By tapping into Artistic Director Paul Lagring’s memory, Netwerk checked whether any essential information was missing from its archive. Interviews were conducted, and the conclusions drawn from them were used to work out how to record this information in future. This practical example outlines how to tackle an oral history project, and how to enrich your archive with oral sources.
- Definition of subject: January 2014 – March 2014
- Recruitment of a volunteer: February 2014
- Test case: March – April 2014
- Evaluation of first interview: May 2014
- Preparation for interviews – archive visit: May – June 2014
- Conducting interviews: June 2014
- Writing up interviews: July – September 2014
- Comparison of interviews with archive: September 2014
- Recommendations: September 2014
- Transfer of documents and files: October 2014
In two years’ time, Artistic Director Paul Lagring will be retiring. He has been involved with the art centre since 1983, and he began to organise exhibitions in 1987. Within Netwerk, the fear is that a great deal of knowledge about the organisation’s history will disappear when Paul Lagring retires. The quality of Netwerk’s archive was checked by tapping into his memory. What information is missing for a complete understanding of the files? What knowledge and insight will continue to exist without the staff? Do we understand what has taken place in Netwerk’s history without the memory of the staff? The aim of this pilot project is to identify both the missing information, and a (simple) way of recording it.
1. Determining the method
2. Recruitment of a volunteer
- Test case
- Choice of exhibitions
- Drafting a list of questions
- Conducting interviews
- Making interviews accessible
4. Analysis and recommendations
- Analysis of archive documents
5. Transfer of files to Netwerk
6. Evaluation of knowledge securement
Determining the method
In the beginning, the challenge was to find an effective way of tapping into memory. The decision was made to interview Paul Lagring about four exhibitions from four different periods in Netwerk’s history. An exhibition is a clearly demarcated unit, which makes it easier to draft an interview plan and to carry out archive searches. On the basis of these interviews, an analysis can be made as to whether the archive contains sufficient information to fully understand an exhibition from Netwerk’s perspective.
The exhibitions chosen were one from Netwerk’s early period, one from after the internal changes, one from after the move, and one that is planned for the future. At a later date, the interviews can be used as the starting point for research into the meaning of the exhibitions, in terms of the history of Netwerk, Aalst and the Belgian arts scene.
Recruitment of a volunteer
BAM recruited a volunteer for this project. The volunteer’s task was to draw up the list of questions for the interviews in collaboration with PACKED vzw, to conduct the interviews and to write them up. The volunteer was chosen on the basis of her interest in the project and her knowledge of the arts world.
The first interview was a general interview about Paul Lagring’s career and the history of Netwerk. This was a test to check whether the composition of the list of questions was effective and whether there was a good rapport between the interviewer and the interviewee. The list of questions drawn up by CVAa was chosen as a model. You can see the list of questions that was drawn up here (only in Dutch).
After this interview, a meeting was held to discuss the whole project. The following findings emerged from it:
- The composition of the list of questions is effective. The questions are good and logical.
- The interviewer is not familiar with Netwerk’s past. This is good because it leads to some interesting questions being asked.
- Paul Lagring identified that he needed to prepare more effectively for the interviews. This time, he had the feeling that he was making too many mental leaps.
Choice of exhibitions
After the evaluation, the first interviews were able to start. Paul himself chose the exhibitions about which he would be interviewed. He opted for exhibitions that were important to him in Netwerk’s history:
These exhibitions were:
- Werner Cuvelier – A(rt)ssenede S.P.’L’ (1990): This is when the tradition of selling a multiple - a work produced in a limited edition - began at Netwerk. Werner Cuvelier and his exhibition meant a great deal to Paul Lagring at both an emotional and a professional level.
- Katleen Vermeir – Ambulante Architectuur (1999): In this project, the entire history of Netwerk came together. Paul has always pursued equality between men and women and this is why it was important to him that a female artist should be part of the mix.
- Lorenzo Benedetti – Cabinet of Imagination (2008): Based on this exhibition, it was possible to explain the strategy of staging group exhibitions in order to attract more international artists to Netwerk and to create greater international support. The passion that Lorenzo Beneditti is able to convey and the major evolution that he went through as a curator and director are also important to Paul.
