Family Oral History Project

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We’re all at home again. Let’s make the most of this time indoors. Let’s reconnect with and strengthen our relationship with our family members- especially the older ones. There is no greater time than now!

#Oral History Project

Today is a great day to say yes to collecting and documenting the recollections that your older family members have about our built and natural heritage. This Blog will be your how-to- guide, providing the structure and tips to carry out such a project at home. Choose a willing senior relative (past retirement age is ideal) and let’s dive in.

 

What is Oral History?

Oral history is the recording, interpretation and preservation, of historical information, derived from the personal experiences and opinions of the speaker.[1] It is the method of recording and preserving testimony as well as the product of that process.[2] Primarily, it takes the form of eye-witness evidence of past activities, but also includes folklores, myths, songs and stories passed down through the generations via word-of-mouth (once these have been verified and placed within a historical context). Simply- it is more than “old talk” of the past being repeated in the present. It is an active way of accessing and recording the unwritten segments of the historical record.

This is the systematic collection of living people’s testimony- which is where you, dear reader come in. Since oral histories depend on human memory and spoken word, you are now the designated collector. The goal is to use an adapted version of these tools for gathering oral history, to collect information from your relatives.

Channelling our inner Oral Historian, National Trust Style

 

Getting started

Calling up granny to have nostalgic conversations will be so rewarding.© You will maintain close family ties, learn more about our built heritage and have an activity that will constructively occupy your time.  Follow the Five steps below to prepare for the interview.

STEP NO.

TASK

Step 1

Choose a willing participant and get consent to record them.

Someone with whom you have a good rapport w and who can carry on a coherent conversation.

Step 2

Choose a platform for communication (regular phone call, Whatsapp video call, Skype, Zoom).

Video or voice recording the session is optional because you will be taking such excellent notes.

 

Step 3

Dedicate a specific file (hard copy or soft copy) for your project.

Either a note book or a word document will do.

Step 4

Dedicate a specific period of time for these conversations.

You can do 1-2 hour long segments over a 2 week period.

Depending on how much your interviewee wants to share/ how many sites you wish to cover this can be adjusted.

 

Step 5

Determine your direction: what is the general theme or topic you will be discussing? (For example- “My Memories of Built Heritage Sites in Arima” would be an excellent direction.)

While you don’t have to settle on a specific site just yet, you should at least settle on the location and the top 5 places/sites for your interview.

 

You can’t talk about a site (monument or natural) without talking about the people who use it or who’ve contributed to its existence. The endeavour will help us to learn about the lifestyles, the buildings and people of ‘the good old days’. This #OralHistoryProject will bring your family closer together as you listen to them; you will bond over these shared stories. You will develop a fuller understanding of times gone by and even learn new things about the developmental milestones in our twin island. The goal is to capture a verbal picture of what our monuments looked like in the past as well as the various members or groups in society that are related to these locations.

Interview conducted with Dr. Yvette Bobb-Smith at Mille Fleur, in 2021. (Hence the mask wearing!)

 

This Oral History Project

Bear in mind, this project is being carried out on a phone or video call, so have another family member in charge of checking on your connectivity. You may need a backup platform, just in case your primary one falls through.

With your preparation complete and your fresh page opened, do the obvious: write the name and date of birth of your participant as well as their relation to you. Also put the date that you are conducting your interview. To keep things organized, on separate pages, write down the themes and topics that your interview will cover. Keep water and snacks handy in case you go over your allotted time. You know your relatives may stray off topic, so factor this into your plans.

We suggest you use a site that people would have had more recent interactions with- things that are over 50 years old, but that are still open/ accessible to the public, sites that have been around since our Independence in 1962 and earlier. This way there is a possibility that we can use your oral history to corroborate and/or add value to the historical record. See how important and valuable this project is? J  Writer, Richard Charan, blends entertainment and investigation for his articles. You must see how he uses oral history testimony as a foundational part of his articles, like this one about Green Hill, Cedros

A great theme would be the Buildings of Trinidad and Tobago, and the topic would be- Buildings in Princes Town (#Built Heritage is as in-your- face, as my bias. #I_Love_Monuments). You can ask questions such as: 1.What did [the chosen] building look like when you were younger? 2. What was this building used for? 3. What buildings aren’t here anymore? 4. Who utilized these buildings through the years? 5. How has the function of this building changed over the years? 6. What are your fondest memories attached or associated with this site?

