Tell me more: Oral history and New Zealand history

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I have just returned from the biennial conference of NOHANZ, New Zealand’s oral history association.  It was an immensely stimulating gathering of some 50 people (over 80% female), and featured some fascinating presentations. Because we were meeting in Christchurch the earthquake figured large with some powerful oral histories – Anna Cottrell showed her video of children’s voices, Paul Millar talked of the hugely impressive work of CEISMIC with their ‘Quakebox’, and we heard about the project to record the voices of women affected by the quake.

Other highpoints for me included:

  • Ngāi Tahu’s work to record the memories of their kaumatua and kuia,
  • Anna Green’s challenging and original project, ‘The Missing Link’, to uncover inter-generational family memory,
  • Grace Bateman’s stories of people living with ME.
  • A fascinating project, Mrs Schumaker’s Gems, by Helen Frizzell, Megan Hutching, Judith Fyfe and Pip Oldham. Using the books in which New Zealand women wrote down recipes, they drew out their memories of domestic life in the 40s and 50s.
  • Several oral history collections of immigrant experiences – from Auckland Chinese to recent Christchurch Irish.

Yet one big question remained with me.  Why was there only one academic historian at the hui; and why had oral history not made more of an impact on the discipline of history?  The conference was partly focused on the 30th anniversary of NOHANZ, so the occasion was used to invite Claudia Orange, Hugo Manson and myself as ‘founders’ to reflect on the past 30 years. In my paper I recalled my own enthusiasm for oral history in the 1980s.  I had seen the impact that oral history hade made on Māori history with Michael King’s biography of Te Puea, Judith Binney’s work on Rua and Ngā Morehu, not to mention James Cowan’s extensive use of interviews in the 1920s for his volumes on the New Zealand Wars.  Since Māori carried so much of their history in spoken memories, I expected it to become the major source of iwi history.  But as much Pākehā historical writing changed from high politics to social history, the history of women and the family, popular culture, and the history of working people – all summed up in the expression ‘history from below’ – then it seemed inevitable that oral history, rather than documents, would become a major source and working tool for historians.

Did that happen?  To answer that question I analysed the New Zealand Journal of History and looked at two aspects over three time periods: just before NOHANZ was founded (1981-85), ten years after its founding (1996-2000), and the past five years (2011-15).  The first aspect was the articles in the journal.  This was what I found:

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In sum the number of articles which included references to oral history sources had only increased by under 3% over those thirty years.  To be fair some of the articles using oral sources did so more extensively than previously.  In the early 1980s of the four articles with reference to interviews, three of the four had only four or five references.  But the more recent articles did include several which drew extensively on such sources most notably Melissa Matutina Williams writing about the Māori migration from Pangaru, and pieces on the 1951 lock-out and one on the take-up of the contraceptive pill.

The second aspect was the books reviewed. I divided my findings into those which used some oral history and those which were substantially based on such sources.  Here are the results:

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Are the results impressive? Certainly one in five of the books with some oral history is a big improvement on the under one in twelve in the early 1980s; and by 2011-15 there were some books which were primarily oral history and were regarded as sufficiently important to be reviewed in the journal.  They included for example Alison Parr’s interviews about the home front in World War 2; and a reissue of Alistair Thomson’s classic Anzac MemoriesBut in my view the growth is still not especially convincing, despite the fact that indeed the focus of much history has moved into the 20th century and away from political history into social and cultural history.  It is interesting that in reviewing a work of recent history, Changing times: New Zealand Since 1945 Katie Pickles noted, ‘Despite the intention to “tell the story using the experiences and views of New Zealanders themselves” where possible, this is not a book to draw heavily upon oral histories.’

Why is oral history still a minority pursuit among historians? It may be that the academic history represented in the journal is the wrong focus, and that far more oral history is to be found in family history, local community history and sporting history, areas not often reviewed in the journal.  Or is it that academic historians are by nature introverts, who feel far more comfortable sitting at their computers scanning Papers Past, than doing the hard work of social engagement and preparation required in gathering oral interviews.

Whatever the explanation it was disappointing to me to see so few academic historians at the gathering.  I looked back with some nostalgia to the six months I spent at the University of Sussex as far back as 1985 when the history department, hugely influenced by History Workshop history made oral history projects the very centre of their work.  Don’t get me wrong. Memories can be very faulty and spoken history must always be set beside the documentary source.  But spoken words are an invaluable way into the past.  Oral history is an essential tool for any professional historian. Its time that NOHANZ conferences are not a sub-culture of devotees talking to each other, but become a gathering for any New Zealand historian who takes him or herself seriously.




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