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Online exhibitions

Mary-Elizabeth Andrews, National Museum of Australia, 27 March 2009

MARY-ELIZABETH ANDREWS: In 1991 the Australian National Maritime Museum conducted a series of oral history recordings as part of research towards an exhibition entitled Operation War Bride. The exhibition was held in the USA Gallery and explored the experiences of Australian-American war brides, focussing on the story of the liberty ships, former troop carriers refitted to carry thousands of women and children to the USA following World War II. While the exhibition has long since been dismantled, the theme of Australian-American maritime history is still strongly relevant to the museum and comprises one of its core collecting focuses. Last year I undertook an internship placement at the Maritime Museum where I was responsible for developing and implementing an online exhibition, the purpose of which was to provide access to the oral history material as well as associated collection items.

This paper looks at some of the challenges related to the interpretation and use of oral history collections, personal photographs and related items in the online exhibition context; how technical and practical considerations determined what could be included in the exhibition; and some of the issues raised by the use of the material outside the context of the original exhibition.

The starting point for the project was the oral histories themselves. They paint a diverse picture of the Australian war bride experience giving a glimpse into the nature of Australian cities and towns under wartime conditions, the overwhelming presence of American troops and the truly enormous impact of that presence on an Australia still very much tied to Britain and British identity. Despite the richness of the material though, interpreting oral histories in any context is problematic. Often viewed as direct and unmediated experience, oral histories are not only highly mediated, being framed by the context of the interview, but also their reliability must be scrutinised. This became evident when one of the brides referred to herself as ‘Australia’s first war bride’. Married in 1943 this was clearly later than the first marriages which occurred within months of the US arrival in March 1942. Further research revealed that the bride had actually been the first war bride to arrive in Nashville, Tennessee in 1945, so the later experience, or perhaps simply the repetition of a familiar story, had reshaped her retelling of earlier events.

Another consideration when utilising oral histories as the focus of an exhibition is their representativeness. The selection of interviewees is the first stage at which the field is narrowed, but this is not just true of who is selected to take part. There is also a self-selection process. Oral historian Linda Shopes talks of the celebratory impulse often present in oral history interviews, which view the ‘past as a benign refuge from the unsettling present’. This phenomenon is compounded by the fact that those who perceive their past as positive or successful are more likely to take part in an oral history project. This is certainly true of the museum’s interviews where the majority of interviewees had had successful encounters with American GIs, and it is clear that the selection is disproportionate to the entirety of experience. In 14 hours of interviews there is no mention of the massive rise in cases of rape, violence, prostitution and VD that accompanied the US troops to Australia.

The raw material therefore presents an unrealistically positive and often sentimental view of the war bride experience. In some cases participants were keen to talk about just how well their lives had turned out, so the interview provided a forum to address another agenda. Perhaps this was an attempt to counter the prevailing negative perception of women who dated Americans. While many of the women in the museum’s interviews reported little negative response to their dating an American, adverse public sentiment is clearly documented in contemporary sources. Balancing the positive picture painted by the participants with a more representative narrative was therefore one of the challenges of writing the web text that framed the audio material included.

For inclusion in the online project the range of participants was narrowed significantly. One of the major reasons was the practical consideration of the technical quality of recordings. Originally conducted for research and archival purposes only, the interviews were of variable quality but thankfully had been recorded using two separate audio tracks so that the interviewer’s questions could be relatively easily isolated from responses. This isolation was necessary in order to present short grabs on specified themes, so the ability of the interviewee to form complete statements that could stand alone without the interviewer’s presence also became a criteria for inclusion in the project.

Presenting audio segments out of context requires careful consideration. While editing oral histories for print publication is also problematic, the short attention span of Internet audiences and the need for fully rounded, self-contained, audible and coherent statements makes the process doubly difficult in the online context. When this balance is maintained, however, the web exhibition can broaden access to, and awareness of, sound-based collections. While issues such as sound spillage pose challenges for curators and exhibition designers in the exhibition space, the possibilities opened up by the online exhibition provide an opportunity to make oral histories the focal point of an exhibition.

