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Oral histories

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Marginalized groups have often been ignored and misrepresented in traditional historical written sources, and this has contributed to their exclusion and erasure within many museums.

Oral history can help correct incomplete narratives and make room for historically excluded people to tell their own stories in these institutions. Oral historian Paul Thompson states that oral history is:

“a history built around people. It thrusts life into history itself and widens its scope. It allows heroes not just from the leaders, but also from the unknown majority of the people. It encourages teachers and students to become fellow-workers. It brings history into, and out of, the community. It helps the less privileged […] towards dignity and self-confidence. It makes for contact – and thence understanding – between social classes, and between generations.”

Oral history is consistent with the principles of equitable distribution of power and prioritization of meaningful participation of the historically marginalized voices in processes that directly affect them, which are at the heart of a human rights museology. Therefore, a human rights-based approach in museology can help historically excluded groups engage with museums to achieve their goals of participating in policy formulation while holding institutions accountable.

Oral history, as a strategy for participation and for the democratization of museum practice, can contribute to embedding a more democratic museum practice in institutions. Oral history can be used as a tool to create meaningful partnerships with community members that can lead to the types of collaborations needed to challenge hierarchical structures and practices that are deeply rooted in museum thought and practice. This implies cultivating an ongoing process of dialogue and sharing authority with those who have been excluded in the past. Sharing authority in museum practice, a core ethical principle of oral history, implies an ongoing process that goes beyond merely speaking or consulting with new audiences. It requires taking the time to build trust, developing meaningful collaborative relationships, and sharing decision-making between museums and the communities.

Dialogue with diverse communities and experts has shown that using oral history in museum activities such as researching and revisiting the past may prove deeply emotional or distressing for historically-marginalized people who have experienced trauma.

Consequently, under a human rights museology, the terms of engagement must be set and agreed collaboratively between all parties affected. Ethical guidelines developed with the active participation of community experts is a first step in ensuring minimization of the harm that these projects can cause.

In the fall of 2019, the Museum of Movements (MoM) in Sweden conducted an ethics workshop that brought together 35 experts from civil society, academia and museum sectors already working on these issues in Malmo, Sweden, and at the international level. This group of experts shared their knowledge and experiences over three days of intensive work, which resulted in the first draft of the ethical guidelines that will guide the museum’s work.

Experts were divided in groups of six according to their skills and expertise. Each group was assigned an area of museum practice: Community Participation, Research, Collections, Archives, Interpretation, and Exhibitions. For each area of museum practice, the assigned group of participants developed a principle and two guidelines. The discussions that took place at each table were also recorded and are intended to serve as travaux préparatoires, or source materials, for guiding further discussions, articulation and implementation of the guidelines. In addition to producing a first draft of ethical guidelines for the MoM, the goal of the workshop was also to establish a network of museum professionals, academics and members from civil society working on these issues as a reference group.

You can read the ethical guidelines in the article in the See also section below.

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Creating Meaningful and Inclusive Museum Practices

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