A STORYTELLER'S APPROACH TO ORAL HISTORY
Published in Voiceprint, a biannual magazine for the NSW branch of the Oral History Association Australia.
October 2006, Issue 35
Newsletter is available by subscription, Contact c/-State Library of New South Wales, Rosie Block,
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Last year, I was invited to be the oral history facilitator for the History Alive Audio Installation project at the Kangaroo Valley Pioneer Farm Museum (KVPFM). I would work with a small team (a sound engineer/editor and a coordinator), to record a series of exhibit related pioneer stories. My methodology would be up to me, as long as I was able to record all the interviews within a few days, and script the stories for a series of installations at the Museum. We had seven months to bring this project from initial idea to a final public event for History Week.
With my new digital marantz recorder in hand, and a handful of men and women pioneers ready to be interviewed, I launched into my first paid project as an oral history facilitator. I’ve been researching, writing and telling stories for twenty years and have a background in radio journalism and community story work, but I knew that there’d be a learning curve for this project as I developed my own method of gathering oral histories through storytelling, conversation, reminiscence and story crafting.
I picked up lots of wonderful ideas about project planning by reading past Voiceprints and oral history handbooks, especially Talking Together – A Guide to Community Oral History Projects by Leslie Jenkins. This is the story of the project History Alive! Project from start to finish. I hope that it helps other communities and regional museums who are interested in recording and celebrating their stories in a low budget, long term, flexible and very accessible way.
BACKGROUND TO HISTORY ALIVE PROJECT
KVPFM is a charming regional museum which is situated on the edge of town, just over the historic Hampden Bridge. The museum, which is made up of a series of historic buildings and a small administration building, is managed as a non profit community facility with about thirty dedicated volunteers. Each building functions as a look into the past, the pioneer lives of the dairy farmers and cedar cutters who settled Kangaroo Valley. Rendell Cottage, is an original home which is fitted out with an old style kitchen, dining room, bedroom and lounge room, most of the furniture and goods being donations from local pioneer families. Chittick Museum houses twenty four glass cabinets full of photos and objects which suggest the story of pioneer lives from the 1820s on, but are only labelled, not interpreted. There’s also a schoolhouse, a work shed, a dairy and a forge.
History Alive was funded by IMB Foundation to bring the Museum to life, to give voice to local history, to build on the cultural significance of the museum and ultimately to make the museum more accessible and attractive to exisiting and potential visitors including tourists, schools, community groups and seniors. The inspiration for this project was the Nowra Museum of Flight which already had a successful audio installation, engineered by Nigel Anderson of NSMedia. Nigel and I were invited to create a similar experience at KVPMP.
STAGE ONE: Planning and Development
The President of the Kangaroo Valley Historical Trust, Elaine Apperley, was the visionary and coordinator behind the project. Her position and all her work was volunteer, whereas Nigel and I would be paid a fee for our services. The first step in getting this project off the ground was to meet as a team and walk through the museum together, talking about the vision, scope and logistics of this project. At first, I was abit overwhelmed by the extent of material which the museum housed, and I wondered where I would find the story focus, with no written interpretation having been done yet. But as I walked around, breathing in the waves of old world air, I began to visualize a storyline, and could imagine the voices of the pioneers filling these rooms with their stories.
The next step was to do some basic research from A History of Kangaroo Valley Australia by John Griffith, to ask Elaine for a list of the exhibits and any related material that has been written for the museum, to develop a timeline and themes. I made a list of what I needed before I started the interviews: some historical reference points, some familiarity with the country, a map of the museum and of the region, an understanding of the nature of pioneer life, some familiarity with the main pioneer family names and a structure for the stories. There were no existing recordings of these families to date. My interviewees would be a handful of locals from pioneering families. Their age ranged from sixties to nineties.
With the research ready, I developed a project schedule for my share of the stages in creating an audio installation. This would help Nigel and Elaine work on their part of the project concurrently, and ensure that each stage of the project was running on time. I learned to always double the time you expect your project to take. My tasks were to research interviews, script ideas, conduct interviews, index interviews, copy and submit CD’s of raw interviews with script outlines, intros, outros and edit points. The success of this project depended on having a tight team, working with clarity and a strong communication and information management system. Thank goodness for e-mails and mobile phones.
