Oral History Meetings


Islands of Memory: Navigating Personal and Public History

The 16th biennial National Conference of the Oral History Association of Australia (OHAA) was held in Launceston, Tasmania, 17–20 September 2009 and proved to be a vibrant and very successful meeting for oral historians. Most of the delegates were from Australia but there were also several from New Zealand and one each from South Africa, Canada and the United States. The perspective of those from overseas was of special importance as it widened the scope of discussions.


Janis Wilton holding the Hazel de Berg Award, with OHAA President Jan McCahon Marshall

The conference got off to a great start with the keynote address by Richard Whiteing from the Robben Island Museum in South Africa, entitled Remembering Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Delegates were enthralled and moved by his paper showing the use of oral history to help interpret the history of this notorious jail from the perspective of both prisoners and guards. One of the issues he raised was the difficulty of presenting the story of all those involved in the jail and not just that of its most famous inhabitant.

Another highlight was the paper by Chicago’s Alan Harris Stein, Rocking the Boat: Studs Terkel’s 20th Century. After seeing a short film about Terkel and hearing what Al had to say, delegates felt they had a much greater appreciation of this iconic American oral historian who died in 2008.

All sessions were well-attended and provoked interesting discussion, which of course continued through morning and afternoon tea and lunch, perhaps the greatest benefit of any conference. A panel on teaching oral history showed the benefits of forming a special group to pursue this in the future. Oral history on the Web, and its use in illuminating such diverse topics as Indigenous issues, artistic practice, the workplace and various wars were all explored. An especially moving session focused on three mothers who had each used oral history with one of their children who was perceived to have a problem.

Long-time oral history stalwart (and past IOHA President) Janis Wilton was presented with the Hazel de Berg Award for Excellence in Oral History for her outstanding contribution to the cause of oral history in Australia. The announcement was greeted with warm and sustained applause.

Finally, the OHAA National Executive for the next two years was determined. The new President is Jill Cassidy from Tasmania, and the Association can be contacted at [email protected] or via the website at www.ohaa.net.au


Art and Migration: Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles International Conference, Genova, Italy April 2-4, 2009

[Convened by Alessandro Dal Lago, Luisa Del Giudice, Thomas Harrison; Sponsored by the Università di Genova, UCLA International Institute, RAMSES – project of the European Union]

This report of the 2009 Watts Conference in Genova, Italy attempts to be merely descriptive and not to express a consensus of opinion on either the meaning of the Watts Towers or the overall outcome of the conference itself.

Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles, a historic meeting devoted to one of the most significant works of art and architecture of the last century, and to the Italian immigrant artist who created them, took place at the Università di Genova, Italy, from April 2-4, 2009. By all accounts the international academic conference provided participants a rare opportunity to consider the monument and its maker across a diverse spectrum of disciplinary perspectives. Artists, sociologists, architectural historians, ethnologists/folklorists, oral historians, filmmakers, scholars of literature and cinema, community activists, heritage and conservation specialists, as well as civic arts administrators came together to take historic stock of a unique artist and his highly idiosyncratic work of art. They acknowledged the artwork’s enduring mysteries (why did Rodia build them and what do they mean?), they suggested new directions for research and finally, they agreed to reassemble in Los Angeles in the Fall of 2010 to continue the fruitful exchange of ideas begun in Genova. Plans are also underway to gather some of the conference papers for publication in order to render the results of this exchange more tangible and broadly accessible.

A novel feature of this gathering was that it took place under the rubric of “Art and Migration,” adding a welcome new dimension to the Towers’ multiple meanings and discursive power. Participants considered Rodia and his Towers within the context of global migrations, contested social and urban spaces, the relations of art and economic development, the imaginaries of local, traditional, and Italian (North and South) American immigrant cultures. At the same time, careful consideration was given to Rodia’s individual artistic and architectural genius, to the theoretical and conceptual implications of this work, to its place in the history of art, and to the multiple challenges of conservation and administration that art environments such as the Towers pose.

Following introductory papers by the conference organizers, formal presentations were divided into four sections: 1) The Community of Watts and its Monument:  Physical, Socio-Economic and Political Realities; 2) Art Environments, Vernacular Traditions, and their Imaginaries; 3) Italian Migrations:  Literary, Artistic, and Visual Legacies; 4) Reproducing Nola. (Please see attached pdf document for detailed program.) The conference also offered opportunities for viewing several documentary films on the Watts Towers (Edward Landler and Brad Byer: I Build the Tower—simultaneously translated for the audience into Italian; Tom Koester, 3-dimensional: The Watts Towers, which entailed heroic technical support from across Italy (Udine); as well as the account of the history and development of the Watts Towers Art Center, by Rosie Lee Hooks and S. Pearl Sharp: Fertile Ground: Stories from the Watts Towers Arts Center, narrated by Congresswoman, Maxine Waters).

