Why Oral Histories?

I recently tentatively wrote a little bit about some of my explorations into thinking a bit more about my role as a film maker or storyteller, about how I can develop my work to have more impact and about how I can collaborate with others who inspire me.

A superb opportunity for reflection and learning has been the University of Sunderland‘s online ‘Introduction to Participatory Arts and Media’ online course, developed in partnership with ArtsWorks Alliance and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.  It’s packed with really interesting case studies, as well as lots of opportunities to reflect on what the learning means in respect of my own work.  As part of the course, I have been asked to write a blogpost reflecting on an aspect of my own participatory practice and why I feel passionate about this.  So, here goes…


When I reflect on the most enjoyable and satisfying projects that I’ve worked on, they have consistently related to using oral histories and archives with young people.  I see participatory heritage projects as a starting point for participants to understand more about who they are, how they can connect to the world around them, how they fit into the wider picture and how change happens in society.

Pupils are turned off learning about people and places which are distant geographically, historically and in relation to their own lived experiences.  Yet when events from the past are presented in an exciting and relevant way, rather than a series of facts to be digested and regurgitated, really interesting things begin to happen.  When they play a role in taking ownership of the work then things get really exciting!

The Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ ‘Pool of Memories’ project was one such project.  It linked pupils’ experiences of swimming at their local swimming pool to the experiences of people who had swum, bathed or worked in the building in the past.  Through tours of the building, online research and oral history interviews, we created some very passionate champions for local swimming facilities!

Heritage Projects can also give space for young people to open up about their family’s personal stories.  Here is an old film created for The Lichfield Festival by a pupil about her Great Grandfather’s experiences of military service in North Africa in WWII.

In this film produced with the People’s Heritage Co-operative, students from Swanshurst School were involved in researching the experiences of wounded soldiers from WW1 in South Birmingham and interviewing War Veterans from other conflicts.  In their reflections on the project they highlighted why these kind of heritage projects are important:

‘You learn so much about where you live and what goes on that you feel responsible to continue this’.

‘I think that taking part in experiences like this can be even more informative than learning about it in lessons, because in this situation you’re learning more about actual people’s experiences’.

I am interested in developing this work further, so that workshop participants can come away with the skills and confidence needed to explore spaces, places and people around them independently.  Instead of one-off experiences, is it possible to create a culture of curiosity, where understanding events of the past is valued more than it is at present?

This will mean using archives and stories more creatively – ‘curating’ material in creative ways to develop narratives which have a resonance for others, beyond the initial participants.  How can the ‘responsibility’ that the student spoke about develop into action which impacts on people’s lives in the present day?  What kind of infrastructure is needed to support young people to take on this task?  What are the best examples of participatory, creative and empowering heritage work?  Do share your thoughts!

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