First Person: Hidden Stories

The Metropolitan Opera House, from Hidden City (Joseph E.B. Elliott).

First Person mainly deals with the subjects of oral histories at CHF, but I thought it might be an interesting change of pace to take you behind the scenes of the oral history process. Today I’ll be highlighting the people and processes that make those oral histories possible.

CHF's oral historians have diverse backgrounds, from chemistry to science and technology studies to history. My background in public history, for example, intercepted nicely with oral history. Before coming to CHF, I was part of the first-ever Hidden City Festival in Philadelphia. Hidden City aims to uncover historic places hidden or obscured for various reasons: shifts in population, changes in the city’s landscape, etc. The festival helped visitors “explore the city’s history and imagine new futures for the urban landscape” by uniting art and place; we commissioned 10 artists to create site-specific work on historic Philadelphia sites. My role was to gather any and all resources available on those 10 sites and their accompanying neighborhoods and create narratives for each place. It was an amazing opportunity to create holistic historical narratives and unite place, people, and art, and a important way to bring past, present and futures together in one place, thinking of spaces as more than just single moments in time.

Oral histories seemed like a natural fit based on this experience. I’ve always been interested in why we value certain historic places, events, and people, and how our historic narratives are formed. When collecting an oral history, you are creating a primary source for yourself and other potential researchers. You can control many things: who you interview, where you interview, the questions and the flow of interview. You have a tremendous amount of responsibility in capturing a story, a piece of a historic whole. And oral history is especially important in the history of science. For many people outside of the science world, what happens in science can seem mysterious or boring. How science works, and the people who actually produce science, are hidden parts of history that we can engage the public in. We talk a lot in the oral history program about emphasizing that scientists are people too. They have lives outside the lab—and very interesting lives within those labs. These scientists often can provide a firsthand account of a history of their field, but they can also give you hints as to where certain technologies might be headed in the future. Giving scientists a voice and a face, we hope, will help more people relate to science, realize that science is all around them, and, most of all, recognize that it’s actually interesting stuff.

The value of an experience like Hidden City is that it turns your gaze toward digging out a story in a not-so-easy to find place. Oral history requires the same types of skills: research, dialogue, asking questions, listening to the answers, and seeing a world both rooted in the past and molding the future.

Sarah Hunter-Lascoskie is a program associate in oral history at CHF. First Person, which usually highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Tuesday of every month.

First Person: William McMillan [Periodic Tabloid]
First Person: Madeleine Joullié [Periodic Tabloid]

Posted In: Education | History

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