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On our IOHA Conference in Prague
From 7-11 July 2010, we celebrated the sixteenth IOHA Conference in the beautiful city of Prague, Czech Republic. The Conference was planned by the IOHA Council and the Czech Oral History Association, who did a great job in its organization, in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary History (Prague). As the President of the IOHA, it was wonderful working with our Czech colleagues and I think the results have been very good.
The conference had several sponsoring institutions, including the Czech Ministry of Education and the Instituto Cervantes in Prague. The opening session of the conference was held by Professor Alexander Von Plato – former Vice President of the IOHA – in the Carolinum Theatre of the old University. Professor Von Plato gave an interesting lecture on oral history in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The proceedings of the conference were in English and Spanish, the two official languages of the IOHA, and they took place at the University of Economics in Prague, in a new building with spacious classrooms and internet facilities. Here, 503 researchers from 57 countries gathered. If we analyze the attendance numbers that Miroslav Vanek, the current IOHA president, has provided, 203 researchers – over 40 per cent – came from Europe and 182 came from America, while we had smaller representations from Asia (17), Africa (12), and Oceania (20). Regarding the European representation, we must highlight the presence of participants (37) who came from the host country, the Czech Republic, and eleven countries of the former “Eastern Block” (Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Albania, Hungary and Lithuania). We hope that an avid participation in the conference will help to expand our partnerships in this part of the world and that the conference will, in turn, serve to strengthen oral history in these countries.
The presentations and the topics covered in the sessions and panels, which were held simultaneously, were very different, as there were sessions devoted to almost everything: The memory of violence and totalitarianism, war and trauma; exile and migration; the experience of political participation; the theory and methods of oral history; oral history and mass media; religions, cultures, music and oral traditions; the experiences of the working world; memory, gender identities and experiences; the organization of oral history and archives; and, oral history teaching. Many partners of the IOHA served as facilitators for the sessions but I believe the collaboration of members in this important area could be extended at the next conference. We need your help and participation at our next conference!
The sessions with the most participants were related to political history and the memory of conflict and violence as well as totalitarian regimes. The dominance of politics was logical given the great interest raised by the memories related to the history of the end of the dictatorships and democratic transitions in many countries, especially in the former Eastern Block, southern Europe and Latin America. But we must not forget the great relevance that oral history has in the field of social history. It is difficult to evaluate if all the presentations held at a conference as large as this had good scientific content. Personally, I noticed that the IOHA itself has become an object of study, which led to an interesting panel on the IOHA. On the other hand, I was surprised that research devoted to analyzing the working world and the environment, as well as research devoted to oral history teaching were minor themes in the conference presentations, compared to previous editions. In the end, I believe that the wide variety of communications gave an idea of the vitality of oral history methodology in the world and in the social sciences.
Presided by Professor Miroslav Vanek (whom I believed you already know) the General Assembly of the IOHA was held on Friday, 9 July 2010 and saw the election of the Association's new council. The Conference closed that same night with a ceremony at Prague Crossroads, the old church, where a simple but moving tribute was made to Professor Paul Thompson as one of the most influential researchers in the development of oral history. I hope that the next IOHA conference in Buenos Aires will be more multicultural and more successful than this last one in Prague. I will use my experience as a former President of the Association to contribute to the success of our seventeeth International Oral History Conference.
Pilar Domínguez email@example.com
IOHA in Prague
History surrounds visitors to Prague, with many centuries of architecture visible on almost every street. So when the IOHA held its Sixteenth International Oral History Conference, in July, 2010, the more than 500 participants met for a plenary session in the great auditorium of Charles University, founded in 1348, just across from the opera house where Don Giovanni premiered in 1787, with Mozart himself conducting that performance. Not all of Prague’s history is so ancient. In Wenceslas Square, some of us found the small memorial for the student Jan Palach, who burned himself to death in 1969 in protest over the Soviet invasion, and where in November 1989 people gathered in mass protests led to the Velvet Revolution. Those more recent events in the Czech Republic and throughout Central and Eastern Europe occupy the attention of oral historians and were the subject of many sessions during the conference.
Many of the themes of the conference reflect the work of its program chair, Miroslav Vaněk, who pioneered the use of oral history in the Czech Republic by interviewing both the winning and losing sides in their revolution. Having thrown off a single-point-of-view history under the Communists, he and his colleagues resisted creating another single-point-of-view as a replacement. Instead, they employed oral history as a device for replacing the static archives of the old regime with more complex multiple-voice and multiple-perspective narratives.
The location of the meeting in Prague explained the strong representation on the program of oral historians from Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Albania, as well as from the Czech Republic. They offered papers that dealt with the common issues with which they were grappling, from political and social revolutions to resistance, trauma, bereavement, deportation and repopulation, industrial development and environmental impact, along with the basic practices of doing, interpreting, and presenting oral history. In his keynote address, Alexander von Plato aptly summarized the many themes of European transformation and placed them into historical context. Of course, such sessions were only part of the program, which included numerous speakers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and Oceania, but they attested to the vision that Mercedes Villanova presented in 1996, when the IOHA constitution was adopted and the organization was formally established, that the meetings must move about globally. Not only has this practice made the biennial conferences more affordable and accessible for those in the geographic vicinity of each meeting, but the arrival of the IOHA in so many diverse areas has helped spur the creation of more national oral history organizations, which in turn further the global network.
