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Challenges in exhibiting oral history

This paper, originally presented at the 2015 National Conference on Public History, is republished here with an interactive poll and an invitation to share your thoughts on exhibiting oral history.

I am a curator at a mid-sized museum in Texas. My job includes overseeing the oral history program, which was founded in 1970, two years after the museum opened. Today, the collection is home to over 1,000 oral histories on topics ranging from the ethnic groups of Texas, Texas military history, local history, traditional folk arts, immigration, and farming and ranching. These are rich and moving stories, many of which you won’t find anywhere else, making the collection a real gem at the museum. Yet, for most of the program’s existence, our oral histories have been part of “behind the scenes” research, and not a visible or audible part of our exhibits.

In an attempt to better integrate the oral history program into our exhibits, we have tried to create more opportunities for oral histories to be an integral, visible part of our exhibits. Despite our efforts, I would say we’ve had mixed success. Not because the stories aren’t compelling. Not because visitors can’t relate. Rather, I suspect were are dealing with a combination of issues, including design, delivery method, and visitor needs and expectations. As you will read, our attempts to effectively incorporate oral histories into exhibits have taken numerous forms. Here, I present six recent exhibits that incorporated oral histories, with my observations on visitor engagement.

Leaving Home, Finding Home (2010-2011)

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Photo courtesy of Sarah Zenaida Gould. Used with permission.

Organized by my predecessor, this exhibit was designed around oral histories conducted with descendants of families who fled to Texas to escape the Mexican Revolution. One of several exhibits around town commemorating the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, this exhibit focused on the Revolution’s enduring impact on Texas and Texans rather than details of the Revolution itself. Unlike many exhibits where artifacts are the stars of the show, here, the stories were the stars while photographs and a handful of artifacts were visual interludes. The stories are, at times, intense and heart wrenching, and coupled with a somber minimalist design, it was an emotional exhibit. To deliver the stories, video stations located around the gallery featured looping, thematically arranged clips from the oral histories. As managing sound can be a challenge in exhibits—particularly competing, overlapping sound—the design team chose to mount a “sound wand” to each station requiring visitors to pick up the wand to listen.

Unfortunately, many visitors walked right past the stations, or only briefly paused before moving on to the photos and artifacts. Were the videos too long? Was the “talking head” style of the videos visually boring? Was the sound wand too much trouble? I don’t know the answers, but based on observation, I estimate less than half of the exhibit’s visitors really listened to the oral histories. Though I admit I am biased, I thought the exhibit was truly powerful, so I was discouraged by the indifferent response from so many visitors. However, visitor feedback indicated that those who did stop to engage with the oral histories overwhelmingly enjoyed the exhibit. Stories visitors posted to a response kiosk demonstrated that (some) visitors were able to make connections to their own family’s experiences—perhaps not surprising in a city that is majority Mexican American.

Texas Football: In Their Words (2011)

When we hosted a traveling exhibit on the math and science of football, we created a small complimentary exhibit featuring Texas football stories. Unlike Leaving Home, Finding Home, we did not use video monitors; instead we made life-sized cutouts of our storytellers and mounted an audio handset next to each. Like Leaving Home, Finding Home, this meant that visitors had to pick up the handset to hear the person’s story. Perhaps because the adjacent traveling exhibit was extremely interactive (how fast can you throw a football?), the exhibit didn’t seem to attract much visitor attention. Again, I wonder if handsets are too much trouble?

Timeless Texas Toys (2011-2012)

This toy exhibit incorporated oral histories with two Texas toy makers in an otherwise artifact-heavy exhibit. Here, the oral histories were presented in video kiosks with built-in speakers. We were able to use speakers because the two oral histories were located on opposite ends of the gallery, making sound overlap negligible. To keep the visuals interesting and make it easier for visitors to jump into the looping videos, an on-screen question preceded each interview clip and the clips were overlaid with photos and other graphics relating to their story. This exhibit was popular enough that it was extended twice, though I hardly think it was the oral histories that made it popular. Still, a majority of observed visitors did stop to watch the videos. Did the lack of a handset and inclusion of only two video kiosks make it easier for visitors to take the time to stop and listen? Did the addition of graphics to the videos make the “talking heads” more appealing?

Traveling on Fredricksburg Road (2013)

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Photo courtesy of Sarah Zenaida Gould. Used with permission.