Because the best academic meetings foster open dialogue (which is their very raison d’être), our gathering was not without lively debate. (Indeed, the Watts Towers have engendered controversy from their very inception.) Speakers engaged in a sometimes pointed exchange of ideas despite limited time dedicated to discussion, question and answer. Such exchanges continued outside the conference room into hallways, onto terraces, and over meals. Given the many administrative, civic, nonprofit, arts, and conservation entities responsible for or affiliated with the Watts Towers, it is not surprising that they have alternatively collided, aligned, and/or mutually reinforced one another over the span of decades. Some of this disagreement however, may be structurally entrenched (e.g., the City as opposed to the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts over conservation methods and management; the City of L.A. administration as opposed to the local community of Watts on issues of economic development). Other dichotomies may have evolved synergistically (e.g., Watts Towers Community Arts Center vis-à-vis the Rodia Towers, separate yet symbiotic units). The challenge that emerged from the Genova conference, and as it might appear to third-party observers, is that of bridging divergent discourses and goals, and fostering and/or creating “common ground.” The continued wellbeing of this much-loved Los Angeles structure and icon, and of the Watts community too (which has respected and cared for them for decades), seems to depend on it.

The most debated issues of the conference (despite, once again, the limited time devoted to debate), pertained to the first and fourth panels. Panel 1 reviewed the history of ownership, the role of various state, city, and arts agencies, and the challenges of funding conservation of the Towers. The well-known Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts (CSRTW)—the very Committee that saved the Towers from demolition in 1959 (and which this October will commemorate its 50th anniversary)—was not present to represent its current perspective on the Towers. However, the CSRTW provided conference organizers in advance with a one-page, 10 point-summary of objections to the current status and/or methods of Tower conservation, which was circulated. Given the already set conference schedule, there was not as much time to discuss these points as some would have liked. Many conference participants expressed the desire to achieve greater clarity about these issues of concern (e.g., perhaps by receiving a studied response to the ten points from administrators and conservators, or by engaging in a guided visit of the Towers site itself). No collective plans were formulated in Genova, however several were aired informally (in conversation with City representatives). Certainly, after reviewing the precarious situation of other art environments (e.g., in Spain), many of which have been neglected and are even currently in process of demolition, the attention the Watts Towers receive might appear fortunate by comparison. Rodia’s Towers enjoy the benefit of a concerned and pro-active community, conservators, an adjacent art center, and international attention!

Another issue of great interest and curiosity, but also of indirect contention, revolved around the Italian content of Rodia’s work: e.g., the relevance of the relationship between the Towers of Rodia and the festive Gigli of Nola. How exactly does the work of this “independent” or “outsider” artist respond to his specific cultural heritage, to his immigrant experience, and worldview? Granted that Rodia displayed identifiable marks of an Italian/American folk esthetic, artisan work traditions, motifs and themes, as well as an immigrant worldview, is the application to the Towers of a potentially “essentializing” discourse of ethnicity problematic? The fault line on this issue seemed to divide Italian or Italian American scholars of ethnology and American immigration studies from others interested in framing art and architecture within the broader context of Modernism and/or global migration studies. In light of the celebration of Rodia’s “Italianness,” historic and contemporary migrations were highlighted by way of a poignant comparison of the U.S. and Italy: would the building of an artwork such as Rodia’s Towers, by an immigrant, be tolerated today in Italy? The implicit answer offered was: no.

Besides enjoying a relaxed and casual meeting, participants in the Genova conference on the Watts Towers also had time to interact informally at social events: e.g., lunches in the beautiful reception room of the Facoltà di Scienze della Formazione (Dept. of Anthropology), with its terrace looking out towards the mountains, an elegant convivial portside dinner on the first night, at the restaurant “Tre Merli” (with the recurring “pesto alla Genovese” theme). Other activities included a guided walking tour of the city and its extraordinarily rich Turn-of-the-Century Art Nouveau architecture (known as Stile Liberty in Italian), concurrent exhibitions on Fabrizio De André, the noted Genovese singer-songwriter and poet (1940 – 1999) at both the Ducal Palace and the hotel lobby of the restored 17th-century Palazzo Cicala, directly across from the cathedral of San Lorenzo—which offered the ecclesiastic spectacle of a Palm Sunday celebration on its front steps on April 5. Participants were also treated to another Italian spectacle of sorts, in the form of a strike of ambulatory vendors (protesting new city ordinances), which brought the city center to a complete standstill on April 2, as participants wended their way on foot to the University for our conference opening event. Finally, all were treated to Paul Harris’ unforgettable performance of his “Alpha Rap,” a poem called “Sam’s Ark: An L.A. Landmark,” whose exclusive use of the vowel A pays tribute to the architectural outline of Rodia’s tower structures.