My Princes Town posse, would be very familiar with this kind of work. The Presbyterian Mission at Iere Village was established in 1843 (by American Missionaries), and then revitalised by John Morton and the Canadian missionaries in 1868. The Iere Memorial Presbyterian Church has been around for over 150 years.

 

Since then, other Presbyterian churches and congregations (and therefore buildings that people use!) have been established. So: older members of the congregation would be perfect potential participants to approach, as a source of primary information on this site throughout history. There is a lot written about this site, and adding personal details gathered directly from your relatives can only serve to deepen the value of any site. Your project would be a fun way to uncover new and fresh information about our built heritage sites.

 

Photo courtesy Rev Keron Khellawan

For our sister isle Tobago, the theme Natural Heritage of Tobago and the topic Natural Heritage and Folklore are speaking to me. You can ask your family member about the myths and tales surrounding particular natural sites. Some sample questions, because I want you to have a boss project (to rival your kite making skills from Easter):

1. What stories do you remember about (the chosen) natural space?

2. What projects never got off the ground because of warning from communities who advocated to preserve the natural environment?

3. Anyone you know ever talked about/ experienced something unusual after interacting with the natural environment?

That special silk cotton tree (which fell in December 2020 and I am still grieving) has so much mystery surrounding it. In terms of natural heritage, the silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) or Gang Gang Sarah is both revered and feared. A popular variation of the story tells of a diviner from Africa who came to Tobago to help her people, who had been enslaved. With emancipation of 1838, she climbed to the top of the Cieba to return home to Africa- but fell to her death, as the salt she would have consumed during her stay in Tobago, rendered her unable to fly.

Silk cotton trees in general, have other tales attached to them-so much so that it is colloquially called the ‘jumbie’ tree. Practitioners of African-based religions regard it as a special tree. Indigenous populations in South American and Taino cultures believed they house zemis (earth spirits).[3] So: there is already an oral history attached to this tree.

The oral history attached to it informs and affects how people react or relate to it today and improves the current understanding of a natural heritage site. The added information you gather about this site can therefore form part of the total folklore collection on this special site.

 

Additional Techniques and Tips

Remember to ask open ended questions, using words like ‘describe’ and ‘explain’ to get your interviewee to tell their story. In addition, questions that have Yes/No answers should be avoided, as should leading questions because you want them talking freely and comfortably.

This article by the Smithsonian Institution Archives will give you a further look at to how oral history interviews are conducted by professional Archivists and Historians. This will help you elevate and add polish to your #Oral_History_Project.

Check out this UCLA Library resource which includes sample family history questions and equipment and recording details. Both articles will allow you to complete the project smoothly no matter your starting level.

 

What to do with the info you’ve collected

Let’s pull everything together. Helpful tip: stay organized! Keep your data in labelled sections. For presentation you can edit as you see fit. For presentations to your extended family or for posting on social media, summarize with what I call the “Who/ what/ when/ where/ why” format.

Who is the interviewer (which you stated at the top of your document?)

What site (theme and topic) is this interview about?

When- in what time period are their experiences situated?

Where (specific location- as in zero in on street location and GPS if possible)?

Why is this important to them or to TnT’s history?

Put it together: add in any photos they may provide or any loveable quotes from your interactions. Customize it and add your name as the interviewer on your project. I can already tell that we will all be so proud of the Project. It goes without saying that you can tag us at TTNationalTrust and reveal the contents of your Project.

 

Sources

 


[1] “Information Sheet #1. Oral History.” East Midland Oral History Archives. Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester.

[2] Oral History Association. Principles and Standards. https://www.oralhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/OHA_principles_standards.pdf

[3] Florida Museum. Silk Cotton Tree: Home to the Spirits of the Forest. 2018 https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/caribarch/education/ceiba/

Catherine Serrant
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