Oral History, Storytelling, and Human Rights in Madison

Thursday, January 15, 2015
Sharon Reilly introduces the Museum panel at the 2014 Meetings of the (American) Oral History Association in Madison, Wisconsin, October 9, 2014. (photo – Sarah Reilly)


Stories are at the heart of how the Museum talks about human rights. As a historian and a curator, I have found the stories which inspire us the most are often those told by the people who lived through them. It is a riveting way to learn about both our triumphs and our tragedies. For that reason, our Museum’s Oral History Program plays a central role in our research, collections, exhibits and programs. So when the Museum’s Research and Collections Department was invited to apply to attend the 48th Annual Meeting of the American Oral History Association in Madison, Wisconsin last month, we jumped at the chance.

A building in the night
The Wisconsin State Capitol Building, as seen from the Monona Terrace, was just a few minutes’ walk from the conference hotel. (photo – Sharon Reilly)

The unifying theme of the 2014 meeting was ‘Oral History in Motion: Movements, Transformations, and the POWER OF STORY.’

This theme seemed perfect for the Museum. In February I submitted an application proposing a session on the Museum and its oral history program. In June, I was delighted to learn that, despite a record-breaking number of submissions to the conference, ours was among those accepted! 

In all, Over 300 American, Canadian and other delegates participated in the five-day long event. Panels, workshops and presentations were held describing dozens of different oral history projects. Our panel was held bright and early on the first morning of the conference. I introduced the session and the Museum, explaining that we have embraced oral history and storytelling as a means to fulfill the Museum’s mandate of inclusivity and encouraging dialogue about human rights. 

A room with people sitting
Storytelling and folk music session at the Oral History Association conference. (photo – Sharon Reilly)

Next was Emily Grafton, Researcher - Curator responsible for Indigenous content. She explained how the Museum has adopted a decolonizing approach in our research and exhibits. This means we work to ensure Indigenous perspectives and stories are told in an authentic Indigenous voice. Incorporating oral history interviews into exhibits helps us accomplish this goal.  

A woman speaks
Emily Grafton discusses the decolonizing approach taken in the Museum’s research and exhibits concerning Indigenous perspectives. (photo – Sarah Reilly)


Next, Julia Peristerakis, Research Assistant, gave an example of using authentic voices, speaking about three wall installations in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery. In these installations, the words of Indigenous authors and their concepts of Indigenous rights are presented embedded within original large-scale exhibits.

Armando Perla, Researcher-Curator for human rights law content, then explained how he used oral history interviews to bring legal battles to life. Armando used the stories told during his interviews to make these experiences memorable and meaningful to visitors. 

Heather Bidzinski, Collections Manager, wrapped up the presentation by speaking about the Museum’s commitment to shared authority and ethical practices – the Museum is committed to ensuring that all who share their stories with us are treated with respect and consideration. She also described her day-to-day activities ensuring all our oral histories are fully documented, transcribed, and accessible. 

Now that the Museum’s inaugural exhibits are open, we are excited at the thought of the many projects that lie ahead. We are anxious to continue to grow as oral historians and to work with our colleagues, both at the Museum and beyond, to continue to build our oral history program and the many exhibits and programs it can support.