The majority of objects featured in the Operation War Bride exhibition were loan items: personal photographs and mementos such as dance cards, letters, train tickets, clothing and newspaper articles. Some of the participants had donated their objects to the museum, and other associated items had been collected at the time of the exhibition. The accessibility and reproducibility of images once placed online does bring copyright issues to the fore. But more important was the permission of the participants themselves due to the personal nature of the objects on display. Predominantly comprising wedding and family portraits, the museum’s ownership of the objects did not negate the need for some form of negotiation before they could be placed online. This was, of course, also true of the audio material, so the number of participants was narrowed further by the simple fact of who could be contacted within a limited space of time.

Carl Wilmsen states that the ‘protocols of oral history transform a personal exchange between the interviewer and the narrator into a public statement’. This is all the more profound in the online context. Suddenly oral histories have the potential to reach a large audience and the context within which the original interview was conducted is far removed from its application for an online exhibition. After all, these are deeply personal stories, and there is no way in 1991 that a 70-odd-year-old participant could have foreseen the implications of sharing their story on the global stage via the Internet. But given the age of the participants and the 17-year gap between the original exhibition and the online version, the narrative had to be structured around a small number of participants. Despite limitations there was enough material to illustrate some of the common experiences of the women and, structuring the narrative thematically, we were able to use the audio segments and collection objects to draw together the personal stories within a broader depiction of the war bride experience.

The consultation process, although necessitated by the practical concerns of copyright and content approval, proved the most rewarding aspect of the project. Through the web exhibition the museum was able to re-establish relationships with participants who had shared their stories and contributed to the museum’s collections. Many provided additional material and information about the objects they had donated, while others filled in valuable biographical information that added resonance to the stories told.

The participation of the son of war bride Norma Little is a good example of the way in which the community provided additional resources and information. Norma’s oral history interview was engaging, funny and profound. Her New Hampshire-Australian accent, wry laugh and stories of building relationships with other Australian women in the US brought the war bride experience to life. When I left a message for Norma’s son Murray on his answering machine in Pittsburgh, he immediately contacted me to see if there was any way that he could help. Norma had passed away, but Murray emailed me several photographs, including this beautiful portrait [shows image]. He also told us of an oral history interview his mother had undertaken for the Library of Congress and, most interestingly, he completed one of his mother’s stories from the museum’s interview, revealing that he had indeed married the daughter of another Australian war bride.

As a final point, I would like to mention this was a completely cost neutral project. While the website is a low tech solution, it does fulfil the functions I have mentioned offering an opportunity to revisit a highly successful theme for the museum, to link in with other collections and to extend access to material. By utilising existing resources we were able to create a distinct online exhibition with limited time and no budget.

Museums are increasingly looking to the web as a way to maximise the accessibility of their collections and to negotiate increasingly diverse understandings of community. While there are many examples of the use of web exhibitions of varying levels of technical proficiency, what this project shows is that, even with minimal resources, online exhibitions can provide a forum in which themes represented within the museum’s collections can be afforded space not necessarily available within the museum itself. And as has been reiterated by many speakers today, the opportunity provided for community engagement can contribute to our understanding and interpretation of museum collections. Thank you.

QUESTION: My name is Ureka Henrick and I am a PhD student at UNSW. I was interested in how you got involved in the project. I know you mentioned that you were doing an internship. Was it specifically for online exhibition work?

MARY-ELIZABETH ANDREWS: No. I was a master’s student at Sydney Uni and we had to undertake two internships as part of the program and I was interested in a research project. Actually by virtue of the fact that I was rushing off overseas on a scholarship I had a pretty limited choice of what I was going to do. I met with the Maritime Museum and I wasn’t sure whether they would actually have something that would be of interest to me. I sat down with the online manager there, and her first proposal was this war bride exhibition which I immediately jumped at because of its rich and rewarding material.

Date published: 4 May 2009