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The Public Memory Archive is an extension, and indeed a development upon, the Oral history centre and archive which was founded in 2000 at the University of Malta with the chief being to kindle an appreciation of, and embarking upon, research in oral history. The OHC listed as top priority the recording, transcribing, preserving and archiving of oral recollections and experiences on a variety of research topics, as part of a wide project entitled “Voices of the Twentieth Century”. To quote from its mission statement, this endeavour gave preference to the recording of “recollections by working men and women, functional illiterates and members of minorities and subcultures whose voices and material culture have been ignored”, thus bringing the common labouring people to the centre stage of historical inquiry. 

The setting up of the Public Memory Archive addresses the growing interest in the study of the relationship between memory and history, a trend stimulated by oral history, which is developing into a (trans)disciplinary field of study in its own right, coming to include various theoretical paradigms and methods. The areas of research embraced are: the study of remembrance and representation; the many uses of collective memories in the construction of the past, in myth making and official commemoration; the contestation by subjective and shared memories of mainstream or ‘monumental history’. The crossover between subjective, shared or popular memory and public history is a theme which overarches all our list of projects, underpinning our main research strategy.

Addressing this main objective, the new research work plan of the Archive incorporates all the work-in-progress projects and the previous oral history archive in its entirety – close to one thousand recorded testimonies/interviews – while increasing the quantity of fieldwork projects, thus substantially widening the thematic fields covered. Also in conformity with its research agenda this centre for Public Memory and its archive is establishing two new archive sections which are really inseparable from the Oral History collection and archive. The first, and more tangible, is a collection of Records of Daily Life which brings together, digitalises and preserves a wide selection of ‘ordinary records’ in a unique archive, thus acknowledging their critical importance for understanding and reconstructing the past. These records are of an informal (e.g. letters, diaries, home accounts and cooking recipes), semi-formal (rent-books, private contracts) and formal/official (baptism, marriage, health or death records/certificates) nature. They also include a variety of other ephemera (such as printed flysheets, amateur theatrical posters and philharmonic band club musical scores, just to give some examples) as well as visual records, mainly (family, group or other amateur) photographs and home video recordings, all of which are also essential for our understanding of past popular culture.

It is our intention to make all these records easily available for research whilst gradually consolidating this Records of Daily Life collection as an alternative archive. This in turn is also conducive to new ways of interpreting and making history – putting the ‘common people’ at the centre of historical research, showing and investigating the multiplicity of their voices and world views, their interests and desires. In many cases these records come accompanied by notes which are kept with them. They are then usually crossed-referenced with oral history interviews and written testimonies provided by the donors/informers themselves. Certainly, the tangible documentation deposited in this section depends on and complements in meaning and significance the voluminous recordings at the Oral History Section and the second newly formed, Written Memories – Life Histories section which includes hand-written or typed life histories or ‘fragmented memoirs’, accompanied by drawings and press cuttings but also  biographical pieces on specific experiences (some of which form part of projects with groups of the elderly including the ‘War Reminiscence Exercise’ conducted with war veterans attending the University of the Third Age).

Other items of significance which the centre/archive holds are material objects which can be held within the limited space available. These include samples of Maltese indigenous cottons in the different stages of cultivation and manufacture or pieces of locally manufactured lace and textiles. Larger objects and organic material (such as, for instance, preserved tuffs of a baby’s hair or a dried umbilical cord donated by women interviewees) can only be photographed and gently handed back to their owners even if considered important for aspects of social and medical history.

Public artefacts, especially large ones, are key landmarks in the landscapes of collective memories. Functioning as mnemonic devices, these are crucial for our understanding of how shared and community identities are manufactured, and therefore the photographing and video-recording of community artefacts or commemorative objects is encouraged  copies are deposited in this archive, usually supported by fieldwork notes, written or orally recorded information. Due to the importance which these public objects have in the construction of shared memory and public history, the Public Memory Archive is preparing a detailed proposal for a project on the theme: ‘Permanent Landmarks of memory: the construction of social and political identities’.

