If These Walls Could Talk Redux (Oral History in Museums)

A year ago, I was assigned a chapter from the 2011 book Letting Go:  Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World about an interactive exhibit at the Minnesota History Center called “Open House”.  You can read my original blog entry about the reading here.  Since the exhibit utilizes oral history interviews in a raw, yet creative way, the reading was assigned again this semester for the Introduction to Oral History course.  As much as I would like to claim otherwise, my original post was by no means exhaustive, so this could be considered a reflective redux to that entry.  In addition, this time around the assigned reading was accompanied by an essay by Anna Green about an exhibit in New Zealand which also used raw clips of oral history interviews to construct a museum exhibit.

In both cases, the exhibit creators have proven that even in a direct playback format, oral history interviews can be effective and engaging artifacts in their own right.  The New Zealand project was built from two hundred student-conducted interviews with the inhabitants of Frankton Junction, a large railway community.  The interviews were then edited and spliced together based on discussions of childhood, youth, women, and men in the community.  Each of the six sections was given a total of about ten minutes’ playing time:  already a daunting expectation of museum visitors.  Complicating the aspect of time limitations was the inherently difficult decisions about whose voices to include:  splitting a hair into “representativeness” on the desirable side and “stereotyping” on the side to be avoided.  As with any museum exhibit, all-inclusiveness is not possible, nor is it the desired outcome.  In this case, I think that any shortcomings in the clips can actually be beneficial to exhibit curators, prompting visitors to want to participate in order to add experiences which they might feel the exhibit lacks.  As Benjamin Filene wrote about the Open House exhibit, visitors suddenly “recognize that they themselves had something to say.”  Unfortunately, this exhibit doesn’t seem to have capitalized on that opportunity.  A guestbook near the exhibit’s exit recorded the thoughts and experiences of visitors, but this being a limited student project that may have already overrun its projected time frame, none of these memories were ever committed to tape.  As Green points out, the project even as it was exceeded the human resources normally available to museums.  Perhaps public history classes should guest-curate museum exhibits more regularly.  What say you, Louisville?

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