This conference demonstrated that Rodia and the Towers continue to inspire scholarly analysis, induce animated discussion, and foster controversy—testimony to the fact that they matter passionately to so many, representing as they do a site of extraordinary human creativity, resilience, and redemption. This, some conference participants concluded, may well be the “common ground” which gives this unique civic icon the ability to bridge the many “continental” divides determined by class, race, ethnicity, and migration status. To focus on such common ground (rather than on heightened fault lines) may be for Angelinos a welcome occasion for civic re-engagement, compassionate action, and renewed concern for issues of social equity.

Building on the momentum generated by the Genova conference, initial work is already underway to create a multimedia festival and conference entitled “The Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative,” scheduled for Fall 2010. While re-affirming and re-focusing attention on the extraordinary Rodia and his Towers locally, this occasion will also address questions of art, migrations, human and community development, and endeavor to create partnerships and collaborative art, theater and music projects, across cultural, geographic, and socio-economic borders throughout the city (contact organizer: [email protected]). The Towers have become a symbol of creativity and sustained resolve under adversity. They also stand as a source of identity and history to its local African American and Latino communities.  How can the Towers be embraced by all Angelinos? Further, how can the many economically-depressed “Watts”-like neighborhoods on our urban landscape benefit from art and community development, especially those that have no Towers? Increased visibility for and a celebration of the Towers can only help lead us out of our current existential and societal dilemmas.

Luisa Del Giudice | [email protected]
Conference Co-Organizer



Oral History in Panama: International Workshop “Initial reflection on the Panamanian historiographical production in the 20th Century. A necessary debate.”

Between the end of August and the beginning of September 2009, Laura Benadiba, an Argentine lecturer, took part in a series of academic events in which she disseminated both the methodology and news about recent debates on the practice of oral history in Argentina. Her participation can be summarized in the following activities and projects:

panama1An International Seminar: “A preliminary reflection on Panamanian historiographical work in the twentieth century: a necessary debate.”

This event was organized by the University of Panama (Universidad de Panamá) and took place in the Regional University Center of Coclé (Centro Regional  Universitario de Coclé), from 24 to 28 August 2009.  For its director, Pantaleón García, the seminar was an academic forum allowing participants to discuss, share, analyze and evaluate the work of Panamanian historiography over the one-hundred years of the Republic (a period conditioned by the colonial presence in Panama of the United States of America). The future of historiographical work was also discussed, with emphasis given to contemporary trends and their integration into Panamanian historical studies. In total, it was a forum for debate where students, teachers and researches from the country had the opportunity to discuss and share experiences with national and international specialists.

Amongst the international intellectuals present were Morelia Muñoz from Venezuela, Laura Benadiba from Argentina (who also gave a seminar on the IDEN, at the Central Campus of the University of Panama), and Jordi Canal from the School of Higher Education of Paris, France (la Escuela de Altos Estudios de Paris).

The fundamental themes considered during the seminar were the following:

  1. The historiographical currents of major influence in the twentieth century and the idea of a crisis of History at the end of the century.
  2. History: a science, social discipline or literary practice?
  3. What history did we teach?
  4. History and Memory
  5. The renewal of Panamanian historical studies today?

Amongst the most relevant conclusions drawn from this academic event were:

  1. The important need to establish links with the Ministry of Education, with the aim of discussing and generating change in the curriculum content of history, covering primary to university levels. To this end, a commission of specialists working in the field should be appointed to carry out the necessary work.
  2. The need to review school programs and textbooks with the aim of improving and updating them, and infusing them with contemporary historiographical trends.
  3. To create a permanent program of action to update practices in the social sciences and history disciplines, for both teachers and lecturers of primary and secondary schooling.

panama2An International Certificate Program: “Oral history: archives of the word and the image.”

This seminar was organized by the Institute of National Studies at the University of Panama (Instituto de Estudios Nacionales de la Universidad de Panamá). It was opened on 31 August with Laura Benadiba’s presentation entitled, “Oral History: interviews in oral history.” It continued on through to 4 September with a total of twenty hours of lectures.

