McManus Life Stories Oral History Project

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Project background

The McManus Life Stories oral history project was developed to add an extra layer of meaning to the new local history gallery, 'The Making of Modern Dundee'.

Visitors will hear recordings of Dundonians talking about their life stories. These memories vividly bring their past forward into our present, serving to make the museum visiting experience even more meaningful.

Starting in 2005 the project has collected field recordings from sixty Dundonians, using the 'life story' oral history interview method. What is common to all the recordings is the Dundee theme and the way that this shared history is brought to life.

Interviewees were sought using a mixture of public appeal, and word of mouth. 'Ordinary' Dundonians were asked to tell their life stories, in order to build a picture of the city within living memory.

While some older interviewees had childhood memories of events such as the general strike of 1926, or the effects of unemployment in the1930s, in the main, people are remembering Dundee life in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s.

Aims of the Oral History Project

The project aims

  • To collect a digital archive of oral history testimony on CD to inform the development of 'The Making of Modern Dundee' gallery
  • To provide a written summary of each recording
  • To produce recordings of broadcast quality
  • To give public access to the recordings for educational use, community learning, and general research

Recording equipment

Digital recorder: Marantz PMD 670 Professional
Memory card: 2Gb Compact Flash
File Format: WAV
Frequency: 44.1 kHz
Microphones: SE electronics Z3300A large diaphragm condensers (x2), Audio Techica electret lapel mics (x2)
Card Reader: Belkin Hi-Speed Reader & Writer
Editing Software: Nero Wave Edit
Additional Software: Wav joiner
Storage: Copied to CDs, Corporate Server, External Hard drive

Sound recording: aims

Because sound quality was paramount, early experiments with the recorder revealed that the most lifelike recordings were made when all automatic features (such as tone filters, recording level controls etc.) were switched off, and the sensitivity of the microphones was boosted by switching to +48v Phantom power.

The aim of paying attention to the technical aspects of the recording is so that every nuance of speech could be faithfully captured. Basically the better the recording, the more those subtle emotional cues that often reflect the interviewees body language can be read more clearly. Poorer quality recordings make voices sound rather generic and 'dead-pan'

The uncompressed WAV stereo file format was chosen for its superior sound quality, even though it uses a lot of memory space. Many recordings had to be split over two or three CDs: in order to address the issue of space the later recordings were made in WAV mono format, in order to allow more recordings to be stored on a single CD. Early recordings were made using lapel microphones, but they suffered from crackle caused by users touching the cables, and did not meet the aim of superior sound quality.

Finally, it has to be remembered that these are field recordings, not studio recordings, so the recordings pick up traffic noise outside, the buzz of people in another room, the ringing of telephones, even the quiet chirping of a canary, and so on. Occasionally someone knocks against the microphone stand causing it to distort the recording. The sound quality ultimately depends a lot on the prevailing conditions of the recording venue (usually people's front room, or office) - some rooms have a harsh sound quality, others are soft and warm.

Oral history method and ethos


The 'life story' method of oral history interviewing allows interviewees broad scope to talk about the past in their own words. It avoids the constrictions of having to use a fixed set of questions. Instead, each interview is based on a common format, that of a life story, starting chronologically with their family tree and earliest memory, through to schooldays, worklife and beyond. The use of the life story format allows points of comparison to be made between one oral history interview and another.

Interviews are all conducted on a one-to-one basis, with some exceptions, notably interview 40 at Brookfields nursing home in Carnoustie, and interview 41 at Orchar Nursing Home. In both these cases it was judged that a one-to-one interview would be inappropriate due to the various subjects' clinical problems with memory.


Interviews were conducted according to industry standard codes of confidentiality. Each subject was required to complete a consent form.

Interviewing technique

It is worth noting that the interviewing technique used throughout the project is slightly unorthodox, and not always in line with the accepted norms of oral history training. These recordings are different because no attempt was made to disguise the interventions of the interviewer, who takes an active part in the interviews. There are two reasons for this:

Firstly, that oral history interviews are always the product of an interaction between two people, (what historians call 'intersubjectivity'), so why pretend otherwise? The main focus of the interview will always be the subject, but the subject's answers depend on what was asked, and the quality of the interaction.

Secondly, some oral historians feel that they should tell the subject before the interview that their interview will be unusual, with the interviewer intending to take part as little as possible, in the belief that, by doing this, they are putting maximum focus on the subject. The choice not to disguise the interviewer's interventions was in order to make the interaction between interviewer and subject feel as natural as possible. If the subject is enjoying a natural interaction, the historical information will be of much higher quality.

The project has aimed for recordings to be as live as possible - they were recorded in real time, and done in 'one take'. There are no pre-rehearsed conversations here. Editing has been kept to the absolute minimum, and has been limited to ensuring recordings remain legal in terms of data protection, and where a subject has specifically asked for an item to be erased.


Each recording has a corresponding summary, which acts as a quick guide to the subject matter and content of the interview. Several interviews can then be quickly previewed by referring to the summary.

As the recording itself is the artefact to be considered, a faithful transcription serves no purpose other than as a doomed attempt to duplicate on paper a real event.

Theoretical basis

A number of philosophical, theoretical, and historiographical understandings provide the raison d'etre that underpins this project. These are the products of the interviewer's observation and reflection on the interview process, and in particular the subject/object relationship. The development of selfhood, consciousness, and memory play their part in the underpinning, as does an understanding of postmodernist themes, and a personal interest by the interviewer in how this relates to non-dualist Eastern thought. Historiographically influenced by postmodernist thinking, the project believes that history is built and written, rather than discovered; and that history is not neutral and objective - it always comes from a particular viewpoint. The 'view from nowhere' doesn't exist. In a nutshell, this project is about making sense of existence, both philosophically and historically.

The ethos of the McManus Life Stories oral history project has been captured by Matthew von Unwerth, from a chapter of his book 'Freud's Requiem' entitled 'Freud on Memory, Identity, and Fictional Remembering':

'...we all unconsciously re-write our heart's histories, by how we remember those histories - by fusing the reality of the past with the fantasies, wishes, and regrets that were the secret sharers of our experience, in ways that make our memories truer than the experience from which they were derived.'

'Freud believed our minds hang onto memories, working them over, joining them to other experiences, and from them fashioning the unique, subjective sense of the world that forms the core of our self, or soul or 'ego' - our identity'

'Like Freud, all individuals tailor their lives according to the themes they find most compelling - this sort of fictional remembering is necessary in order to make sense of this existence'

Finally, the philosopher Daniel Dennet, in his book 'Consciousness Explained' says that; '..we don't tell our stories - our stories tell us'

Archiving/Public Access

The recordings are archived on CD; on a hard drive as digital files; and on Dundee City Council's corporate server. Consent forms for the recordings are kept at RG's workstation, with the originals in secure fire-proof storage.

As part of the broader issue of public access to stored museum collections it is intended that the oral history archive will be made accessible to visitors, but the way that this will be achieved has yet to be decided.

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