GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Oral history in museums: the case of the Arabian Peninsula
Paper Proposal Text :
Anthropologists have long considered the Arab culture to be an oral dominant and high context culture, where memory is highly depended upon especially in cases such as poetry recitation, proverbs and legendary tales. Arab tradition thrives with tales of people who have monumental memories. Within each family, clan or tribe there are a group of key individuals who proudly share their accounts of the past to family and guests alike. This is commonplace in the Arabian Peninsula; people are accustomed to listening to stories of historical or social importance told orally by the older generation.

Due to the audience’s familiarity with oral testimony, museums in the region are recognising the importance of including oral interviews as a main component in their research on national and local history, and as a mechanism to reach audiences.

This paper aims to explore the use of oral testimony in museums in the Arabian Peninsula. The use of oral history in Arabia was largely absent in the academic and cultural circles, until recently with the advent of newly planned national museums in the region. Increasingly, museum practitioners are finding gaps in research and documentation on national and cultural history that may include memories of key events, inherited knowledge and traditional skills such as boat building and hunting. This is where oral history has been recognised to play a key role in filling these research gaps.

Oral testimony provides vital information that can aid the narratives as supporting research, but can also be utilised as exhibition content on their own right, whether through quotes or audio visual form. It also provides details that may not be available in written records.

Though it has many positive aspects, this paper seeks to investigate the issues posed by using oral history especially as it is a fairly new tool used by the museums in the region. These are obstacles faced by interviewers, producers, researchers and other museum practitioners who do not have previous experience with oral testimony in Arabia. Such obstacles include language; the diverse dialects that exist in the region can pose an issue for all parties. For example, when being asked questions by a non-local interviewer some local interviewees tend to change their dialects. In doing so, the interview loses the local dialect and it may alienate, and in the worst case offend, local audiences. Other challenges include finding the right interviewees, dealing with conflicting accounts and insuring women’s voices are heard too.

Oral history’s offerings are plenty, and if done right it can prove to be a powerful tool in captivating audiences through tales and details that cannot be found in written accounts. However, if done wrong it can lose its allure and richness of language and content. Practical recommendations for conducting, editing and applying oral testimony in an exhibition will be presented, all whilst emphasising the importance of appropriating the process to the context of the Arabian Peninsula.