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Carisbrooke Castle Museum ‘Island Memories’ Oral History Project


The Museum successfully set up an outreach service to older people in 2014. We have been working closely with organisations that support older people including care homes, nursing homes, day centres and charities such as Alzheimer’s Café and Stroke Association. Many of the participants in our outreach sessions like to reminisce and share their memories of times past on the Isle of Wight. The oral history project gives people the opportunity to have their memories recorded for posterity. The project is also enabling the Museum to create an archive of oral testimony to add to the collection of social history of the Isle of Wight.

What were the Project aims?

• Strengthen community relationships with organisations supporting older people

• Create an archive of oral testimony for the Museum, gathering personal stories charting the social history of the Isle of Wight, thereby extending the breadth of the collection

• Provide greater access to the Museum for people who face barriers to engaging with heritage

• Create opportunities for people to share their personal stories and thereby provide an opportunity for promotion of positive well being

What were the project objectives?

• To adopt a best practice approach to oral history including writing a collecting policy for the Museum and implementing correct procedures to undertake and archive interviews

• Build stronger links with community organisations that support older people in our communities such as residential and nursing homes, day care services, community support groups and identify older people who could contribute memories to the project

• Invest in equipment needed to conduct oral history interviews

• Recruit and train volunteers to work with older people in our community to record their memories

• Explore ways with individuals and groups strategies to preserve these memories for posterity

• Find interesting ways to make the archive accessible to others (including digitally)

• Work with local schools to include an intergenerational aspect to the project

How was the project delivered?

We photographed each of our interviewees during their interview. This is one of our interviewees who talked in her interview about her wartime wedding.

Image credit: Carisbrooke Castle Museum

The project has been managed by a project manager. The manager has been supported by a group of volunteers, who have conducted many of the project’s interviews.

We began by undertaking training with the Oral History Society at the British Library and engaging the services of the community interest company Now Heritage who delivered an Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Oral History for volunteers. We invested in two sets of high quality audio recording equipment, digital cameras and portable scanners for the project. A list of suggested topics and questions for an interview was drawn up with the intention of remaining flexible to allow us to explore other avenues.

Participants for the project were sought through our links with residential and nursing homes and in the community. The target audience was people who considered themselves ‘Islanders’ over the age of 80. At the start of the project several outreach sessions were offered in the community as a means of getting to know potential interviewees. We discussed with each interviewee what would be involved, how the interview would be conducted and the kind of topics we would discuss. A ‘life story’ approach was taken in most of the interviews, to enable us to gather a personal account but in the context of learning about the social history of the Island.

In total 54 people were interviewed during the project - totalling over 100 hours of recorded testimony. Interviewees shared memories of their lives and experiences, of places and events, particularly those relevant to the Isle of Wight. The interviews contain much information about the towns and villages of the Island and the continuity and change over a century. The interviews have also captured the special and unique Isle of Wight dialect and accent.  photographs belonging to the interviewees that related to the subjects of their interview were scanned for the Museum archive. A written summary of each interview is held with the recording and some of the interviews have been fully transcribed. Each interview is kept as a digital audio file on the Museum’s central computer system. This archive is publicly accessible and this is publicised through the Museum website.

Sound bites and printed extracts from a number of interviews have been created which relate to a particular theme. These have been made available for schools to access through the Heritage Education Service and a new outreach session for schools is currently being piloted which also makes use of these materials. They will also be incorporated into the resources used by the Museum Outreach Service for older people.

The project was shared and celebrated at a special 2 day event in January attended by 150 people, who came together to listen to and share their stories and memories of the Island. The displays created for the special event containing extracts from the interviews and photographs are now touring the Island at some of the community venues we have worked in.

What went well?

One of the displays at our exhibition which includes interview extracts and photographs donated by our interviewees.

