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Blog: Oral History Cultural Exchange to France

Post by Mark Cave, Senior Curator and Oral Historian, The Historic New Orleans Collection

This month the International Committee’s blog has been written by Mark Cave, Senior Curator and Oral Historian at The Historic New Orleans Collection about his experience as part of an exchange program in France.  He hopes to have a more detailed report about this experience at the annual meeting later this year.

This January I had the chance to travel to Paris as part of an exchange program between my institution The Historic New Orleans Collection and the Ecole nationale des Chartres. The Ecole nationale des chartres is one of the world’s leading institutions in the training of archivists and librarians, and for the first time in its nearly 200 year history is offering oral history as part of its curriculum.  The course is taught by oral historian Florence Descamps, author of the monumental 864 page L’historien, l’achiviste et la magnetophone (Paris, 2001).

One of the purposes of my visit was to make contact with French oral historians and talk with them about their work.  I had read Paul Thompson’s article “The New Oral History in France” (Oral History Volume 8, No. 1, Spring 1980).  The article provides a great overview of the important work done in France in the 1970s, but there is little available about work done since that time.  The fact that there is no professional society in France which is devoted solely to Oral History may explain why the international community is largely unaware of the extent of the work being done in France.

Myriam Fellous-Sigrist, who is doing very important work with French railway workers, was a tremendous help in introducing me to the oral history work being done in France today, and providing introductions to other oral historians.  Myriam, Florence Descamps, and ethnologist and curator Véronique Ginouvés organized (for my benefit) the recent and current work in France into five different themes: 1. war and conflicts, 2. social history, 3. industry and towns, 4. parks and countryside, and 5. finance and institutional history.  They provided me with particular projects and contact information for individuals throughout France working on projects related to these themes.

Another person who was a great help was Hilary Kaiser, and American expat who taught at The University of Paris for forty years.  She has done a great deal of work on topics related to World War II; in particular life story interviews with French women who married American GI’s and moved to America; and also with American GI’s who married French women and settled in France.  She has published a number of books based on these interviews including French War Brides in America and Souvenirs de Vététrans.   Oral history work documenting the occupation and resistance movement in France during WWII is perhaps the most pervasive theme in French oral history.  Hilary introduced me to a few of the many institutions which archive interviews on that topic most notably the Mémorial de Caen and the Centre d’histoire de la résistance et de la deportation de Lyon.

I also had the chance to see some really innovative uses of oral history in museum programs.  The Musée de l’Immigration featured some very creative uses of oral history in their exhibition galleries.  At the center of their permanent exhibit were six large glass panels.  Each panel showed a video of a silhouette figure packing a suitcase.  The figures would walk on and off the individual screens sometimes stopping to consider an item that they were packing.  Then as each figure finished packing they would stand up with their suitcase in hand.  Then the silhouette transformed into an image of a recognizable individual immigrant with their name and where they were from noted on the screen.  At that point you begin to hear individual excerpts from oral history interviews and images that accompany the excerpts begin to scroll across the glass panels. The presentation is impactful, and definitely makes the oral history excerpts the visual and conceptual center of the exhibition, which is often hard to achieve in exhibit installations.

Unfortunately, I only can touch on my experience peripherally here.  But in summary, I found that although there seems to be a lack of international awareness of their work, the French are doing some very innovative and substantial work in oral history.

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