IHR /OHS Seminar review: Toby Butler on place-based oral history

Posted on 18/06/2013 by


Oral historian Toby Butler (pictured above) told a packed Oral History Society research seminar last month about making place-based earlier history.

Dr Butler, senior lecturer at the University of East London, is the creator of Memoryscape audio walks, which he first developed along the Thames near Kingston in south west London and Greenwich in the east.

One of the inspirations for his river walks was a project called Linked by sound artist Graeme Miller. Linked consists of 20 transmitters alongside the three-mile M11 link road in east London. This was a controversial road building project which saw the destruction of 400 houses.

The soundscapes – or “compositions” as Dr Butler called them – are continually broadcast but transmitters and a map are also available from local libraries so walkers can hear the clips above the din of the traffic on the six-lane motorway.

This is not oral history in its traditional sense as Miller cuts up interviews and adds pauses, music and repetitions. Alongside the noise of the traffic along the motorway this creates what Dr Butler called “a hyper-aware meditative state”.

Another inspiration came from the Soundwalk collection of audio walks, a commercial enterprise based in New York. He discussed the Bronx walks that take listeners on a tour of the area’s rich cultural and social heritage and listeners can choose a hip hop, graffiti or baseball walk. As well as listening to audio walkers are taken inside shops and restaurants and urged at points to take off the headphones and talk to people.

“One of the problems is that audio walks can be very uninteractive and the headphones can remove you from your environment,” said Dr Butler.

The concept behind his Memoryscape walk from Hampton Court to Kingston Bridge in south west London was the drift of the river. Dr Butler, who was living in a houseboat on the Thames, threw a float into the river and followed it in a rowing boat. When the float hit the bank or another boat he interviewed whoever happened to be working or living near there.

“If it landed by a sewage pipe I would ring up the sewage company and if it was near a house I would knock on the door,” he said.

He was inspired by the idea of drifting along but he said he had no idea how slow the river was and it took two weeks for the float to travel the three miles from Hampton Court to Kingston.

Further downstream the tide made the experiment impractical, so Dr Butler used archive interviews with dock workers from the Museum of London for his Memoryscape walk from the Cutty Sark in Greenwich to the Millennium Dome (now the O2 stadium).

“A lot of oral history can be seen as nostalgic, particularly when applied to place. If you’re in a real hard industrial area it tempers that nostalgia,” he said.

The advent of new technologies makes it much easier to broadcast and listen to these kinds of audio clips and long-forgotten recordings can be brought to a new audience.  Dr Butler, who also teaches at the Raphael Samuel History Centre, said that this kind of place-based history chimes with Samuel’s philosophy that “we are all historians”.

However, such broad access to people’s memories does bring ethical problems.

“The oral history interview is very intimate and is usually done in someone’s home. It’s a private experience. This is as far away from a private experience as you can get, so the local implications of what people say in place-based work need to be carefully considered,” he said.

  • Donald Ritchie, historian of the United States senate will be leading the next OHS research seminar on 4th July at the Institute of Historical Research in London. He will be talking about using oral history to re-examine government and other institutions. For more information click here.