STAGE TWO : Research, interview plans, interviews
The interviewees had already expressed interest to Elaine whose job it was to contact and organize as many interviewees as possible. I was initially given a lively group of three women and five men to interview, with one a local geologist added to the mix, as the project progressed. A few other important interviewees emerged at a later date, so I asked Elaine to interview them with a home video camera which had good sound recording capabilities. I gave Elaine some suggested questions as well as a guide for total length and with this guidance, she was able to record two good interviews.
We decided that the best place to record the interviewees would be on site as this would help trigger place based memories. That was a good idea until we ran into roadworks near the bridge which made a clear recording impossible and we moved to a nearby home. Elaine suggested that it may be best to interview the men and women separately as they were talking about different things. During the interviews, I learned that they also the men and women had quite different styles of remembering, talking and interviewing! I interviewed the men first. Picture this. A “young” blonde woman from the city coming in to the Valley for the day to interview a bunch of bloke farmers. What would be the point of connection that would help the interviews flow? I was fortunate to have the same surname as one of the pioneer Kangaroo Valley families, Jarrett, with my own story to tell about being related to Thomas Eather, a Hawskbury pioneer. Some of the Jarrett’s came from the Hawksbury to the Valley. There was the connection. Being a distant relative of someone can help bring you into a more intimate circle, and it did.
I introduced the project to the men: how it works, who its for, points of view and multiple truths. I explained that the first part of the day would be recorded for research only then we’d retell some of the stories in individual interviews. Sitting around a table with cups of tea, using cue cards, we talked about work, school, changing tehnology, social life. The men, who knew each other well, prompted each other’s memories and as the stories came out, the room was filled with laughter and excitement. As a storyteller, I believe that we all have stories to tell, and the best stories are the ones which come straight from our heart, in the moment, full of sensory detail and the emotions of the experience. My privilege was to listen to these men’s stories and ask occasional questions which helped expand the stories, give them focus and at times, relate two stories together. The old yarn spinning magic worked as the men tried to outdo each other with their tales of life in the early days, and their memories of themselves and their fathers, as young men.
With a room full of stories, my job was to bring back some focus to the day. I talked about what makes a good story and what makes a good story for the audio installations (One to three minutes). I asked each man to choose two themes and choose a story which goes with each of these themes. We also talked about the objects in the Chittick Museum and the Shed which might relate to them (mostly work tools). Interestingly, the men said that the work tools were so old that even they hadn’t used them in their time as dairy farmers. Then we talked about telling this story with a strong introduction and ending. It was abit like a crash public speaking course! I interviewed the men one by one, setting up on the back deck where it was comfy. The other men sat around the outside table and enjoyed listening to each of these interviews – a “Live” experience! The more confident men went first and when it was time for the other men, they were encouraged by their friends. This process helped shift the whole dynamic of an interview which can be quite daunting, into an accessible, intimate form. By now, the men were feeling comfortable enough to sit beside me and tell me their stories without me interrupting, just giving nods, smiles, hand and eye cues. When we’d finished all the interviews, I played back a few for the men to hear and checked that they were all happy for their interviews to go into the museum. They were and the storytelling continued as we all left to go home!
This storytelling process helps create powerful recordings for audio installations without having to do much editing. I work with a philosophy that we need to create spaces for storytelling to really be able to listen to the stories. Drawing from the very old tradition of gathering together to share stories, I consciously try to create this dynamic, and the energy that goes with it, in my interviews. By brainstorming the stories, we work with tales which are told in authentic voices. By crafting the stories, the men did their own editing, told the story in their own rhythm, and created the pictures from their own living memories. These authentic stories have a direct power to them, a power which remains strong right through the editing, mixing and mastering to the final broadcast within the museum. On Open Day in September, when we launched the History Alive Project, some of the comments people made about the recordings were “That sounds just like Bill”, “That’s Doris all right!”. We left the natural speech “flaws” in, like ums and pauses, with Nigel “tightening up” each recording just enough to give it a sound of excellence that the interviewees would be proud of.
After interviewing the men, I took the recordings home and listened back to all of them. They sounded perfect. I thought that I’d try the same approach in my interviews with the women the next week.