The producers of public memories through the verbal arts – mainly through story-telling and singing –require these artefacts and public objects/monuments as central devices in their narratives. Therefore, these have to be studied in the actual physical and social landscapes of the communities of which they form part, stressing their relations to public rituals, performance and daily living. This is another way of employing alternative approaches to understand the relationship between subjective and shared memory, wherein the past is intimately intertwined with contemporary social realities. Exploring the intricate ways in which the tangible and intangible heritage (including the range of rituals and performing arts as well as the verbal arts including storytelling) contribute to, and are ordinarily employed in, the construction of public memory and history, forms one other intention of this project. Hence, the importance of developing all archive sections within this Archive, in a constantly interactive mode and through specifically designated projects.  It is certainly by combining available oral and visual records and an array of artefacts with the written representation of memory that the interface between the subjective or personal life histories, shared memories and, on many occasions, public memory, can be understood.

On another level, the methodology adopted provides the participants –interviewees, informants and others – with a positive personal and socially-rewarding experience, thus strengthening their self-esteem and enhancing their sense of belonging to a community. This forms part of this Archive/Centre’s endeavour to ‘give back to the community’ something in return, including a greater academic and public appreciation and divulgation of the  shared memories, of neglected, if not forgotten experiences and marginal voices, traditions and important social and survival skills. This is being done with the help of more portable media devices and through this same website. In this way the Public Memory Archive should develop into a platform for discussion and contestation of one sided, still prevailing, views of history; as an open space where the academic and the independent scholar come across the multiple voices, raw memories, popular cultures and the historical imagination of the people. In turn this facilitates social dialogue and a greater awareness and appreciation of diversity. Conveniently, this centre also critically promotes an understanding of the popular culture of shaping and transmitting traditions and collective memories and thus facilitating a renewed face-to-face approach between persons from different generations as well as between diverse social and cultural groups in contemporary society. 

In conformity with all this, and while being as inclusive as possible, the Archive/Centre privileges the voices of those who are at the margins and whose history has been neglected if not totally suppressed, and who are feeling the need and the desire to make their life experiences and memories heard, recorded, preserved and passed-on, thus coming to play a significant part in the construction of alternative views of the past. This decision is bearing fruit as the Public Memory Archive is already characterised by a combination of records of social experiences, representing a multiplicity of identities and life histories, most emphatically of those who, as argued above, have been margined or are on the brink of extinction and forgetfulness. Hence the urgency to  launch projects concerning the remaining folk healers, the life and work histories of dockyard workers and  female factory workers –the so-called ‘factory girls’ – due to the closing down of the dockyards and the textile and manufacturing factories, as well as to record the life histories of the so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ or refugees who found themselves on these islands.

In trying to implement these projects, one other role played by the Public Memory Archive is the training of students, independent researchers and academics in public memory studies and in the theory and practice of oral history. This is mainly done through courses which form part of the history programme – which are also taken by non-history students from the whole range of the social sciences – as well as through post-graduate courses and workshops in fieldwork methodology and oral history techniques. Besides being given access to our archive those interested in this field of inquiry and study are also provided with the support/logistics, the technical knowledge and devices required to conduct their research and fieldwork. These initiatives are already leaving a positive effect on the ground as many of the techniques and approaches learned, especially in oral history, are gradually being adopted and employed (usually with the little resources available) in schools by newly qualified teachers and as part of reminiscence therapies with the elderly. 

Technical guidance for independent research and fieldwork is also provided on this website, where one can find ready-made ‘guiding tips for research and conducting interviews’, ethical guidelines and procedures as well as all documentation required for copyright protection. Essential digital tools and links with other important websites are also included for research purposes and to enhance networking. To help the independent researcher further, this website is making available a set of catalogues, which are frequently updated, of all the oral history recordings as well as another list of Written Memories - Life Histories. We are also including a list and samples of people’s ‘ordinary records’ taken from the archive section: Records of Daily Life. Of course these lists, catalogues and aids need to be constantly updated and improved, but in their present form they can definitely be employed to facilitate on-going projects and fresh research. One of our more immediate aims is to invest in the construction of a search engine to facilitate the finding data base which is under construction.  The present site also includes a section on ‘Research projects work-in-progress’ which provides a selection of excerpts from oral history recordings juxtaposed with written and visual records in order to give an idea of the methodology employed, what has been achieved so far, and of how these projects are going.  

Professor John Chircop
Public Memory Archive




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