Oral History and Museum Exhibits: Looking to the Future
From OHA Wiki
Museum professionals and oral historians are just beginning to understand how audiences react to personal accounts and stories, and although oral histories have been used in exhibits since the 1970s, it is still considered to be in its infancy. Barbara Franco, CEO and president of the Historical Society of Washington D.C. states, “I think we’re just beginning to understand why [oral history is] so attractive to our audiences.”1 Changing the way public historians think about presenting an exhibit is a slow process, but one that is necessary for the development and evolution of exhibit management.
Oral histories can make exhibits more engaging and can work towards breaking down the walls of academia that often permeate museums and institutions. If a visitor is hearing a story that they can relate to, they might feel more comfortable in the museum environment and will be able to connect with the stories. Many oral historians focus on the everyday people whose histories would not otherwise be recorded. These stories and figures are closer to the average person than a military general or CEO of an organization. Visitors might identify with the characters and thus be able to understand history on a more personal level. The job of a public historian is to present historical information to the public in a manner that is understandable and accurate, yet simultaneously compelling and interactive.
Utilizing oral history accounts is an important way to connect with visitors and the general public, especially younger audiences who consistently feel disconnected from history. Franco mentions that an organization “could have a lot of artifacts, but the challenge is how you create meaning out of the artifacts” and “oral history could help in creating that meaning.”2 Accessibility is an important issue in museum management, and making an exhibit inviting and fresh is an ongoing battle for institutions. Using oral histories can help with those problems and will make museums more interactive.
It is important for oral historians, museum professionals, and exhibit designers to recognize the expansive possibilities of using oral histories within an exhibit setting. Collected interviews can serve as an excellent interactive tool for museums and can bring visitors closer to the presentations and the organization as a whole. While many museums have fully embraced the use of oral history, some institutions are resistant to change and cannot immediately see the benefits of oral history in their exhibits. Oral history brings objects to life, and museum exhibits are full of artifacts that can be reached on a personal level. Being able to view or listen to a personal account of a famous event or an ordinary place can bring valuable information to a museum visitor or future researcher. This essay explores the use of oral history in exhibits to better understand the possible impacts of oral history on a community and institutions. Oral history is a successful tool for many museums and will continue to be a relevant and interactive way to connect visitors to their own past and the past of their communities.
1 Ron Chew, “Collected Stories.”
2 Ron Chew, “Collected Stories.”