However, I soon learned how different it is to interview a group of women versus a group of men! The women were so delighted to meet me and so excited to be gathered together for this important project, that it was hard to stop them talking! Women like to talk all at once and can follow multiple threads simultaneously. I had the cue cards and a sense of direction as I had done with the men, but the women just wanted to talk! Ah such rich chaos. I kept the recorder running, knowing that these stories would be no good for broadcast but would make great research. For awhile, I decided that laughing together, learning about each of these women’s lives and their relationships with their husbands, their families and each other, was more important than following cue cards. Since the memory triggers for the women seemed to be each other, I listened as each of the stories revealed gems of experience. There’s a beautiful richness in hearing senior voices talk about our history as living history. I wished that I could spend days with these women, but knew that today at some point, we had to get the specific interviews for the installation.
We all decided that the mostly lively way to remember the stories would be to walk through Rendell Cottage and see what memories each room triggered off. A great idea except that the memories were so full and fast that I couldn’t get the mic to each lady speaking and once again, there was lots of overlaid speaking about Sunday baked lunches, pot belly stoves, home baked bread and washing mangles. I kept recording, hoping that I might be able to use some of this for the installation and knowing that the rest would make a great book some day! I felt that I was part of a poignant historic moment where these women were gathering together to pass on these stories, knowing that their lives were getting on and they wouldn’t always be around to tell these tales first hand.
We had a welcome break for lunch and returned to the interview room for one on one interviews. With so many stories stirred up, I hoped that the women could tell their chosen tales with the same focus as the men and with little interruption from me. We didn’t have time for the same story crafting session that I’d done with the men and I’m not sure that it would have worked. I trusted that each woman knew the stories which she wanted to tell. And they did! The interviews went longer than the ideal one to three minute timing I was aiming for, but the content was strong, and reflected back all the themes which I’d chosen for the installation including My Wedding Day, Life Skills For Ladies, Chamber Pots and Toilet Stuff and We Made Our Own Fun. Day two of interviews was a success. The women also left for their homes continuing to tell stories.
In listening back to all the interviews, I was pleased to see that my storytelling approach to oral history worked. The best stories are told when there’s a point of connection between the listener and the teller and when there is an open space for the stories to be heard and to rest. All stories are about relationships. If there is a strong relationship between the teller and the listener (the interviewer), as well as a deep relationship with the subjects being discussed, then the stories will unfold abundantly and naturally.
STAGE THREE: Logging CD’s and developing final script
Once the main interviews were done, it was easier to see/hear where the audio installations were heading. The interviews were indexed with a time log and copies of the CDs were sent to both Elaine and Nigel. Elaine and I talked more about the script for the installations, and added a few more ideas to the initial proposal. My skills as an interpreter came in handy here as I helped translate the vision behind the project and the interviews into the next stage of installation and exhibition.
In selecting the final stories for installation I considered equal representation by each individual, the best told stories, the timing of stories and the links between stories. As well as writing a script outline, I wrote the text for simple Museum Exhibit signs. The women’s stories would be broadcast in Rendell Cottage on a rotating basis so that as the visitor walked through the cottage, they heard the stories. All the other stories would be installed into a listening post in Chittick Museum, with photos of the interviewees as well as a story title and storytelling credit under each story button.
STAGE FOUR: Launch of Audio Installation. Creating a Public Event
There was lots of fine tuning for this project once the interviews had been recorded and edited. This experience relates more to the field of interpretation and producing public events so I won’t go into it now. History Alive was launched for History Week in September 2005 with a total running time of seventy one minutes of stories. The installation and the stories were received with great acclaim and the air was electric with the local pride which was felt by the interviewees and all the visitors that day.
The History Alive project was a dynamic way to create a place and time for recording the stories of Kangaroo Valley pioneer families. As with many story projects, it has uncovered so many more stories. We look forward to the next stage of working with these stories.
Bolitho, Annie and Hutchinson, Mary. Out of the Ordinary, Inventive Ways of bringing communities, their stories and audiences to light. Canberra Stories Group. 1998
Griffith, John. A History of Kangaroo Valley. Kangaroo Valley Historical Society. 1978
Jenkins, Leslie. Talking Together, A Guide to Community Oral History Projects. OHAA Queensland Inc. 1999
Anna Jarrett is a storyteller, trainer, story consultant and oral history facilitator living on the NSW south coast.
Anna Jarrett interviews Kangaroo Valley Pioneer Women Elsie Dewhurst (left), 96 years young, cut the ribbon to launch History Alive. With her are other pioneer women, Doris Good and Doris Blinman. Anna Jarrett (right) recorded and compiles the stories for the project
Last updated, Monday February 08, 2016
All content © 2004/2016 Anna Jarrett t/a the Travelling Storyteller.