Another project that stood out to us was Arabic-Speaking Objects, by the Art Education Master's student Emma Haraké, which was exhibited in March 2018 at the Centre Culturel Georges-Vanier in Montreal, Canada. The collaborative art exhibition “explores the meanings embedded in the personal objects of recent Arabic-speaking immigrants. Uniting oral narratives and artifact, visitors will wander through a space of memories, stories, fragrances and sounds.” While the concept of object-based oral history interviewing is not new, the simplicity and beauty of this project were powerful. During Ms. Haraké’s talk, we learned that the naming of the project went through several iterations. It was initially called “Foreign Objects”, but some participants found this objectionable, as they did not consider themselves “foreign” now that they had settled in Canada. She shared her reflections on trying to define a “community” that actually comprises over 20 countries and numerous dialects. In Montreal, of course, it is also natural to also have a French title for a project such as this, so it is also called “Objets arabophones” in French, as well as “ أغراض ناطقة بالعربيّة” in Arabic.
This reminded Eve-Lyne that, at GSM Project, we work in many parts of the world and with a wide variety of communities and cultural groups. Each time we begin a project, whether in the Middle East, North America or Asia, we adapt to each cultural and social context, aiming to understand the subtleties in question and address them respectfully within our work. In the case of Arabic-Speaking Objects, we were reminded that a means of storytelling does not have to be complex to be successful. Emma Haraké explained that the simple act of displaying objects and their stories in the person’s own dialect — without additional means/layers of interpretation, allows meaning to emerge in a respectful and profound way.
Finally, the talk “Decolonizing, Indigenizing, and Learning Biskaaybiiyang in the Field: Our Oral History Journey” delivered by historians Katrina Srigley, Associate Professor at Nipissing University, and Lorraine Sutherland of the Mushkegowuk Council, drove home the important message that the simple act of storytelling itself comes with bias. They described how oral history within Anishinaabeg and Ininiw ways of learning is quite distinct from colonial and Western storytelling, signalling the importance of acknowledging and mobilizing “Indigenous ways of understanding, documenting, and sharing stories of the past” within a decolonized and feminist approach to oral history. Having worked on many exhibitions which touch on darker periods of Canadian or American colonial past, such as the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History, or the more recent Life of Sally Hemings at Monticello, we were reminded of the importance of challenging our assumptions about storytelling and the social role that it plays.
The Oral History Association’s Annual Meeting reinforced the notion that oral history is inherently complicated, lengthy and often leads you down rewarding roads you never could have anticipated. While our project timelines are often shorter than academic oral history research projects, we were inspired by these talks and speakers, and hope to apply some of their thinking to our projects. It was a good reminder not only of the ethical aspects of our work as exhibition designers, but of the myriad creative forms that oral storytelling can take.