DangerOH18
Sue Bishop is a student of the ARHC-funded Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. She is studying History with the University of Leicester’s School of History, Politics and International Relations.