This student-generated exhibit about the history and architecture of a local street occupied one long wall, with the majority of the wall covered in a giant street map. A video monitor was added at one end and a time-lapse video of driving down the street played on a loop. By pressing a button beneath the monitor, visitors could watch a video of multiple edited oral histories with locals talking about life along Fredericksburg Road. The interviews were intercut with historic photographs of referenced locations. Audio was delivered by an overhead sound cone to minimize sound spillover in adjacent exhibits, but no audio wand or handset was required to listen. The exhibit received a positive response from locals who had their own “Fred Road” stories, and based on comment cards created for this exhibit, visitors watched and enjoyed the oral history video. Was the familiarity a factor? Did they like pushing the button to start the video?

Why We Came: The Immigration Experience (2013-2014)

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Photo courtesy of Sarah Zenaida Gould. Used with permission.

Our third attempt at an exhibit entirely conceived around oral histories was one based on the immigration experiences of 16 first generation Texans. The exhibit was designed like a giant game board, offering visitors an immersive experience of what it’s like to leave one’s homeland and settle in another. Upon entering the gallery, visitors were directed to spin a wheel that would assign each visitor to follow one of the featured immigration stories. Due to space and design constraints, we used no video monitors or audio devices to share the oral histories. Instead, snippets of the oral histories were transcribed and printed on panels corresponding to different aspects of the immigration process.

The stories are deeply inspiring, and highlight the complicated decisions and steps that must be made to immigrate. Even though visitors couldn’t hear the voices of the people whose stories they followed, many visitors did seem to get invested in their journeys. Given the centrality of oral history to this exhibit, we included a StoryKiosk where visitors could record their family’s story of immigration. The StoryKiosk attracted a combination of genuine stories and people goofing off in front of a camera, but overall, this exhibit—which included less technology than the others—received a good amount of positive visitor feedback as well as positive press. Could it be that video is easier to ignore than the written word?

Los Tejanos (2015)

Most recently, we added an iPad with clips from four oral histories with Texas ranchers in a long-term exhibit, Los Tejanos. A home screen invites visitors to select a story. Sound spillover was a concern in this exhibit because it features an additional five iPads with non-oral history videos.  Over-ear headphones were chosen to deliver audio at all of the iPad stations. This particular exhibit has multiple components, including many hands-on areas, and based on my observations the oral history iPad is easily overlooked. This, in addition to the iPads’ neediness—they seem to require much more maintenance than traditional monitors—gives me the impression that this too is not the ideal model.

There are many challenges in exhibiting oral histories, and as you can see, I have more questions than answers. Based on my observations, I think the biggest challenges are visitor engagement, delivery, and authenticity. How do we inspire in our visitors the patience to listen? How do we deliver sound in a way that works for most visitors and doesn’t distract others who are trying to focus elsewhere? Does too much audio or video overwhelm visitors? Are speakers and audio cones more likely to make a visitor stop and listen than a handheld audio wand or headphones? Is the “talking head” visually boring? Does it help to add photos or other graphics? If we add photos or other graphics to an oral history video are we distracting from the person’s words? Similarly, are we overmanipulating an oral history when we select clips and edit them into a slick two-minute video with animated graphics? I want visitors to know we have these oral histories and many others in our collection, but I don’t want to give the false impression that oral histories are polished or perfect histories. To be fair, we haven’t done a visitor survey on this topic, so my questions primarily stem from my observations of visitors, which may be entirely flawed.

So I turn to you dear reader. What models have you tried? What has worked for you and what has not? I invite you to respond to this poll below and share your ideas and experiences in the comments.

Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Sarah Zenaida Gould. Used with permission.

Recent Comments

  1. Anni Turnbull

    Would love to talk further about oral histories and exhibitions

  2. Alison Wishart

    An interesting article! I have found that oral histories work best in exhibitions when they are 1. short (ie. less than 3 minutes); 2. The visitor knows how long the oral history is (eg. it is written on a label or a screen); and most importantly; 3. when they are accompanied with contextual images, preferably including an image of the speaker. Digital stories are best which incorporate audio, image and text. People are more likely to engage with them if they are playing on a screen, on a loop, but when the visitor touches the screen, they can choose to start the oral history/digital story from the beginning. I don’t think it matters that your “mash up/edit” oral histories for use in an exhibition context. No one is going to listen to an hour long interview! Hamish Sewell is doing this kind of work, but in a cultural heritage/historic walking tour context – GPS activated stories delivered to smart phones. See http://hamishsewell.com/

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