I recently spent several days going through boxes of family photos left to me in my mother’s estate and given to me by my sister just months before her passing. I scanned each photo and attempted to add a meaningful tag on the title of the jpeg file. Many of the photos have a question mark where a name should be, but everyone who would know these relatives from the early 1900s has died.
When I managed a state park visitor center for eight years in Illinois, one of the more common conversations I had was with elderly men who recalled experiences from the 1930s when they worked in the park for Civilian Conservation Corps as young men. Those were missed opportunities. We had no easy way to collect and store personal stories and just did not see the importance at the time. Many of them could have provided photos and anecdotes about the unique times working with the New Deal program that built the lodge, shelters and many of the bridges in that park.
Digital images have made it easy to shoot videos of conversations with guests and scan old photos and documents. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we often do not slow down and collect the story or archival photos that someone might provide. Here are a few thoughts on how to facilitate these archival collections at an interpretive site:
- Post an invitation on the wall at your facilities and online that lets people know you have an interest in historical stories about the locale or people living in the community. Provide a place they can upload still photos or videos if you have more advanced website capabilities.
- Keep an appropriate camera and digital storage equipment in a place where staff talk to guests and train them in how to use it to collect a personal story and appropriate support information.
- Pre-script some questions to start the conversation.
- Have the guest sign a photo/video release when collected, so that you can make use of the items shared. Keep contact information on each storyteller so you can ask followup questions later.
Story Corps is an organization doing this on a very broad scale and they store their archives at the American Folklife Center. They also share their stories on National Public Radio on a regular basis. There are many other organizations who keep personal story archives on varied themes.
Keeping your own organizational archive of stories as videos, still photos and written narratives will always have a value to your staff. When doing research for a new program or exhibit, these resources are invaluable. They also serve as an institutional memory. Staff members move on and their knowledge of what happened over the years is lost unless it is recorded somewhere carefully in your own archives.
Digital resources are easy to share with others. I sent my collection of family photos by flash drive to nephews and nieces all over the U.S. in hopes that our collective memory of our own family will not die in a cardboard box in the garage or be dumped into a yard sale. Archives of photos and stories are valuable resources and can now easily be shared for families, communities and organizations.
– Tim Merriman