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Oral history: The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting

This is an excellent discussion about the role of memory in history as it determines what people think.While we tend to consider that 'history' unfolds via events, it also unfolds via memory of those who pass through it. And they aren't always the same. In fact memory can be very potent and is always very important in determining what people do now and in the future.

This complex inter-relationship is explored in this ABC Hindsight documentary which I think is one of the best broadcast over the past 12 months.
Oral history has been part and parcel of the democratisation of history since the Second World War. Through interviews with historians from many different countries, and archival material from seminal oral history projects, we chart the international oral history movement, paying special attention to the role of oral history in Aboriginal historiography, and in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Historians have always relied on oral history. Think of Homer and Thucydides and their reliance on eyewitness accounts and oral tradition. It was only in the 19th century when history as a discipline became professionalised, and historians started to think of their discipline as a 'science', that a total reliance on documentary sources developed.

From the 1950s onwards, historians became interested again in personal testimony. In the US it was an archival project, an effort to get the reminiscences of 'movers and shakers' on the record, great men who were too busy to write their autobiographies. But in the UK and Europe, historians with a socialist ethos like Paul Thompson were keen to get the experiences of ordinary people on the record, in order to write 'history from below'. This impulse emerged from the inclusive social movements of the 1960s.

In the decades since, oral history has been a democratising force in historical work, and a crucial means of achieving cultural and political recognition for marginalised groups. In countries with recent histories of trauma and political instability, oral history has urgent applications in restorative justice processes and national reconciliation. In 'The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting', we explore some of these.

Contributors include Inga Clendinnen, Paul Thompson, Peter Read, Heather Goodall, Sean Field and Bonnie Smith. Archival oral history material featured in the program relates to apartheid South Africa, the Stolen Generations in Australia, Aboriginal cattle drovers in the Northern Territory, British nuclear tests in South Australia, and working people in Edwardian England.

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