On a morning in September 2019, I visited the neighbourhood of Rajouri Garden in New Delhi to interview Mrs. Vijay Kapur and her husband. As I spoke to her about her childhood in the city of Amritsar in Punjab, she fished out a phulkari (a piece of embroidered cloth made mostly by women in Punjab). It had belonged to her great-grandmother, who gave it to her dadi (her paternal grandmother). After many years, it was finally in her hands.
In this article, I make the case for oral history’s place in museum collections. Today, we see museums around the world investigating the roots of their collections. Consequently, museums are being urged to follow more ethical collecting practices. Oral history as a discipline can serve as a useful guide towards this goal. It creates a rich world of storytelling around any type of collection, including works of art, archival documents, photographs and material objects. Its methods can also shape a museum’s relationships and reimagine its role as a custodian of collections.
For three years, I worked with the Partition Museum, Amritsar, collecting oral histories, photographs, documents and objects from individuals and families. We were documenting a history which took place 70 years ago, when British India was divided into two independent countries: India and Pakistan. With the drawing of new territorial borders came widespread violence and mass killing, and a devastating refugee crisis which continued for decades. As we documented this ‘Long Partition’, we became aware of its ‘long shadow’. We collected trunks, textiles, albums, sewing machines, and even passports. The stories we recorded helped us understand the contemporary significance of these objects, and the histories they embodied. In the case of Mrs. Kapur’s phulkari, our conversation also provided the genealogy of this piece of embroidered cloth.
This practical experience made me think deeply about oral history as a medium. In her essay on the book One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices, Meena Menon talks about the role of oral history in uncovering historical truth. Oral history, she says, involves ‘constantly learning more’ and ‘adding more layers’ to what we know about the past. Oral history, because it takes on board different perspectives and challenges existing ones, acknowledges this layering process.
In museums, oral histories are often placed alongside other types of collections and offer exciting ways to reflect on historical sources. They add additional layers of information to what a record tells us. A collection of newspapers can tell us a lot about journalism of the past, for example, but interviews with journalists can give us an insight into reporting practices or ground-level negotiations and conflicts which never made their way into the documentary record. Visitors to the Partition Museum can read official sources describing how the 1947 borders were drawn, and layer this understanding by listening to people talk about waiting for news about their family members, or which side of the border their city or town would fall. Major political events can be understood through the immediate experiences of eyewitnesses.
When Mrs. Kapur first showed me her phulkari, I wondered about her own relationship to the craft, and the routines she had developed around her passion for embroidery. Holding the phulkari, Mrs. Kapur told me that she had learnt to embroider from her dadi and her mother. Living in Amritsar in her teens, she would cycle from the neighbourhood of Sharifpura to a market near the Golden Temple to buy her stitching supplies, including anchor threads which then cost four annas. A story like this was not only deeply personal, but also helped me understand the geography of Amritsar, through a young woman’s engagement with the local markets in a city famous for its textile trade.
Oral history interviews rely on an ‘active human relationship between historians and their sources’. These interactions encourage museums to maintain consistent and long-term relationships with the people they interview. The neighbourhood of Chittaranjan Park, in New Delhi, was originally a residential colony for people displaced from East Pakistan by the Partition. For the past three years, an organisation called Shapno Ekhon has been working to preserve local heritage by encouraging children to record oral histories, collect material and curate pop-up exhibitions, theatre performances, poetry and music for residents.
On a Saturday morning, I attended a group ‘adda’ or discussion amongst older residents as they chatted about old times. This was just one of many regular sessions organised by Shapno Ekhon. The addas offered a space for residents to reflect on why they chose to settle in CR Park in the first place, and their observations about the neighbourhood. During a session for doctors, medical practitioners spoke of the challenges they faced when setting up their clinics. During another session, women spoke of their skepticism towards acquiring property in the area when their families saw Delhi as only a temporary place of residence, and planned to eventually return to Bengal. This ongoing project is an example of how oral history and group discussions can be used to explore a shared past. Such strategies can also be used to bring different religious groups in conversation with each other. The Know Your Neighbour campaign based in Kolkata seeks to counter religious distrust by engaging people in walks, discussions and events to acquaint them with other histories and cultures that they would otherwise be unfamiliar with.
Oral history interviewing enables museums to engage with participants in an impactful way. In recent years, neighbourhood museums and history museums have used oral histories to connect with communities and involved them actively in museum projects and exhibitions. In some cases this has also led to the building of collectives that have a say in the museum’s work and its narratives. Manchester Museum’s South Asia Collective does precisely this. Members of the South Asian diaspora in Manchester are currently co-curating the museum’s new South Asia Gallery to be opened in 2022. Telling stories through the voices of South Asian residents of Manchester is at the heart of this project.
This regular interface with people urges institutions to safeguard the rights of interviewees. Oral history interviewing over the past few decades has generated important conversations around consent and ethics, which have led to the framing of robust practices. The Oral History Association, for example, outlines the best practices for oral historians to use when preparing for, conducting, preserving and facilitating access to interviews. These conversations have addressed questions of agency, informed consent, narrative control, data protection and rights of withdrawal, among many other concerns. They have led to a shift from thinking of collections through the lens of ownership, to thinking of the museum or the archive as a facilitator, steward, or temporary custodian.
Managing oral history collections involves standardising procedures for obtaining informed consent, documentation, cataloguing and preservation. For a museum on the Partition, it was important for me to create procedures that were both practical and sensitive to interviewees’ wishes. Interviewees could, for example, restrict sections of their interviews from display, either offline or online. If we think expansively, these processes, otherwise limited to oral history practice, can inform a museum’s overall approach to collection building. By creating a consent-based operative framework, museums can regularly connect with their contributors to ensure they still feel comfortable with their interviews or objects being on display or being publicly accessible.
Lastly, by speaking to a wide range of people and providing a supportive platform for their stories, museums can use oral history to connect the past to present-day political concerns. In the case of the Partition Museum, this involved creating a space for people to articulate their desires–to meet their friends and relatives across the borders, or to travel to their home villages and towns. These desires tell us how relevant the Partition still is for those who experienced it. Using oral histories, a museum can document these contemporary concerns and find ways to support and nurture them, creating exciting possibilities for a museum’s role in today’s society.