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11.40  Immediate Emotion: Articulating Historical Consciousness and Heritage in Oral Histories

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In this paper I will address ACHS Conference questions surrounding the building of “critical innovations” in heritage and how heritage offers us an understanding of present trends, issues, and discourses. I will use oral history interviews from my PhD research to demonstrate how a methodology employing emotions history is contributing to my understanding of immediate experiences of heritage in the interview. Past emotions play out in the performance of interviews, while present emotions contribute further to the relationship between interviewer and participant. I will argue that ultimately, the oral history interview becomes a site of heritage construction and heritage inheritance via immediate affect and emotion. 

Although omitted from legitimized frameworks of heritage and historical studies, scholars across disciplines are calling for the integration of emotions as a window through which to contemplate historical engagement. Rebecca Clifford argues that by analyzing emotional patterns in oral history, the historian can unveil how emotions “act as filters” that illuminate significant past experiences at the “nexus between the personal and the social or collective.” In this paper I will argue that emotion in the interview can also provide a window onto contemporary emotional experiences of historical representation and discourse. 

My research concerns experiences of Cold War “fear” in 1950s Britain. Oral history interviews have revealed unprecedented references to contemporary issues, tinged with affect and emotion. From nuclear weapons, to illegal immigration, to financial crisis, to terrorist violence, participants echo a dominant present-day discourse of “increasing threat-level,” the “risks” of modern life, the “vulnerability” of the world “order.” The present-day discourse becomes enmeshed in the participants’ narrative of the past, whether in contrasting, comparing, or highlighting similarities in experience of international, social, political issues. In doing so, participants rely on the interviewer to empathize with their emotional interpretations of a shared past and present. This empathetic connection, the paper will argue, is a site of heritage building and inheritance. 

The interview relationship assists a process of understanding, and underpins a quest for authenticity. By pinning authenticity to, and making assumptions about shared experiences, participants intensify, debunk, and diminish various emotions, while the interviewer transmits these into research. The approach taken in this paper broadly parallels Laurajane Smith and Gary Campbell’s suggestion to view “affect and emotion as essential constitutive elements of heritage making.” These authors make a case for inclusion of emotion as an important part of future inter-disciplinary studies of the experience of heritage in museums; this paper places oral history and storytelling into the wider realm of understanding heritage production in present-day discourse and human relationships. When it comes to external threat there is a heritage in constant conversation with contemporary processes of understanding that result from experiences of power, threat, and safety.

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