110. History

Oral history involves interviewing people to capture personal testimonies of historical events. This can involve the use of memory objects which, according to Marschall (2019), are “special personal belongings that elicit deliberate or involuntary memories”. Might the Carolan guitar be considered to be a memory object that elicits memories from the players who encounter it? Can the many interviews that appear on Carolan’s blog be considered to be an oral history, perhaps those from its ongoing folk club residency?

To put these thoughts to the test, I gave a talk at the 2022 annual conference of the Oral History Society in London last weekend.

Home: the 2022 conference of the Oral History Society

The theme for the conference was ‘Home’ and the talk was scheduled for a Saturday morning session on ‘Home as a Remembered Space’.

Saturday’s programme

The initial abstract that I submitted to the conference (reproduced below) promised to introduce Carolan, before then exploring the folk club residency interviews as possible examples of capturing the personal testimonies of folk musicians in their homes. In the end, I ended up reflecting on both the nature of the residency archive, and drawing out some wider reflections on designing interactive memory objects as shown by my crib notes …

My crib notes for the talk

Carolan came along too and sat on stage with me, though on this occasion there wasn’t an opportunity for a live demo (let alone play a tune). However, I did get to run this short showreel of the residency to date.

Residency showreel

I really enjoyed the conference, especially the way in which presenters focused on giving straightforward accounts of interesting histories rather than getting into too much theory or methodology. I found this refreshing and enjoyed learning about Milton Keynes and Romney Marsh, just to give two examples of interesting histories that were presented (and now intend the visit the latter over the coming months as it sounds like an unusual and fascinating place). The idea of Carolan as a kind of interactive memory object seemed make broad sense to the audience and I’m tempted to write up the talk as a full-length article.

Here’s the initial abstract …

At Home with Carolan: Living with a Digitally Augmented Memory Object

Memory objects play a distinctive role in oral history research as “special personal belongings that elicit deliberate or involuntary memories” (Marschall 2019). They typically emerge through “routine usage and performative action” (ibid) or somehow survive tragedy to give testimony (Hirsch 2006).

In contrast to emergent memory objects, I will describe a conscious attempt to create a memory object a priori as a research probe that actively gathers oral histories throughout its life as an artefact.  This is the Carolan Guitar, an acoustic guitar that employs digital technologies to capture and tell songs and stories as it passes among musicians, publishing them on its blog (carolanguitar.com), while also making them intimately available to those who use digital devices to scan its decorative inlay while holding it.

The global pandemic impacted local folk music communities as it did many others. Musicians were forcibly removed them from their collective spiritual homes, the pubs where they share songs and stories during their weekly club nights, to instead spend time making music in their personal homes. Carolan grasped this opportunity to become a ‘guitar in residence’ at a local folk club, spending weeks at a time living with musicians, capturing their songs and personal memories of learning to play, of musical instruments, and of the local folk scene. 

I will share how this unusual memory object gathered a corpus of personal performances and memories from everyday musicians at home. I will articulate strategies for designing and more systematically deploying similar memory objects that might reside in homes as in oral history research. I can bring Carolan along and play back recordings from the archive during a presentation and/or deliver a performance or hands-on installation as appropriate.

Marschall, Sabine. “‘Memory objects’: Material objects and memories of home in the context of intra-African mobility.” Journal of Material Culture 24, no. 3 (2019).

Hirsch, Marianne, and Leo Spitzer. “Testimonial objects: Memory, gender and transmission.” In Diaspora and Memory, Brill Rodopi, 2006.

Rigney, Ann. “Materiality and memory: Objects to ecologies. A response to Maria Zirra.” Parallax 23, 2017.

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