In my first and second blogs about the Oakland Museum’s interactive history exhibits, my photos showed how history can be gathered from large numbers of people with common and inexpensive materials – post it notes and maps and dot stickers.
This exhibit has the same aesthetic – I am charmed by the construction paper and the large print, easy to read instructions. It suggests that this task is “child’s play”, so that anyone can do it.
The answer to recording oral history lies in this room. There are two chairs, facing one another. This, to me, is symbolic of how stories should be told – face to face. Storytellers need the affirmation of a sympathetic listener. (Too many families have handed Grandpa a recorder and said, “Here you go, just tell your life stories on this and get it back to us when you’re done.” Have any of them ever succeeded?)
You’ll see there are lists of questions, again in large type, thank you, available for the interviewer and interviewee to preview, to discuss and choose from. Smart.
The Oakland Museum’s Story Studio is tucked away into a quiet cul-de-sac. The setting is quiet and isolated, a separate space for two people to do nothing more than share a story. Just try to interview a woman in her kitchen, and you’ll appreciate how isolation helps to keep the storyteller focused on distant times, places and events. There always seems to be something better to do in the here and now.
After I left, I was sorry I didn’t explore the technology they used for recording. The “machinery” of the exhibit wasn’t obvious, which is good, in my opinion. The “correct” technology of recording oral history seems to provoke anxiety every time the subject comes up in our seminars – someone will ask, If I record a story, do I need one of those lapel mikes? How do I get the audio recording onto my computer? The questions fly, the answers are technical, and by the time that discussion is over, they’re too dispirited and intimidated to tell a story at all!
The simple answer I have learned to provide is this – unless you’re creating professional, archival –quality recordings, getting the input is all that matters. (I know some of you are wincing, but I’m a book person, so I want audio only to transcribe, as do my customers.) Then I show them my little just-one-button-to-press ipod microphone, and the italk app on my iphone, and do my best to convince people that anyone can do this. Because they can, and should.