Image credit: Carisbrooke Castle Museum

One of the most positive outcomes of this project is that the participants enjoyed the experience of being interviewed and thought it was so worthwhile. Here are some of the comments from our evaluation of the project which reflect this:

“It is important to preserve our heritage which can easily be lost. So a project like this is particularly important. I hope it will continue”

“Leaving all this information for the next generation, so they will know what life was like in the past”

“Another twenty years time, if we didn’t share this information it would have been lost”

“This project is worthwhile because when we pass on the stories would have gone with us”

“The history of the area is so important and interesting and it should be kept alive”

“We live in times when changes are taking place at great speed. This project has made it possible to record so much which could be swept away”

“Physical artefacts in museums are obviously valuable but to have a record of the actual voices of the people who used them is invaluable. Brilliant project”

“What I have liked in particular about this project is realising that my record is as important but no more important than anyone else’s. It has made me feel part of a wonderful community”

What impact did the project have?

This project has had a positive impact not just the on interviewees but for their families and friends, carers, Museum staff and volunteers.

We have learnt through the project that the opportunity to share a life story makes a person feel valued and which in turn improves well being and quality of life. The opportunity for people to have their memories recorded for posterity enhances a person’s feeling of self-worth. The experience of recalling events, places, people and situations in the past is also very good for a person’s cognition. The opportunity to share memories, good and bad, can also be very therapeutic as the oral history interview provides the interviewee the opportunity to be listened to.

This project has improved existing and created new Museum resources and created a rich archive of oral testimony that can be shared and used in our community and is accessible for a range of learning and research. Museum staff and volunteers are now more knowledgeable and better skilled to engage with older people using the oral history approach. 12 Museum volunteers have been involved in the project in a variety of ways including interviewing, transcribing interviews and creating an exhibition. They have developed skills and gained knowledge about the ethics, theory and practice of working with older people and of recording oral history.

This project has provided the opportunity for the Museum to engage with a wider range of people - including isolated older people with limited opportunity for community involvement. They have learned from and contributed to our Island heritage. The project has demonstrated that their experiences, recollections and knowledge are of lasting value to the community. The Museum has also strengthened existing relationships and made new partnerships with community organisations that support older people. Positive publicity around this, such as a recent article in our local newspaper will hopefully generate interest and make our provision for older people financially sustainable which in turn will make the organisation more resilient.

A total of 276 people have benefitted directly from taking part in the project and many more indirectly through the opportunity to engage with the touring displays, accessing the archive and sharing our experience of the project.

What did not go so well?

Interviews that were conducted in the residential homes we worked with were sometimes challenging. An individual’s personal care needs take precedence and sometimes interviews were interrupted as a result and often there was unavoidable background noise.

There was also variation in approach toward the interview and the questions asked depending on who conducted the interview, in some cases certain questions did not illicit the best response. A few of the interviewees were in hindsight unhappy with certain things they had said, with inaccuracies within their interviews and told us they might have liked some time to plan their responses to our questions. We had also underestimated the time it would take to process, edit and transcribe interviews all of which are particularly time consuming.

What are the plans for the future?

Training day for museum staff and volunteers - ʻLetʼs do Oral Historyʼ.

Image credit: Carisbrooke Castle Museum

It is hoped with further funding the new oral history archive will be added to the Modes collections database and a greater number of the interviews fully transcribed and published. Our investment in the recording equipment and knowledge of the collecting procedures mean that the Museum can continue to collect oral histories using its volunteers as interviewers.

We are exploring with our local authority the possibility of setting up a regular ‘Island Memories’ community cafe for older people with specific needs and exploring the idea of conducting life story work with people with dementia. This fits well with the local authority agenda in relation to older people’s well being and mental health.We are also hoping to extend the project by working with local young people to enable them to collect the oral histories of older people in their communities. This will be an exciting intergenerational project where the participants could think of interesting ways that oral history could be collected and interpreted for the Museum archive.

How does SEMDP support your project?

Project officer, Lisa Kerley, leads discussion group at SEMDP community engagement seminar, 'All Together Now!'

The project has also given us the opportunity to share what we know about working with older people using an oral history approach.

The project manager and one of the project volunteers presented the project at a South East Museum Development Programme seminar in December 2015. The day's programme introduced local and national good practice in community engagement as well as invite key funders to share their insights of what makes projects deliver excellent community impact.