by Rob “Bubbs” Harris…
StoryCorps Puts Lives On Display
Have you ever sat down with someone and had them tell you about themselves, only to find out that they had a far more interesting tale to tell than you might have expected? I know that has happened to me more times than I can remember. What if you were to take some of the interesting conversations you have had with old war veterans, or local fishermen, or even your best pal and recorded them to share with others?
That is precisely what National Public Radio’s (NPR) StoryCorps does. However, the project maintains that it isn’t just those who have been around the block a time or two who have the best stories, but that everyone has a unique story to tell.
Since 2003, StoryCorps has taken over 60,000 recorded interviews, from people just like you and I, and has put them on display as part of an oral history project designed to give us a better idea of what it’s like to be, well, us.
It might be an old immigrant telling his grandchildren about the trip across the ocean to the “land of the free.” It may be a mother telling her children what it was like to carry them inside her womb for nine months. Whatever the story, we all have one. StoryCorps takes those stories and makes them available to the public in order to gain a deeper understanding of the human condition. After all, we all are a part of history.
The national StoryCorps project visited Pensacola for five weeks, from February to March 2010, collecting stories from ordinary Americans about their lives and what it is like to live at this point in history. The stories, with permission from the individuals, were then archived at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center.
Blythe Webster, a public history intern, thought it would be a good idea to procure a small grant in order to purchase materials for a local exhibit, not only to help promote the StoryCorps’ visit to our area, but also to raise awareness that a complete duplicate archive of all interviews recorded in Pensacola would soon be housed in the West Florida Genealogy Library, located in the old Tryon Branch on the Pensacola State College campus, to be made available for any interested persons to listen to at their leisure.
“I’m a public history graduate student,” Webster explains, “and one of the classes offered in the program is Community and Oral History. The premise of that is to document the oral history of a certain region — things that may get lost in one way or another because they haven’t been properly documented. In the public history program, we were given the choice of doing a practicum, as opposed to a thesis, which is what I chose to do. When I found out that StoryCorps was going to be in Pensacola, I decided to do my practicum in conjunction with that.”
Webster’s idea was to take some of the short clips used on the WUWF radio programs, which were already approved, and make longer clips taken from the 40-minute interviews, pair them with photographs taken from the interviewees, and display them as an “art-meets-education” initiative. “It’s like that old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words,’” says Webster. “Instead, we flip that around and say that a thousand words create a picture.’”
The exhibit, which is made up of a series of photographs taken during the recording of each interview, will not be headed by a director or guide, but rather open to take in as you see fit. Instead of having someone lead a group around and tell a story about each photo, or having a group sit and listen to the recordings and having the stories explained afterwards, MP3 players, loaded with the audio recordings, will be made available to check out and listen to as you peruse the exhibit at your own pace. In this way, you can visit a certain section of the gallery without feeling pressured to move along quickly, or without missing any of the enthralling details about what lies behind each photograph and each person in them.
The display will officially be made available to the public on Aug. 16 and housed in the WUWF Gallery 88 through Sept. 24; there will also be a special reception to be held on Aug. 26 at the WUWF studios.
After the display has run its course, the photographs and 12 selected stories will be donated to the Genealogy Library for good. This will give Pensacola residents and history buffs the opportunity to go back and discover even more about our fine city and its inhabitants than we ever knew before.
“It really is very interesting and educational to listen to these stories from regular people that have far more to tell than you might have thought,” Webster says. “I think this exhibit is going to open some eyes and bring a better understanding of ourselves to each person who comes to look and listen.”
The StoryCorps will return to Pensacola to speak with local residents about the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico very soon. Until then, stop by Gallery 88 on UWF’s Pensacola campus and experience it for yourself. You never know — you just might learn something new.