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Oral History and ‘Contested Histories’

On 5 and 6 October, Sprekende geschiedenis delivered an online guest lecture as part of the international training course ‘Sharing Stories on Contested Histories 2023’ (SSOCH 2023). SSCOH is an initiative of the RCE in cooperation with the Reinwardt Academy and is part of the Shared Cultural Heritage programme (now International Heritage Cooperation). The aim of the training is to connect and engage young heritage professionals and academics from different countries in the international dialogue on dealing with fraught histories and/or new perspectives and to contribute to an open and equal handling of complex heritage. Speaking History was asked to provide a vision on possible applications of oral history in dealing with these ‘Contested Histories’.


‘Contested Histories’

By ‘Contested Histories’ we mean all those situations where the existing known historical narrative or heritage is refuted or supplemented by alternative narratives and/or new perspectives. Think of slavery history, colonialism, but also new perspectives on events in a war or stories of new or different population groups such as immigrants or refugees.


Can Oral History make a contribution in this area?

Oral History as a method is known and appreciated as an important source of historical information from society. Oral history defines oral history as: ‘The recording of people’s life stories and testimonies about historical events and the significance of these events for the lives of people and those around them’. These stories provide valuable information about events in recent history, information we cannot get from official papers and historical objects. They can also open up new and underrepresented perspectives on historical events and people’s lives. It is especially this aspect of oral history that makes it interesting in relation to ‘Contested Histories’. Four different situations of ‘Contested Histories’ where oral history can contribute, for example, are:


1.      Giving a voice to underrepresented subcultures;

2.      Presenting different perspectives on the same historical event;

3.      Opening new perspectives on a hegemonic discourse;

4.      Creating a safe space to deal with post-conflict situations.


The role of the lecture is not just to provide information, but to provide a shared social space and a performance, wherein knowledge and its performances becomes memorable (T. Green)


From interviews to presentation, Toby Green

Oral history interviews have value in themselves. Interviews can be seen primarily as historical source material. But in addition, they also have social value; people who are interviewed feel heard and feel they can finally tell their side of the story. But the value is further enhanced if the stories told are heard by the widest possible audience. For that to happen, the information from the interviews must be responsibly converted into an attractive presentation format. In this context, a theory and idea by Toby Green[1] is interesting. Toby Green argues that, as a Western society, we have lost something very essential the moment we started transmitting our history in writing instead of orally. Here, he points out an essential difference between a ‘presentation’ and an ‘oration’. The former, he argues, concentrates on information transfer pure and simple. In the second, the form in which oral history used to be conveyed, two things are very important that are often forgotten in a presentation: the social context and, what Toby Green calls the ‘memorable performance’. The social context ensures interaction between listeners, which makes the story stick better and gives it more depth. The ‘memorable performance’ ensures that the story makes an impression so that the audience does not forget the story easily.


Photo credit: Amazon Conservation Team

Telling examples

On our website, we collect ‘Telling Examples’, which are examples of oral history projects where oral history interviews have been converted into a special form of presentation. During the guest lecture for SSOCH 2023, we discussed one ‘Speaking Example’ in more detail for each of the four situations mentioned above in which oral history can contribute to ‘Contested Histories’. In doing so, we chose examples where we felt special attention had been paid to the social context and ‘memorable performance’:



The examples led to interesting discussions where valuable questions arose that arise in practice such as: who decides what is shown and what is not, how to distribute different perspectives across a space, how to deal with opposing views or uncomfortable reactions, how to deal with ‘incorrect historical facts’, how to deal with trauma, etc.


At the symposium ‘Oral History, een stap verder’ on 8 December at the RCE in Amersfoort, we will also present these examples. Curious? Then take a look at our website under ‘Telling examples’.

[1] Toby Green, ‘The historical lecture: past, present and future, Transactions of the RHS (2022), 1–23.

Unique oral history teaching materials in development

Erfgoed Gelderland is developing unique oral history teaching materials in collaboration with the Gelderland War Museums, the University of Applied Sciences Arnhem Nijmegen and various vocational schools in Gelderland. The teaching materials are part of the project ‘Freedom and Citizenship’ and consist of five short films intended for vocational schools. In the films, the basic principles of the oral history interview technique are explained in a narrative manner, so that students can then conduct their own interviews on the subject of freedom. The project is made possible by the province of Gelderland. Read more here.

Photo credit: Erfgoed Nederland