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Symposium ‘Oral History, one step further’ 2023: the retrospective

On 8 December 2023, the second Oral History symposium of the Sprekende Geschiedenis Hub took place at the Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed in Amersfoort. An inspiring day that was fully booked weeks in advance, with great speakers, as Professors Rose Mary Allen and James Kennedy. The five lively workshops contributed to valuable exchange of knowledge, inspiration and new plans for the future. After an upbeat musical interlude, the conclusions from the workshops were shared with the audience and a panel of directors of institutions involved.


One conclusion we can already draw: Oral history lives. You can read the detailed report of this fascinating day including the workshops here.


Chairman of the day and initiator of Sprekende geschiedenis Saskia Moerbeek kicked off the day and welcomed attendees. A short video was then shown on the importance of Oral History.


Video credit: Cinemore. Voice-over: Armando Ello

The plenary session

During the plenary session, Professor James Kennedy (Utrecht University) spoke about the impact of oral history on individuals and communities. Rose Mary Allen, professor of Culture, Community and History at the University of Curaçao, shared her experiences with oral history in the Caribbean. Frank von Meijenfeldt of the ‘Sprekende geschiedenis’ Hub discussed recent technological developments within oral history.


James Kennedy highlighted the added value of Oral History in his presentation. He discussed six specific points, including access to valuable undiscovered histories, giving a voice to marginalised groups, the importance of listening to how stories are told, and empowering communities to be stewards of their own history. Kennedy stressed that Oral History not only provides historical information, but can also be used for ‘community organising’. He advocated preserving stories for future generations as a valuable memory.


Prof Rose Mary Allen shared key insights on oral history in the Dutch Caribbean in her lecture, focusing on her own experiences as an oral historian since the 1980s. Allen named a number of concerns in her experiences as an interviewer and emphasised the importance of language and context both during and when analysing the interview. Documenting oral traditions in the Dutch Caribbean was ultimately seen as an act of empowerment, whereby the community itself can tell and shape its history.


Frank von Meijenfeldt reflected on the impact of automatic speech recognition on oral history projects and talked about the Unprecedented Special project for refugees. He discussed the emergence of the Whisper programme for speech recognition, highlighted challenges for less spoken languages, and advocated training the programme for regional languages. Sustainable storage and accessibility, respecting FAIR principles, were highlighted. Von Meijenfeldt mentioned the need for improved digital infrastructure, challenges in collection registration systems for oral history and the desire for wider accessibility to oral history.



The workshop ‘Museums and Oral History, current developments‘ was opened by Saskia Moerbeek and focused on exchange on museum challenges in oral history. Margaret Leidelmeijer presented ‘Ons Land’, where decolonisation is central, highlighting how education and engagement of different generations overcome obstacles. Sanneke Stigter discussed the OH-SMArt project, which focused on artist interviews with Mark Manders and Nicholas Pope. The value of image use and multiple interviews was highlighted. The RCE presented the Handbook for Collection Interviews i.c.w. Sprekende Geschiedenis, for small and large museums. Workshop participants also shared their own oral history projects.

During the workshop ‘Preserving and making Oral History interviews accessible’ speakers highlighted important aspects of archiving and accessibility. Norah Karrouche listed a number of digital challenges: storage, data accessibility and ethics. Luc de Vries emphasised the FAIR principle and the importance of ownership and consent. Marc Holtman presented a new archive concept: the archive as utility. DANS demonstrated their data station for long-term storage. Key conclusions included attention to long-term preservation, metadata and identification, user-centricity, and the deployment of technology. Future challenges include changing user needs, AI implementation and connecting Oral History collections.

In the third workshopShort pitches on Oral History projects’, eight oral history projects were presented. Marjan Beijering spoke about the University Campus in Twente, focusing on interview processing and speech recognition software. Maurice Paulissen examined ‘Children of the peat colony’, highlighting cultural-ecological aspects. Marloes Hülsken presented educational projects, dwelling on source criticism and analysis. Speakers such as Wim de Jong, Jozef Kok, Mieke Krijger and Eline Pollaert shared their experiences with projects ranging from miner’s stories to the experiences in ‘Het Dorp’. Discussions included questions on presentation, trust building and the role of the interviewer. Involving communities and young people in sharing oral history was seen as important.

The fourth workshop, ‘Contested History’ and Oral History, led by Nikita Krouwel, addressed the role of Oral History in situations where historical narratives are contested or supplemented. Presentations by Myrthe Kroes and Stef Scagliola emphasised giving voice to underrepresented groups and presenting different perspectives. Discussions focused on multi-perspectivity, dialogue stimulation, trust, ethical responsibility and the challenges of projects on sensitive topics, such as with Warlove Children. The social and emotional impact was highlighted, the distinction between Oral History as source and resource, and important future issues around neutrality, ethics and stakeholder engagement.

During the workshop ‘Transcribing you can (almost) ignore’ led by Arjan van Hessen and Frank von Meijenfeldt, the necessity of transcribing for archiving was discussed. Participants shared questions on new developments, translation options and simple transcription solutions. Automatic speech recognition programme Whisper was demonstrated and discussed, focusing on the necessary differentiation of speakers. There is a plethora of options and this calls for more simple unambiguous solutions. For oral history, it is important that In the future, small languages and regional languages should also be recognised. Relevant parties were identified, such as Sprekende Geschiedenis Hub and organisations like DANS and SurfNet.


Plenary closing

Vfrom left to right: Christianne Mattijssen, director of Heritage and Arts at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science | Marielle Hendriks, chair of the OPEN network of provincial heritage organisations | Annette Gaalman, Network coordinator Implementation of the DIGITAL Heritage Network | Caroline Breunesse director/director of Rijksmuseum Twenthe/De MuseumFabriek.

During the closing plenary session, workshop leaders presented their conclusions to a panel of directors of institutions involved. When asked how to train volunteers properly, Marielle Hendriks highlighted the training offer on for oral history projects and the role of OPEN as a partner for museum training. Annette Gaalman called for harnessing the potential of digital infrastructure, focusing on national heritage connections and putting user needs at the centre. Christianne Mattijssen saw opportunities for oral history, especially with the National History Museum. When a question came from the audience as to why museums do not have research status, Christianne Mattijssen promised to take this issue to the appropriate colleagues at the ministry. Caroline Breunesse saw oral history as essential for diversity and inclusion, where it is important for museums to step beyond the boundaries of their own context. Finally, Mattijssen hoped for a future where museums become places where history is told on the spot.


View the photo report

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Photographs by Marlise Steenman

The comprehensive report of the symposium can be read here.


Symposium was made possible in part by: