SALT LAKE CITY, Utah—Syuzanna Petrosyan, Associate Director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, and Gegham Mughnetsyan, Chitjian Researcher Archivist, presented the Institute’s ongoing oral history projects at the annual Oral History Association conference. This year, the conference took place in Salt Lake City, Utah on October 17.
Established in 1966, the Oral History Association is the flagship organization for oral history practitioners and scholars, serving a broad and diverse audience including historians, archivists, librarians, and documentarians.
Petrosyan and Mughnetsyan were speakers in a session titled, “The Challenges of Remembering: Complexity in Documenting Trauma, Displacement, and Political Change.” Chaired by Dr. Annette Henry from University of British Columbia, the panel revolved around the processes and challenges of collecting and documenting oral histories.
Petrosyan manages the Institute’s “Understanding Independence” project, which, through long-form video interviews in Armenia, documents and secures for history the memories and accounts of prominent figures of Armenia’s independence movement from the Soviet Union.
In the presentation titled, “Understanding Independence: Armenia 1988-1996 – A Preliminary Look at the First Year of Documentation and Oral Interview Collection Process,” she discussed the value of and complexities related to this important project.
“These oral histories challenge mainstream historical reviews of processes and attitudes that existed at the time, including attitudes towards independence and sovereignty,” Petrosyan stated.
Petrosyan showed brief excerpts from the interviews in Russian, Armenian and English to illustrate the diversity of the interviews and the extensive post-interview process of transcribing, translating, and subtitling the interviews to provide wide access for future researchers.
In his presentation titled, “The Armenian Displaced Persons of WWII: Challenges of Oral History in a Close-Knit Community,” Gegham Mughnetsyan spoke about the particularities of collecting stories in a community where everyone knows each other and the past is communally shared.
Mughnetsyan has conducted thirty interviews as part of the “Displaced Persons Documentation” project, which tells the story of the Soviet-Armenian refugees and their odious journey from German camps to America. This is a pilot project within the Institute’s larger “Digital Diaspora” initiative to gather, digitize and make accessible materials that comprise the Armenian Diaspora experience. “Above all,” Mughnetsyan said at the end of his presentation, “the connecting glue among the people was the collective story, kept, celebrated and retold at every gathering and reunion, a story of displacement, of survival, and of a journey that turned people into a community.”
Another challenge highlighted by Mughnetsyan was the fact that a lot of the interviewees switch between three languages while being interviewed, which exponentially complicates the transcription process. He showcased fragments of interviews coupled with archival photographs collected from the interviewees during the documentation process.
The presentations were followed by a dozen questions regarding the various challenges of working with communities that have been through trauma, displacement, and political upheaval. Oral historians working with similar community projects expressed the interest to maintain connections for future dialogues, exchange of best practices, and cooperation.
During the four-day-long conference, the Institute’s representatives got to make connections with peers in the field and observed creative examples of showcased oral histories and community stories that will in turn be useful guides as the Institute’s growing oral history collections and projects become research materials, audio documentaries, mixed-media exhibits, and podcasts.
Established in 2005, the USC Institute of Armenian Studies supports multidisciplinary scholarship to re-define, explore and study the complex issues that make up the contemporary Armenian experience – from post-genocide to the developing Republic of Armenia to the evolving diaspora. The institute encourages research, publications and public service, and promotes links among the global academic and Armenian communities. For inquiries, write to Armenian@usc.edu or call 213.821.3943.