Memory is a universal phenomenon, as a source of information and a subject for multi-disciplinary debate. Our quest to collect and study memories, and the technologies we use for recording and preserving them has no national boundaries. The meeting in Prague demonstrated the continued vitality of oral history as a methodology and of the IOHA as an essential forum for its practitioners. Sessions on the whole were well attended and featured lively exchanges between panels and audiences. In keeping with oral history traditions, the Czech organizers provided plentiful food, drink and musical entertainment. Prague’s success makes us look forward all the more to reuniting in Argentina.
Don Ritchie firstname.lastname@example.org
Making Memories in Prague
When I arrived in Prague to attend the 2010 IOHA Conference in Prague, I had not expected the weather to be Indian! It was bright and sunny most days and as the conference ended the mercury shot up even higher. But it was not just the weather that reminded me of home – the warmth of my hosts, their helpfulness and care made me feel as if I had known people here for a very long time. I did not know the language, and although I had not met Miroslav Vanek, he and Pilar Domingeuez-Prat had been most helpful when I was applying for my visa. But not just me, I notice that there was an easy camaraderie among all participants.
This was a conference that I had looked forward to with great anticipation. It was my first oral history conference. I had, for the past 8 years conducted extensive oral history interviews in India across a wide cross-section of people. Whatever knowledge I had of the field was amassed from the work done in Europe, USA and UK. These books guided me as I set up numerous oral history projects and conducted workshops with students. I had learnt from these books and argued with them too as I “adjusted” to the reality of recording oral histories in a country that was so full of stories. And now I was meeting the authors for the first time – Paul Thompson, Alexandro Portelli, Don Ritchie, Michael Frisch to name but a few from within that galaxy of oral historians who turned up at Prague. I enjoyed especially the discussions with so many oral historians from across the world – both within the sessions and outside.
But there were other treasures that the conference unwrapped. Sean Field’s provocative question “Has oral history become ‘respectable’? gave me pause for thought – what could be the implications for a country like India where Oral histories were not yet part of academia? Some projects spoke to me of Europe’s urge to remember – Al Thomson’s interviews that recorded women’s experiences of World War II and the Czech Republic’s own attempt at archiving eye-witness accounts of what happened to the families of a generation that went missing in the project “Memory of Nation” – were but two attempts to come to terms to violence in the past. Do different cultures remember differently? What role does silence play in the articulation and interpretation of memory? Gulsina Selyaninova’s work presented the memories of the families that were sent to the Gulag, while Juana Martinez’s moving work focussed on the silence that surrounded the massacre at Batahola in Nicaragua.
There was such a feast of oral history projects presented from Australia, Canada, Spain, South Africa, Japan, China, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Israel, Slovenia and Latvia – but it was impossible to attend all the sessions. We caught up in the corridors of the spacious University of Economics in Prague. The beautifully designed conference tee-shirts – where the Prague palace is seen revealing itself within a pattern of sound waves – helped spot fellow-delegates walking through the city in the evenings. The city was charming, here one encounters layers of history in the buildings and squares. I returned moved and inspired.
Indira Chowdhury email@example.com
 In India, the word is used not only in English but across several Indian languages to indicate “squeezing in” or “making space”. Thus it is not unusual to hear in an over-crowded bus that has people crammed into it like sardines – “swalpa adjust madi” – “just make a little space!”
Sixteenth International Oral History Conference (Prague, 7 – 11 July 2010)
In this note I will try to develop a number of ideas that will allow us to discuss and evaluate the direction that the IOHA is taking these days.
First, I would like to highlight the efforts made by the organizers of the Conference in Prague and congratulate the entire administrative and technical team there. I would also like to highlight the good work done by the conference translators.
In general, the Conference had a strong academic bias in both the structure of the Conference and the theoretical and practical contributions. With respect to the participation, there were an overall significantly low number of students – quite surprisingly almost no participation by Czech students – and non-university teachers. Regarding the development of the Conference, there was a very limited ability to socialize and network due to programming which opted for the separation of the topics presented based on the language of the presentation, and a physical space that was not conducive for meetings between participants. Also, there was a limited possibility of exhibiting and selling oral history books and publications directly – the books were only displayed so that purchase orders could be made electronically at a later date.
In short, I would say that the ostensibly successful attendance that our conferences tend to have hides a certain drift towards a model of the IOHA that simply “manages” and partly bureaucratizes the development of Oral History. This model does not promote or facilitate a broad enough participation which could serve to renew, confront and make us more representative of all those who use oral sources within the cultural, political and social diversity of Oral History.
It is imperative that the Council of the IOHA raises, from now onwards, some necessary changes in it’s involvement in the organization of conferences. In this case of the next conference at Buenos Aires in 2012, the IOHA must include all those who work with Oral History within different sectors of the community, whether they are academic or not. More importantly, it must not exclude researchers who do not agree with those who seek to appear as “owners” of a different thread of Oral History in Argentina, which they intend to exhibit. If this doesn’t happen, there will be neither continuity nor renewal of the oral history movement, and consequently, the IOHA will not be strengthened. It will merely contribute to “conference tourism” and will continue to benefit only those in power.
Luis Ubeda Queralt firstname.lastname@example.org