Oral History: Where does it fit in museums?

The theme for this year’s OHMAR conference was “Oral History & Technology,” and participants presented their ideas on how evolving technologies can be applied to creating and sharing oral histories with the public. For my first OHMAR conference as a board member, I was excited to facilitate the paper discussion on “Oral Histories, Museums and Historic Sites.”

Oral histories are a missed opportunity in museums and historic sites, possibly because curators may not know how to utilize the resource in the exhibits. The most commonly seen use is snippets of the interview as text on the walls of the museum that relate to the objects on display. The advent of the iPad and other “smart” tablets have allowed for visitors to listen to histories as they travel the exhibit. But can we do more to immerse visitors in the oral history experience? In the simplest of terms, yes.

Temple University in Philadelphia launched The Philadelphia Public History Truck, a mobile museum with a mission to share stories, create, and deliver histories to unite communities and tell the cultural history of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. The Brooklyn Museum’s “Question Bridge,” is an interactive instillation that includes multiple screens playing videos of interviews, edited to appear as if the interviewees are having a conversation. The Atomic Heritage Foundation’s “Voices of the Manhattan Project” is working on a “Ranger” tour that will utilize oral histories of the men and women who worked on the project to guide visitors through the park. Omni-directional sound, a technology that produces a 360 degree sound experience, allows visitors to be fully immersed in the oral history as if the interviewee is speaking directly to them. These projects represent just a fraction of new possibilities to integrate the interview into physical spaces.

Of course there are challenges to these projects: functionality, funding, accessibility, to name a few. But if oral historians and museum curators work together to bring the audio and visual components into exhibits, we can create a much more permanent and interactive space for the public to witness a person’s oral history.

Samantha Blatt is the OHMAR Development Director and a Center for Oral History Program Assistant at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, Pa.