Museums, Oral History and Social Change

By Ellen Brooks

This week I attended the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Although I will be interning at a museum this summer and have done some relevant museum work, I attended the conference on my own and as a bit of an outsider. The idea of going to such a large conference alone and unaffiliated was a bit intimidating…but what encouraged me was the conference’s theme: The Power of Storytelling.

I am currently finishing up my master’s degree in Oral History at Columbia University and have been seeking ways in which oral history can find a place within public history, whether that means in large, traditional museums or smaller, innovative historic sites or pop-up exhibits, and anything in between. It was encouraging to see the AAM acknowledging and supporting the idea of museums as a place to tell stories and considering museum goers as more than just visitors but as an audience for, and even potential participants in, important narratives. I sat in on several sessions that included oral history projects and talked to a number of people about the use of oral history in museums. I was a little disappointed that there were no panels or discussion organized specifically around oral history, but in general I was excited about what I saw and heard and am considering suggesting a panel session focused on oral history for next year’s conference.

So, we have museums and we have oral history but where in this discussion is social change? Looking through the (extensive) program, something else that encouraged me about the AAM conference were the headings for the panel discussions. The first three sessions I attended all had the word community in their titles. I found that the AAM constituents are, for the most part, very aware of the stakes a museum has in reaching and including their communities. There was a substantial talk about interactivity and participation, which seems to be a strong trend in museums today. I participated in one debate about museums’ responsibility to their constituency versus their responsibility to their audience. I attended a session about “taking your museum to the streets,” making exhibits and programming more accessible for those in the community. All of this, and more, seemed to me to be significant indicators that museums are invested in community building.

Everyone familiar with oral history knows that oral history is more than just storytelling. And, to me, museums have always been more than just big buildings with old stuff (although I find big buildings with old stuff pretty neat on their own). Both museums and oral histories are first and foremost an opportunity to learn something new.  I believe the marriage of oral history, with its emphasis on first-person narrative and democratizing history, and museums, with their desire to reach their communities, has the potential to create a perfect partnership. And this partnership could be a perfect conduit for teaching about social issues and social change.

I’m curious to hear what other people think about the collaboration of museums and oral history for social change. And stay tuned as I plunge deeper into the realms of museums and oral history and try to determine how they can lead to social change. I expect my internship at New York’s Tenement Museum to give me some new insights that I will be happy to share with the Groundswell community!