- Frank&Robbert/Robbert&Frank – A Bit Beyond PINGPONG / Gerard Herman – Kalisj (2014): It was agreed to conduct an interview about a future exhibition, and these were the next exhibitions due to be staged. It was interesting to discuss these exhibitions because they are derived from a European project that was unable to go ahead.
In order to ask the right questions, it is important that the interviewer be well prepared. The volunteer was provided with a bundle of reading material by Netwerk, which enabled her to familiarise herself with the arts centre’s operations. Netwerk’s website, which outlines the organisation’s vision, was also consulted. It also has an archive and documentation section featuring all past projects and events, (introductory) texts and profiles of artists whose work has been exhibited.
In addition, the interviews were preceded by a preparatory visit to the archive. Netwerk keeps a file on each exhibition it stages. The archive from 2005 onwards is still at Netwerk. A list of questions could be drawn up based on the information that was available, and on that which was missing. One general conclusion was that there is little or no information available on how exhibitions came about. Press material and administrative documents (e.g. insurance) were available in the archive.
All the interviews had more or less the same structure. First, a list of themes or topics was drawn up that would be touched on in each interview. For each theme, a series of questions was prepared. See the model document here (only in Dutch). The structure was as follows:
- The period 1990/1999/2008/2014. This part was designed to explore the general context in which the exhibitions took place: themes included Paul Lagring’s role, the arts scene in Belgium and Aalst and the climate at Netwerk.
- The following theme (“Exhibition”) explores the exhibition in more depth: The reason for staging it, the position of the artist in Belgium and internationally, the choice of artist, setting up the exhibition, a description of the exhibition, etc.
- Artist: Paul Lagring answers questions about his collaboration and contact with the artist.
- Public and press: How was the exhibition received? Did it generate press interest?
- Archive: How and why was the exhibition archived and documented? What is the importance of archiving?
For each interview, the list of questions was sent to Paul Lagring a few days in advance. This enabled him to prepare and to gather his thoughts. Before the start of an interview, there was a further run-through of the questions, and Paul was asked if all the questions were clear. Once this had been done, the interview could begin.
The list of questions was not directive. It was possible to diverge from the questions in order to explore in greater depth elements that were important to Paul, or to put things in a different light (e.g. for the Werner Cuvelier exhibition, there was an introductory text. This was unusual in 1990.) Indeed, a series of trivial elements can lead to certain (important) decisions being made. The most important thing was that all the themes were covered; the list of questions was mainly used as a guide. The interview was designed to be a discussion, not an interrogation, which also helped to put the interviewee at ease.
Making the interviews accessible
The interviews were recorded using digital recording devices. Once the project had been completed, the sound files were transferred to Netwerk to be stored in their digital archive.
All the interviews were written up:
- Transcription: The original idea was to write up a summary of the interviews, but after an evaluation of the first interview to be written up, it was concluded that the nuances had been lost and that there was too much room for subjectivity. A summary allows the interviewer to highlight elements that he or she finds important. The transcript of the text should be an objective reflection of the discussion.
- Tape content file: For every interview, a tape content file was created. This is a list in which all the topics covered are summarised and marked with a time indication. This makes it simpler to carry out a targeted search of the sound file. FARO designed a model document (only in Dutch).
- Registration of sound files: For access to and re-use of interview sound files, it is important that the contextual information be recorded in a structured way. For the registration, the descriptive model devised by PACKED vzw was used: Data Model for Oral Sources (only in Dutch).
Analysis and recommendations
Once interviews have been conducted and written up, the archive was consulted for a second time to ascertain which information was missing. The various dossiers relating to the exhibitions were examined afresh, and a more extensive search of the archive was carried out (for example in Netwerk Gallery correspondence, subsidy dossiers and press packs) to look for traces of the various exhibitions.
In the past, Paul Lagring kept every last document and every single miscellaneous item relating to all the exhibitions, out of respect for the artists. This is an important step towards preserving history and knowledge. However, what emerged from the interviews was that many of arrangements with artists were made verbally or over the phone, and that exhibitions would go off in particular directions purely as a result of chance occurrences. This was not recorded in the archive. With a series of minor interventions, the accessibility of the archive can be improved and essential information can be registered.
