Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Curating Oral History in Montreal

Several months ago, one of my mentees for this year, Catherine Charlebois of the Center for Montreal History, shared her experiences collecting oral histories. She continues the story with this long-delayed (from my end entirely) follow-up post on making those histories work in the exhibition itself.

How to tell the stories using exhibition design?  Part of the solution lied in the exhibition scenario. We decided that the events would follow a rearranged timeline. The exhibition wopened with the shock of the demolition – the end of the story-- and that gradually we would go back in time through the justification of the need for a modern city. It then traveled back even further to the exploration of the daily life in the neighbourhoods in the years just before their demolition. For the visitors, we hoped it would translate as a dramatic contrasting experience between the warmth of the personal accounts of the life in the neighbourhoods and the emotions generated by their loss and the coldness of the planning of a new modern city and the bureaucratic inventory of buildings to be demolished.

In eight rooms, intriguing visual perspectives would arouse the visitor's curiousity. The design would combine a variety of presentation modes such as period rooms, poetic references to the locations, historical images and documents, and narrow and oppressive space.

Knowing that the majority of the interviewees had been videotaped, the designers planned for different type of broadcasting through the different exhibit spaces : television units with surround sound or earphones; screens inserted into period objects; and screen projections integrated in the décor. But each time the size of the screens and the ways it was used in the space had to do with the narrative.

How to tell the stories using testimonies?

Now that we had a design concept, we had to make sense of the 75 hours of taped interviews. We wanted to base a large part of the exhibit's storytelling on the oral histories, we had to be very attentive, responsible and mindful while staying true to the historical content that we intended to present.  It was the first time for our museum to base an exhibition almost entirely on oral history. We had few clues about how to do it. Few models existed for us. We had to invent our own solutions and develop a new methodology.   

For example, in the first room, where you find yourself in a demolished room, the tv screen, which sits on top of pile of abandoned furniture, is very small (in fact, it's the smallest of the whole exhibit) and presents the most emotional and moving documentary. We wanted to exacerbate the fact that we were showing something very intimate in this space. The size of the screen played a role. Graphic wise, the decor, the ambiance was the main focus there, the screen had to be more discrete.

In contrast, when you ended up in the neighbourhood sections, the screens were much larger, (in fact 2 out of 3 ) were projections on the wall and were positioned so it would be the main focus of the room. The message was "listened to those stories. That's what's important". Everything else shown in theses spaces were secondary to what was presented in the documentaries.

Thus, some of the decisions that we made to meet this new challenge were:
  • The hiring of a professional film crew (cameramen, sound technician, artistic advisers, film editors) to help us in production and post-production.
  • The hiring of well known and experienced documentary filmmaker who acted as our artistic director (and also as a mentor on how to make documentary features). 
  • The development of a specific methodology for the integration of the personal accounts into the exhibition; a blend of museum related and cinematographic approaches.
  • Assistance from the Concordia University Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) regarding the methodology and ethical aspects of filming the interviews.
In the end, we created 11 professionally-produced original short documentaries. These were in direct accordance with the exhibition concept and varied in length from 3 to 18 minutes. The documentaries screened in 7 exhibition areas for a total viewing time of one and a half hours.

More than 100,000 visitors have now seen the exhibition. We know that these short films contributed greatly both to the atmosphere of the exhibition and to the visitor’s experience. And as we planned and hoped for, as visitors move through the exhibition, they were not reading about history, but they were “meeting” people who had seen it and listened to their own personal acoount of the story.

In conclusion...

This exhibition project represented the culmination of several years of experimentation with ways to bring out the value of oral history in exhibitions and in history-related activities.

In the end, all the objectives set for the exhibition have been met. Thanks to the present-day relevance of the theme, the citizen-centered approach, strong press coverage, and the success (confirmed by visitor evaluations) of a design strategy based on a strong audiovisual component, the exhibition received an enthusiastic response from the media and from the public. In the first 5 months we noticed an 18% increase in total CHM attendance, with a 41% jump in attendance by Montrealers). The CHM succeeded in positioning itself as an important and innovative cultural, social, and museological actor in the eyes of the public, the media, its partners, and the City of Montreal.

This exhibition gave the CHM the opportunity to acquire expertise in producing and directing media work. We developed a characteristic signature in exhibitions and set quality and content standards which have become a benchmark for our next projects. Plus, judging by the interest that this particular exhibition has generated among colleagues, local, national and international and the awards it won we gradually understood that it is seen as a model on not just integrating oral history in traditional history exhibitions but making it the focal point.

But above all, the interviews carried out have given us a story which is at the same time knowledgeable and detailed, individual and collective, human and emotional – the story of the great urban upheaval that transformed Montreal in the second half of the 20th century. The interviews have given a voice to the citizens who were uprooted, to professionals who explain the issues of the period, and to today’s observers who evaluate its legacy. No more no less, they were entrusted the CHM with THEIR parcel of history, THEIR life moments, THEIR Montreal and again we (and I personally) thank them from the bottom of our heart for this unbelievable and fantastic opportunity. It has transformed myself as an individual and a museum professional and has revolutionized the way we do exhibitions at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal. Nothing less!

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