Transition of Oral Histories Art Exhibition, Curator’s Note

Transition of Oral Histories, (TOH) is a contemporary art exhibition inspired by oral history archives of Camden Libraries. TOH draws on the resources provided by the initiative of The Winch, Camden Libraries and funded by Heritage lotteries.

It has been an eventful 7 months since January 2017 having being given the task of curating an art exhibition based on 16 hours of sound recordings of interviews of residents of Camden since 1935 until 2015. Twenty three children from local primary schools in Camden, Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park scripted the questions they were most keen to ask the 18 interviewees and they primarily focused on memories related to education, recreation and special celebrations. The children came from diverse backgrounds and countries not dissimilar to the background of the adults who came from all over Europe to seek refuge in Britain. The narrative about the different games they used to play, the TV shows they watched, the troubles they got into and the intimidating experience of moving from primary to secondary school, elicited a shared sense of childhood experiences and seemed to blur the differences in age and time for the short duration of the interview. The young interviewers, appreciative of the fact that the adults had a normal happy childhood despite rationing and having limited tv, no internet or digital games.

It was a privilege for me to listen to the wonderful intonations of the individual voices and the stories told. The one story of being punished in school and having to write out a 100 lines of “I will not talk in class’ seemed of special resonance, reminding me of my errant childhood in the 70s in India. Eating broken biscuits, playing hopscotch and marbles outside, going on outings to the zoo or by the sea, listening to the radio, fishing in the canal and playing football indicated a happy childhood.

The biggest challenges facing museums and galleries when presenting oral historical archives are visitor engagement, method of delivery and maintaining authenticity. Statistics show that the average visitor to a gallery has a short attention span and does not have the patience to use headphones to listen. So how does one present these oral stories, memories and sentiments to the modern audience? Can the exhibits be more than just about sound? Can oral history also be visual imagery such as text, videos and photos, sculptures and interactive art objects and successfully transfer those sentiments? Can these individual fragments also work in unison to allow historical material to build a contemporary relationship and make an impact on the viewer?

Oral history is a very subjective and personal form of evidence – but this is also one of its great strengths. In the words of the Italian oral historian Alessandro Portelli, ‘oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, what they now think they did… Subjectivity is as much the business of history as the more visible “facts”…’ (History Workshop Journal, 12, Autumn 1981).

The ‘Transition of Oral Histories’ exhibition goes beyond the recordings of memories of the past retold just for future conservation. It steers clear off the traditional method of one-way delivery and instead awards equal significance to the temperament of the modern viewer/recipient. It attempts to transfer the subjectivity and the sentimentality of the stories into the modern recipient by selectively presenting art objects with a story and a history to establish successfully a cyclical transformative relationship between the two. It works on the premise that archival materials need to find contemporary resonance or forever be condemned to the past.

By Rekha Sameer