The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

let’s think together about an oral history project

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Sparknow has a longstanding interest in the
effects of presence, listening and the witness effect. We’ve offered to put
this to work with Tricia Sibbons, the departing director of the Trevor
Huddleston Memorial Centre in Johannesburg. We’re bringing together her
interest in conducting an oral history project in a contested site of history,
with a lightly structured peer assist process and some of Sparknow’s good
friends. We know from experience that peer assist helps everybody who is involved
and we’re excited.

There are a couple of spare spaces for anyone who thinks they’ve experience to contribute and will be in central London lunchtime Friday 22nd. Email *protected email* if you are interested.

If you are curious and would like to contribute, but can’t be there, just add some responses to the questions in the comments on this blog, and make sure we know to include you in any notes that come from the day.

Please do join in. It’s a beautiful chance for the extraordinary networked brain of Sparknow to fire up its synapses.

The rest of this blog is an amended version of the briefing note for those who are coming.

the context


photo |Eliot Elisofon

In 1955 Sophiatown, Johannesburg, became the focus of international news as the first area to be declared a whites-only suburb under apartheid laws.  It was a freehold area and
multi-racial, with over 15 churches, 10 different schools, and its own language
– Tsotsi-taal.  Removals lasted seven years and some 65,000 people
were affected changing the face of the city. People were separated based
on ‘ethnicity’ and taken to demarcated areas for their particular ‘group’ or ‘tribal
language’. They have largely remained in those areas for 60 years.


Sibbons has been the Director of the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre, in
Sophiatown for seven years. Later this year, after she’s handed over to her
successor, she’d like to oversee an oral history project with those who
remember the turbulent history of Sophiatown and early days of the Centre to
make sure that memories from that time are gathered in, preserved and shared in
different forms. It’s a big challenge, not least because many of those whose
memories need to be preserved are elderly and frail. And it’s also true that
memories of challenging histories can be complex, contradictory and contested.
Because the project is focused around older people, it may benefit from
reminiscence techniques. Tricia also wants to future proof the way she gathers,
orders and shares the testimony (voice, image, text, video, object, sound) so
that it becomes a rich resource to be used in ways she can currently only
partly imagine. 

the questions

purpose of this peer assist is to support Tricia in thinking through the short
and longer term aspects of this project, using our collectively diverse range
of experiences and expertise.  The
context is the 60th anniversary of the
Sophiatown removals, and likely the last chance to conduct a first person account
project of those times. Funding for such a project is not a priority for
government, so Tricia is hoping to train local youth to undertake interviews as
one alternative to professional inputs.

In particular Tricia would like to think about and ask the following questions in relation to the project:

  • How to select the frame/architecture  for interviews – what themes might be most
    important about Sophiatown’s history to future generations, even if these are
    not seen as important by the participants giving the testimony?  Is this a desirable approach?
  • The Centre already has a number of accounts of the first
    day of the removals and the experience of some residents being removed.  How many would be appropriate to have
    captured for future credibility?
  • Many of these residents’ voices have been previously
    overlooked in preference to academic voices in telling the history of
    Sophiatown (and often European voices). How can the project be structured to be
    both cohesive in approach (i.e. manageable and interesting) whilst also
    allowing personality to come through and local culture to dominate the subject
    matter or ‘route map’ for the project?  
    (See also excerpt in resources list below)
  • What are the issues around ethics, boundaries, and support
    for the local youth that are to be trained?
  • The Memorial Centre’s experience is that older people
    remember small details easily – how much things cost, where they shopped, good
    times, what people wore; but are less well able to recall cultural patterns or
    take a reflective view, giving insights or opinions that might shed light on
    particular aspects of the time. How can the project leads therefore
    ensure reminiscence techniques are not myth-making or experienced by the future
    listener as either ‘ordinary’; or alternatively ‘just nostalgia’, which is a
    common challenge in our setting (where history is contested regularly)?
  • An imagined product from the project is radio documentary
    – short accounts which could be serialised alongside other accounts – perhaps
    reading from a published account or music from the time (e.g. Don Mattera
    -poet, Dorothy Masukua – musician).  What
    might be key things to consider in this case? What other products might we
  • What projects, internationally, can Tricia look to for ideas and inspiration?
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