The Blossoming of Oral History in Greece

Andromache Gazi, author of the recently published “Oral Testimonies as Independent Museum Exhibits: A Case Study from the Industrial Gas Museum in Athens”, shares her perspective on today’s rapidly growing oral history community in Greece.

By Andromache Gazi

During the last decade, an extraordinary interest in oral history has developed in Greece. This has manifested, among other things, in the founding of the Oral History Association in 2013, the blossoming of oral history groups all over the country (more than 12 alone in Athens and more than 15 in the rest of Greece), the proliferation of oral history research projects, many of which culminate in the creation of private or/and public oral history archives, the growing inclusion of oral testimonies in museum exhibitions, and the spread of audiovisual art projects experimenting with oral narratives.

What has been motivating this proliferation of oral history? Most researchers see the oral history boom as a result of the severe and prolonged financial crisis which Greece has experienced since 2009. Riki van Boeschoten, emeritus professor at the University of Thessaly and one of the pioneers of oral history in Greece, credits the phenomenon mainly to the need of people for historical awareness which has been heightened during the years of crisis.

The most visible sign of this need is the amazing increase in the number of local oral history groups within the last eight years. The first group was established in the spring of 2011 in the Kypseli neighborhood in Athens, followed by the Athens Oral History Group in 2013, and the mushrooming of others in subsequent years. Participation in these groups is voluntary and begins with an 18-hour seminar on the principles and methodology of oral history coordinated by historian Tasoula Vervenioti, a pioneer of biographical research and the soul of oral history groups in Greece. These self-regulated, collectively operated, local groups reflect a desire among people to re-discover their identities during times of hardship and generate new insights of history as a richly nuanced lived experience. A tangible example of the vigor of local history work in the neighborhoods is the open fairs organized in 2015 and 2017 in Athens as a celebration of oral history in the public sphere.

Yet oral history in Greece is not new. Interest in biographical narratives and oral testimonies appeared in historical and social research in the mid-80s. The first initiatives may be traced back to the work of social anthropologist Alki Kyriakidou Nestoros, professor at the University of Thessaloniki, who introduced an anthropological perspective influenced by the philosophy of oral history in the study of traditional culture.

A significant advance in the study of “history from below” came from researchers who collected oral narratives in order to bring to light women’s stories and views, not hitherto visible in official historical records. Starting from the early 1990s, much oral history work has focused on the memory of the 1940s and the Greek Civil War (1944-1949), a traumatic period which did not easily fall within official historical research. The study of the period of the German Occupation in Greece and the Civil War as an experience lived by everyday people, and the subsequent process of building individual and collective memories around it became an extremely fertile field for oral history scholars and has produced a rich corpus of published work. At around the same time, the influx of immigrants opened up a new field for oral history projects based on biographical research.

One of the first systematic attempts at establishing oral history as an academic field was the creation in 1999 of an oral history group within EKKE, the National Centre for Social Research. Ten years later in 2009, the Prefecture of Chania in Cretea in collaboration with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki organized a training seminar of 20 volunteers, with the aim of establishing a Museum of Oral History on the island. The project did not materialize, but the seminar acted as a catalyst for the rise of local involvement in oral history and brought together a group of historians and sociologists who contributed to the foundation of the Oral History Association in 2013.

Today the Association plays a pivotal role in oral history theory and methodology training, in archiving and in dealing with ethical issues according to international standards and best practices. So far it has organized four international conferences (Volos 2012, Athens 2014, Thessaloniki 2016, Komotini 2018) and a plethora of seminars, while the first Summer School in Oral History will take place in 2019, in collaboration with the Department of History and Ethnology at the University of Thrace. A lot has been done in higher education too. In the 2000s the Department of History, Archaeology, and Social Anthropology at the University of Thessaly pioneered the inclusion of oral history in its undergraduate curriculum to be followed later by some departments of Sociology, History, Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies elsewhere.

University departments have carried out several museum oral history projects, such as “Oral histories – The FIX building,” initiated in 2018 by the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Technical University of Athens, the University of Athens and Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences. This project has recorded first-hand experiences related to the Museum’s home, the FIX building, an important example of Greek modernism and a landmark of the industrial history of Athens. 

Initiatives in using oral history in primary and secondary education emerged in the last two decades, mostly as a result of teachers’ enthusiasm, without any formal support. Several oral history programs designed in collaboration with teachers enable pupils to gain a deeper understanding of the past or particular social issues through the voices of the people who lived the events. “Don’t leave your past behind,” for example, was initiated in 2018 at the 4th High School of Keratisini, Piraeus, as part of a larger project of local history. The organization of the first pupils’ conference on oral history (Athens, May 2019) confirms that the time is ripe for a more inclusive use of oral history in school education.

Publicity for Gazi, Are You Listening? based on a drawing designed by one of the student organizers. See more exhibit images in our accompanying gallery. Image courtesy of Andromache Gazi.

Greek museums have been rather hesitant in including oral history in their galleries. “Volos – Nea Ionia: So far away – So close” an exhibition about the neighborhood of Nea Ionia at the outskirts of Volos, launched at the Museum of the City of Volos in 2014, was perhaps the first museum exhibition which intertwined oral history decisively into the exhibition narrative in the form of sound stations and sound showers along with text excerpts from interviews. “Gazi, are you listening?” a 2016 temporary oral history exhibition at the Industrial Gas Museum in Athens displayed oral testimonies as autonomous exhibits (read much more about it in my recent OHR article). The exhibition, comprised of memories, narratives, and stories of people who have lived and worked in the old gasworks, or in the neighborhood, had a high degree of originality as oral history rarely stands alone in museum exhibitions.

Greek artists and curators also exploit the potential of oral narratives in their work. Inventory was a 2018-2019 project of performing arts and multimedia by Jenny Argyriou and Vasilis Gerodimos presented at Eleusis (Cultural Capital of Europe 2021). The artists created a temporary social area/workshop at the waterfront of Eleusis where they carried out archival research on-the-spot, collected material and testimonies from the residents of Eleusis, and experimented with participatory workshops.

Finally, one should also mention the rise of sound walks such as the 2018 “Memories of an occupied city. A sound walk in Athens 1941-1944” which sprang out of a research project carried out by Marilena Koukouli at Panteion University.

Andromache Gazi is associate professor of museology at the Department of Communication, Media, and Culture, Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens, Greece.

Featured image: Exhibition visitor in one of the listening posts at the exhibit, “Gazi, are you listening?” at Industrial Gas Museum, Athens. Photo by Andromache Gazi.