Smithie Documents Oral Histories at Smithsonian

Photo courtesy of Olivia Sayah '17 | Olivia Sayah '17 preparing to conduct an oral history interview.

Photo courtesy of Olivia Sayah ’17 | Olivia Sayah ’17 preparing to conduct an oral history interview.


Hira Humayun ’17
Features Editor

Smithies are known for taking what they learn in the classroom, combining it with the issues they’re most passionate about and taking it out into the real world. That is exactly what Olivia Sayah ’17 did last semester during her time in Washington, D.C. From Sept. to Dec. 2015, Sayah was an intern at the Institutional History Division at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. As an American studies major with an archives concentration, this experience was a practical, hands-on version of her interests. Her focus within American studies is race, gender and class — areas she was able to deal with firsthand during her time in D.C.

What drew you to this particular internship? Did you have any expectations going into it?

When you originally apply to work, they give you choices of different projects so you pick your top three, and this was one of my top three. Since I was the only archives concentrator in the program, it fit well for me, and I knew I would be working with oral histories, something I’ve always wanted to do after listening to certain oral histories in the Smith archives. I didn’t know specifically what I would be doing, so I was very excited to work at the Smithsonian and was very thankful that they were able to have a project for me that was in line with my interests. It was an amazing opportunity to take concepts that I had learned in American studies and produce a piece of work in an important place that will be there for people to use as a resource.

Can you tell us more about this project?

For my day-to-day responsibilities, I was processing oral history interviews done by Michelle Gates-Moresi, who was a graduate student at the time but now works at the African American Museum of History and Culture. She was doing her thesis on black culture at [the] Smithsonian and interviewed people from the Museum of American History that worked there in the ’60s and ’70s. She asked them about the first representations of different races and cultures in their exhibitions. My responsibility was editing the transcripts and researching for footnotes to clarify what they were talking about in their interviews. I also did an independent study project that was based on this. I decided to interview and write blog posts about black women who worked at the Smithsonian during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

While doing your research, what was something interesting you learned that you hadn’t learned in the classroom?

I learned a lot about sensitivity in writing about people and how important it is, when you’re writing about a living person, to check in with them, especially if they still have a career. You have to make sure that they’re okay with how they’re being portrayed because, coming from Smith, you automatically assume people want to be remembered as those who broke down barriers. But sometimes they don’t want to just be seen in that light; they don’t just want to be seen through a racial lens, and sometimes they don’t want to say negative things about the institutions they’ve worked for previously.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in this process of documenting oral histories?

That was it, and also being white woman and trying to navigate this, making sure to remain respectful. It was also tough in terms of the materials that were available and what I could access. For example, I wanted to write about women who were security guards or elevator operators, but there was less information about their experiences, and I felt like it wasn’t sincere to try to create what their experience would have been.

Why do you think oral history is so important?

It’s a means of capturing someone’s experience from their own remembrance, so it gives them the power to portray themselves as they wish. It can give access to all different kinds of people, and for me, history is important. I want to make it something that can be for everyone and not just people who were in high positions in workplaces. I think history should be something more personal that we can pass on. I hope that oral history can be something that ties people directly to their past.

One Comment

  1. Perspective and sensitive at the same time. Aubt, Linda

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