Conference Report: Oral History Australia 2017

The Oral History Australia Conference was held last week in sunny Sydney (13-16 September). I was torn between wanting to scurry away for a few hours to furiously write out new ideas and the desire to hop between all sessions across the programme, certain that it would provide further inspiration. In short, it did exactly what the best of conferences do: tease out the ‘big issues’ currently facing scholars in the field of oral history and memory studies, and pose new directions for theory and practice.

By far the most exciting aspect of the programme was its representativeness: we had a mix of community and public historians working in both state and private institutions, as well as academics (historians and sociologists), activists working with new media, and family historians.

Dr Indira Chowdhury’s opening keynote was a highlight. She explored oral history and memories of displacement in the seventy years since the Partition of India. ‘Silence’ was here explored as a psychological and political tool, which saw memories of displacement and memories of co-dependent living in pre-1947 communities discouraged and denied. Chowdhury has a gift for seamlessly interweaving the personal with the political, and for elucidating the intertwining of history and memory. Her paper offered examples of the nation-state’s denial, alongside idiosyncratic examples of nostalgia used as protest against the state (eg. ‘but we’re not and have never been free, secular Indians’).

I’ll admit that the sessions I attended had less to do with the ‘craft’ of the oral historian and conducting oral history interviews, and more to do with bigger conceptual questions around memory studies that interest me, namely: family memory (for a post that covers more of the former, please see this fab conference report by Cheng Nien Yuan). The roundtable presentation ‘Family Histories, Emotions and Memory in New Media Spaces’ with Ashley Barnwell, Tanya Evans, and Anne Heimo (chaired  by Anna Green) incited much discussion, from both speakers and audience members. Evans summarised her new research around the work of family historians, recruiting her interviewees from platforms like Ancestry. Barnwell spoke to her qualitative survey on ‘intergenerational secrets’ and communicating with distant family. Heimo, whose work is of particular relevance to my own, explored the history and memory work conducted on social media (such as Facebook groups) by individuals and family groups who ‘don’t need any academics from the outside’ telling them how to build their family histories. They are building narratives in an online communal setting, in which they share their archival sources, and relevant novels or films. In doing so, they are building a historical consciousness that blurs the boundaries between memory and history, and the authority of History. Heimo argued for the ‘vernacular authority’ of the anecdotes shared online, which are in turn linked to a community’s historical consciousness (in this case, of post-war immigration to Australia). Audience members became particularly interested in issues of the private and public, and in the ethics of reading (and researching) new media. We argued for the merits of new media in ‘democratising access’, and for seeking permission (where possible) to reproduce online anecdotes for research purposes.

Anna Green, Ashley Barnwell, Tanya Evans, and Anne Heimo discussing ‘Family Histories, Emotions and Memory in New Media Spaces’

Kevin Bathman presented on the innovative ‘Chindian Diaries’ project, an audio-visual online platform. The paper explored cross-cultural identities and belonging for people of mixed Chinese and Indian heritage in Singapore and Malaysia. Experiences of these families have been overlooked. The project sought to combat this lack of visibility and to create a new platform for community documentation. I heard this paper on the same day I also saw Michael Green speak about the multi-platform oral history project on immigration detention, Behind the Wire. We heard the accounts of asylum seekers incarcerated in detention centres. Green was careful to reiterate that these were not his stories. This project necessitated that he go beyond ‘consent’. Refugee advocacy and stories of asylum cannot be told unless refugee voices are central. For example, he allowed the voice of Behrouz Boochani (a journalist currently incarcerated on Manus Island) to argue against the refugee narratives prevalent in mainstream media, especially the trope of the suffering and broken man, to which he responded “Not always a broken man”. We also heard audio material of children describing the self-harm they witnessed in Port Hedland detention centre. These examples highlighted the ethical challenges of conducting and sharing these oral histories with an audience—and the concept of artificial proximity for audiences. Green settled on an approach that reduces ‘distance’ but recognises difference.


Finally, I want to congratulate to Anisa, Scott, Virginia and Paula for running an engaging conference.


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