Objects and Oral Histories

In “Object Lessons: Making Meaning from Things in History Museums”, Laura Burd Schiavo discusses the power of using objects to help people connect with history and experience wonder and discovery on their own terms, as opposed to having a meaning and narrative-driven text-based historical experience that “feels like work”.  In contrast, from what I could discern about Erin Bernard’s Philadelphia Public History Truck from the website and articles, the truck’s exhibits are driven primarily by oral histories–text and narrative–as opposed to objects, and yet the truck has a similar objective of helping people connect with history.  While of course I don’t think that objects and oral histories are mutually exclusive ways of facilitating a connection with history, and I think the best exhibits would ideally combine both, the different focuses of Schiavo and Bernard leave me wondering about the potentials and limitations of objects and oral histories for public history projects.  Schiavo talks about how objects can prompt a viewer to reflect on their own past history with that object and therefore facilitate connection, but oral histories are a way of prompting viewers who hear those histories to reflect on others’ pasts, which I think is at least an equally worthwhile goal–history should be about learning about others’ communities as well as our own.  How can objects be combined with text or narrative or oral history to facilitate both an individual and interpersonal connection with history?  Additionally, if an exhibit relies primarily on objects, is it leaving some people’s stories out, people who don’t access to creating or owning certain objects, or people whose objects aren’t preserved over time?  But if an exhibit relies primarily on oral histories, is it only showcasing the experiences of people who have access/ feel comfortable talking to the oral historian/ feel like their experiences are worthy of being recorded?  I’m looking forward to visiting Bernard’s Philadelphia Public History Truck on Tuesday and hearing more about her process–I think it’s a wonderful project and I’m curious to hear if and how she incorporates objects, and how she tries to reach as wide a swath of a community as possible when conducting oral histories.

2 thoughts on “Objects and Oral Histories

  1. “While of course I don’t think that objects and oral histories are mutually exclusive ways of facilitating a connection with history, and I think the best exhibits would ideally combine both, the different focuses of Schiavo and Bernard leave me wondering about the potentials and limitations of objects and oral histories for public history projects.”

    I felt really similarly. It also made me wish for a more expansive discussion on how public historians can/should parce out which is more important. I understand that it must be based on individual projects & outcomes but how can we learn to effectively limit what context should be included. Your comment: “How can objects be combined with text or narrative or oral history to facilitate both an individual and interpersonal connection with history?” has me thinking alot about the structure of museums like the Musuem of Tolerance in LA or the USHMM in DC. By presenting a limited narrative history to individuals about to encounter the museum, do the visitors interact with the display objects in the way you (and I) are agreeing would be in a more holistic way?

  2. These are great questions! I’m hoping to hear more from Erin Bernard about creating displays when oral histories are rich (or not) and objects are few, or vice versa.

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