Read in this document about the analysis of the archive and our practical recommendations (only in Dutch).
Transfer of files to Netwerk
Once the project was completed, all the files were transferred to Netwerk. These are:
- Sound files of interviews
- Tape content files
- Registration form
The files were transferred in a durable file format (sound files: WAV, text files: PDF).
- geluidsbestanden in WAV-formaat met PCM-codec: PCM is de codering die gebruikt wordt voor ongecomprimeerde audiobestanden en is de standaardopslagvorm van digitaal geluid in verschillende bestandsvormen op computer en cd. PCM wordt in windowsomgevingen meestal opgeslagen als een WAV-formaat. WAV is een breed ondersteund en ongecomprimeerd audioformaat dat ontwikkeld werd door IBM.
- tekstbestanden in PDF/A. PDF/A is een versie van PDF met een aantal beperkingen die PDF voor langdurige bewaring bruikbaar maken.
For Netwerk, this could be the starting point for a further project about the history of the arts centre.
Evaluation of knowledge securement
For this project, which was limited in terms of time, the decision was made to interview Paul Lagring on a defined topic, namely exhibitions at Netwerk. This had several advantages: it made it simpler to carry out searches of the archive, it made it possible to work in greater depth, and it also made it easier for Paul to prepare. Questions were not limited to the exhibition. They were a useful angle from which to seek views on the arts scene in Aalst and Belgium, on the climate at Netwerk and relations with the City of Aalst, and on Paul’s influences and activities at that time.
The decision to conduct interviews about four different periods at Netwerk also makes it possible to compare the different periods with one another. In this way, it is also interesting to identify certain tendencies in Paul’s way of working. Without realising it himself, he appeared to have a soft spot for artists who combined art and architecture, who work professionally and who give their all to their work. He also turned out to attach great importance to good communication, and to having confidence in people.
What was achieved?
- Five interviews were conducted and interpreted. These interviews could be the starting point for further research into the history of Netwerk. The lists of questions drawn up provide a model for new interviews about exhibitions.
- The archive dossiers of three of Netwerk’s exhibitions were evaluated by an outsider and checked for ambiguities and missing information. The findings were discussed with Netwerk. Recommendations were formulated in order to improve accessibility to the archive and to record essential information. Netwerk found the recommendations useful and will follow them up in future.
- As a consequence of the interviews, Paul began to remember new things. He discovered that certain elements from Netwerk’s history were not mentioned anywhere on the website.
- Thanks to this process of reflection, Paul was able to see a clear line in his evolution and quest. Past conflicts that played a role in the development of Netwerk also came back to him. He is therefore keen to continue with this project, and to talk to the founders about how Netwerk began.
What was learned during this project?
- Ensure that you are well prepared before conducting an interview. It is important that you are well informed about the topic and the broader subject matter of the interview. This makes it easier to draft a list of questions and to ask supplementary questions during the interviews. On the other hand, it is also a good idea to ask an outsider to conduct the interview, because he or she can look at the organisation with fresh eyes.
- Make sure that an interview does not go on for too long. This process has taught us that an interview should not last for longer than 2 hours. In addition, there should always be a short break after an hour.
- If you are working with a digital recording device, do not forget to check in advance whether there is sufficient space on the memory card and whether the batteries are loaded.
- Writing up interviews and making tape content files takes more time that you might expect. During a discussion, people have the tendency to repeat things, or to use long sentences. It takes time to turn this into a clear, well-written text.
- When writing up, you lose certain nuances that are conveyed in non-verbal communication, which can make the interviewee come across as annoyed or curt in the transcript text. One potential solution is to report the non-verbal communication in brackets, for example (laughs).
The publication Leren luisteren: Een handleiding voor mondelinge ‘geschiedenis van alledag’ by CAG and CO7 (in Dutch only) contains a great deal of practical information on how to implement an oral history project.
- Strictly speaking, this is not a knowledge management project. Oral history is a way of documenting immaterial heritage (knowledge, traditions, practices). Other projects on immaterial heritage and knowledge management will be further developed within the framework of TRACKS.