Belfast, June 2018
If you had told me I was at risk of being sunburned in Belfast I never would have believed you, but the few days I spent at the Dangerous Oral Histories conference were gloriously sunny! The theme of the conference was ‘dangerous oral histories’ and as the Chair of Trustees of the Oral History Society, John Gabriel (no relation as far as I am aware!) noted, the theme of danger had been interpreted in numerous ways by the presenters. Situating the conference in Belfast was a masterstroke, given the city’s rich, complex (and at times dangerous) history which is literally writ large across the walls, the ends of terraces, the sides of buildings.
I didn’t submit a paper for this conference as I was not quite in the right place in my studies to do so when the call for papers came out. Instead I took the opportunity to learn from my peers, an absolute privilege given the calibre of speakers and attendees. The conference hashtag #DangerOH18 gives a flavour of the wide range of topics being discussed in the sessions and keynotes.
The opening plenary was essential viewing and really set out the stall for how vital and vibrant the oral history scene truly is. Anna Bryson discussed the idea of the hidden dangers for participants (and the researcher) having to return to the community after the completion of the research, and how risky this can be for some people. Erin Jessee spoke about how researchers are always being reminded to prepare themselves sufficiently for going into the field, but the guidance on how to do so is scant; even if there was practical guidance it might not even begin to cover the gamut of experiences in the field. Erin noted that other researchers had approached her for guidance about difficult experiences in the field but had been wary of appearing to be “bad researchers” or even “weak minded” due to their emotional responses to situations they found themselves in. Erin was very sympathetic to researchers who found themselves in this situation as it’s not possible to predict how you will react. She reiterated that while it is very difficult to plan for all eventualities, consistent self-care is of utmost importance. Linked to this, another idea that recurred through many of the sessions was around trauma and how this can arise – in researchers and narrators- when least expected.
Strangely for a conference about talking, a recurring theme was being mindful of silences within interviews. Silence can be a strategy – used because people can’t talk to outsiders about certain subjects without fearing for their livelihoods (Erin Jessee’s research in Rwanda) or to maintain a sense of self (Marjolein van Bavel’s wonderful talk on her oral histories of former nude models). Stacey Zembrzycki’s paper was a precise and brilliant reminder that although ethics committees remind academics to be careful not to cause harm to the participants, there is nothing in place if the safety of researchers is compromised. Zembrzycki stated that it is the researcher themselves who can be silenced by the research when things go awry. In light of the #metoo movement, she noted that the risk of harm to female researchers in the field is something that is just not discussed, and the messiness and emotional difficulty of field work needs to be acknowledged more widely.
In some papers there was a sense that some narrators had waited all of their lives to tell someone their story, and Ruth Melville’s paper on the Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to child abuse encapsulated this. Ruth quoted the stories of people who had kept quiet their whole lives about their unimaginable experiences, and who had effectively been given license to speak by oral historians. This was vital and groundbreaking work, which ultimately saw abusers being brought to justice due to the bravery of the survivors.
One of my favourite papers was by Verusca Calabria from Nottingham Trent University. Verusca’s research on oral histories of service users and staff from Nottingham’s mental hospitals had prompted an unexpected response from her as it had unearthed memories from her childhood. She had not shied away from the emotions, and found her research to be conducive to a healing process. The liminal space inhabited by the researcher was fascinating to me, and I think that I will return to this concept within my own research.
I had a wonderful learning experience at the Oral History Society conference, and have been really energized by it. Before I sign off, I would very much like to thank my department for supporting my application for funding to attend this conference. I would also like to thank the Oral History Society for being such gracious hosts. Roll on next year’s conference in sunny Swansea!