Talking Art and Drawing Words: Paper and Oral History Collections in the National Gallery of Australia's Research Library
Coombes, Jennifer, Australian Academic & Research Libraries
Oral history interviews and personal records arc used by researchers in a range of disciplines. They have become a focus of public and academic interest, with a number of publications about their value in research, history, and social memory, where they provide a unique primary resource for the historian to explore the lives of subjects previously 'hidden in history'. Oral history is increasingly accepted as a legitimate resource, and its use has increased markedly over the last two decades. Oral histories are now found in most major Commonwealth collecting institutions, such as the National Library of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, and Old Parliament House, furthering these institutions' collection remits to preserve and promote Australian history.
Countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United States have been collecting oral history through their federal and state archives and libraries since the 1950s. The National Library of Australia (NLA) began to support the work of Hazel de Berg in 1957 when she commenced a project recording Australian poets reciting their works (1).
The formal collecting of oral history emerged as a commonplace practice from the 1960s on, as part of the democratisation of history practice, a change on a tidal scale that was encouraged by the development of popular movements such as those for civil rights and the feminist movement. In this context, it has the power of giving voice to a wider range of participants than formal written records and of "uncovering unknown stories ... making it in effect a form of exposure or evidence where there are no others available". (2) In keeping with this global trend, the collection of oral histories in Australia gathered pace, with the NLA formally establishing its own oral history program in 1970, followed by the state libraries and the establishment of the Oral History Association of Australia in 1978 (3).
This paper explores the roles of oral history and personal papers as primary resources available to researchers studying the collecting and institutional history of the National Gallery of Australia. It presents a case study of the James Gleeson oral history collection, inscribed in 2008 in UNESCO's Australian Memory of the World register, and examines the personal records of the Gallery's first Director, James Mollison, and artist Florence Martin in order to compare and contrast oral history and traditional documentary sources as historical evidence.
ORAL HISTORY AND PERSONAL RECORDS
Thomson and Perks assert that the most distinctive contribution made by oral history has been to document aspects of historical experience missing from other sources (including contemporary written sources); "... they have resonated with the subjective or personal meanings of lived experience". (4) Advocates of oral history all agree that its strength lies in the active relationship between the historian and the source, which can transform the practice of history by allowing the narrator to assert their own interpretation of their past. However, this has also attracted criticism "about the reliability of memory and the nature of the interview relationship and more generally about the relationships between memory and history, past and present.' (5)
In a scholarly context, oral history and its practitioners span a variety of disciplines, but there has been limited research on how oral histories are used in different contexts, or how different methodologies might affect the end result. (6) Portelli has noted that many practitioners and scholars are not reflective about "the process by which the articulation of memories takes place or how they become public". (7) There is now active interest in moving beyond the topic of what people remember to why they remember. (8) Similarly, there has been an interest in exploring the uses of oral history in museum, archive, and library environments, all of which have evolved into more democratic institutions since the 1980s. …