The certificate program focused student’s attention on the principle concern of rescuing Panamanian identity through the use of diverse historiographical tools that facilitate the conservation of identity over time, preserving it as a legacy for future generations. To that end, the particular utility of oral history interviews as a resource was raised. Highlighted was oral history’s interview methodology that is based on the fundamental premise of recovering of life stories and personal experiences of individuals. Also stressed was is notion that oral history methodology is central to the preservation and reconstruction of national history as is gathering diverse memories of Panamanian society and recovering customs and cultural patrimony.

The Montessori School

In this school, the Panamanian teacher, Marcela Camargo, is pushing for the construction of her Oral History Archive (Archivo de Historia Oral). Students were introduced to the methodology of oral history when Laura Benadiba joined with teachers of social sciences to do a workshop on oral history as a way of getting Marcela Camargo’s project started.

panama3Project : Integral development of the Comarca Kuna of Madungandi.

This project is the fruit of an arrangement between the University of Panama and the General Congress of Kuna of Madungandi. In this project, Professor Laura Benadiba participated in the area related to the Madunganian culture and, in particular, training for the development of the oral history of Comarca. The aims of this project are:

  1. Collecting information (primary and secondary sources) that provides a reference point to the founding of the Comarca Kuna of Madungandi.
  2. Producing a census that delivers information regarding people over fifty years of age who offer their experiences.
  3. Researching the origins of the Comarca and its significance, as well as the origins of the visited populations, migrations, and the creation of different communities.
  4. Inquiring into the major changes to communities that have occurred as a result of the construction of the Bayano dam.
  5. Identifying the main socio-economic problems of the communities visited.

Laura Benadiba | [email protected]




The Nineteenth International Conference of Culture and Peace for Gernika: “Life stories, symbolic places and the reconstruction of identities for building peace” April 2009. Organized by Gernika Gogoratuz.

Recovering memory through the study of the life stories of people who have suffered violence, as in the case of the survivors of the bombardment of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), brings up the following question: Are the survivors of the bombardment, including those who lived the experience directly and people such as ourselves who are inheritors of its legacy, able to transcend its remembrance through a pedagogy of memory and, consequently, with an enlightened perspective regarding that memory, to be able to contribute to peace?

In other words, if we are legitimizing a memory that does not forget and a memory that remembers in an effort to achieve peace, are we not questioning the very inevitability of violence by positioning the notion, “if you want peace, then remember the past, and in so doing, prepare the future for peace.”

Or on the contrary, we are legitimizing a memory that does not forget and which cautions because it requires remembrance to perpetuate the established social order, “si vis pacem, do not forget, para bellum”(if you want peace, do not forget, prepare yourself for war), which serves to sustain, in the last instance, that violence, whether we like it or not, is inevitable.

With Gernika Gogoratuz (which means “remembering Gernika “) we propose a pedagogy of memory in which “to remember”serves a clear purpose. Why remember? To contribute to and to build peace.

During the Nineteenth International Conference of Culture and Peace for Gernika, held in April 2009, we discussed the life stories of individuals, the memories that constitute us as people and which exist in relation to identities as a way of discovering a complementary memory, and which are also full of remembrance and of forgetting.

Gernika Gogoratuz
is a Research Center for Peace created in 1987 by the Basque Parliament in the context of the 50th Anniversary of the bombardment of Guernica. It was established in the village of Gernika with the mission of “perpetuating the symbol and remembrance of this historical event.”

All of this is aimed at responding to questions related to self identity –a singular identity becoming diverse in the singularity of the questioning of “who am I?” or, in a modified formulation in the plural “who [plural] am I”?, in the line of questioning on varied identities conforming us towards the collective proposal looking for answers to the question of ”who [plural] are we? that groups us together in a singular community, drawing us in through a pedagogy of solidarity through the question of “where are we going”and “with whom are we going”.

This year’s edition, titled “Life histories, symbolic places and the reconstruction of identities for building peace”, was linked to the European research project CRIC, which celebrated its second annual gathering in Gernika. The CRIC project (2008-2009): Identity and conflict: Cultural heritage and reconstruction of identities since the conflict.

The”Program of Cooperation”, under the Seventh EU Framework Program (ID FP7-SSH-2007-5.2.1 History and Identities). The partners of this project include the University of Cambridge; the Noruego Institute of Research and Cultural Heritage; the University of Surrey; the High Council of Scientific Research and Gernika Gogoratuz; the University of Paris IV Paris Sorbonne; the International Institute of Research for Peace – PRIO Chipre; the University of Umea; and the Technical University of Dresden.