When I wrote a report for the last IOHA newsletter I was still working as an oral historian and adult educator in England. Since then, I’ve moved to a new job in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University in Australia. For me this is coming home after 24 years away from Australia; for my British family this is emigration and like many British immigrants before them they are finding Australia very familiar but awfully strange. My respect for all the migrants I have interviewed over the years has increased enormously, as I realise at first hand that migration is a tremendously challenging learning experience.
Just before I left England I was fortunate to attend two European oral history conferences. In March I joined the first national conference of the Italian Oral History Society in Rome. Italy has produced some of the most important theoretical work in oral history – most notably the writings of Luisa Passerini and Sandro Portelli – but oral historians have not always been supported by Italian universities. This conference proved that both new and experienced Italian scholars are generating valuable oral history work, and that the links between the academy and the politics of community oral history are vibrant. The conference was held in a new House of Memory and History, a beautiful building in central Rome that hosts several popular history projects, including partisan histories, and is a venue in which the memories of the city are shaped into history and politics.
In July I attended the annual conference of the British Oral History Society in London. Oral history in Britain is thriving, in part because millions of pounds worth of lottery funds have been awarded to community-based oral history projects which can produce a heritage resource and community benefit. Oral history is exceptionally well-placed to meet the funding requirements of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and community projects across the country have been undertaking imaginative oral histories and creating important archives and public history products. Though there are academics in Britain who work with oral history, community-based work is the core of the British oral history movement.
That is probably also true of Australia. Though Australia does not have an equivalent to the UK Heritage Lottery Fund, in some states public history institutions such as museums and libraries support oral history, including community-based oral history activity. In September, a few weeks after my arrival in Australia, I was fortunate to attend the biennial Oral History Association of Australia conference in Brisbane, capital of the tropical state of Queensland. I was particularly impressed by the ways in which Australian oral historians are making imaginative uses of oral history, in film and radio, in soundscape and museum exhibitions, and on the internet. Queensland has a significant indigenous population, and several aboriginal presenters showed how they are using oral history within their own communities to strengthen a sense of community history and identity, but also to educate white Australians about Australia’s black history. This is a contested history with potent political significance in contemporary Australia, where conservative politicians have been seeking a return to policies of assimilation that deny aboriginal history and identity. Oral history has a vital educational and political role. Look out for the oral history of the Cherbourg aboriginal community when it comes on line shortly – we had a sneak preview at the conference and it’s brilliant.
IOHA Council members and colleagues at the University of Guadalajara and in the Mexican Oral History Association have been busy with preparations for the next (and 15th) International Oral History Conference which will be held at the University of Guadalajara in September 2008. I’m delighted to report that we received more than 600 proposals for conference presentations. Two teams (one for English language proposals, one for Spanish language) are currently reviewing these proposals, and in November we aim to notify all presenters about the outcome. I think this is the most proposals that have ever been received for an international oral history conference, and I am sure this response indicates a widespread international enthusiasm for oral history and a particular interest in Latin America. I urge you to start saving now towards your attendance (conference and accommodation costs will be very reasonable, but international flights to Mexico are not cheap). We are planning oral history training master classes that will precede the main conference, and the conference website (http://www.congresoioha2008.cucsh.udg.mx) includes information about tourist opportunities in and around Guadalajara and Mexico – so you should be able to combine business and pleasure.
In 2002, IOHA established a Scholarship Fund to enable oral historians without institutional support, especially those from developing and under-represented regions and countries, to participate and present their work in this professionally important biennial event. In 2004, scholarship recipients came to the IOHA conference in Rome from Argentina, Bosnia, Congo, Gambia, the Philippines, Russia, the Ukraine, Uruguay, and Zimbabwe. In 2006, they came to Sydney from Argentina, Chile, China (Hong Kong), Guatemala/Mexico, India, Samoa, the Ukraine, and Zimbabwe. We have begun fund-raising towards the Scholarship Fund that will support attendance at the Guadalajara conference. There is a ‘Support IOHA’ section on the IOHA website (www.ioha.fgv.br/ioha) which invites donations from individuals for the scholarship fund. In 2006 anonymous individual donations supported several scholarship holders – please do use the site or contact me if you would like to make such a donation for 2008.
Al Thomson [email protected]