A Co-created Independence Day Celebration in Hualcayán, Peru

For a Spanish language version of this post, click here

July 28th is Independence Day in Peru – and the day we presented the community copies of La Historia de Hualcayán: Contada Por Sus Pobladores the volume written by Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza based on oral histories collected by Hualcayán high school students in late 2014. I have blogged before about the project origins. In preparation for the event, Elizabeth and I thoroughly cleaned the courtyard area of the archaeology research complex and set out a long row of tables and chairs. The night before we peeled 72 kilos of potatoes and Sheyla Nuñuvero and her assistants prepared 15 chickens, salad and quite a few gallons of chicha morado.

foodThe event was a success. Eli and I were particularly happy that Leodan Abanto Alejo Valerio, who was responsible for launching the project, was able to attend and preside over the celebration. Consistent with being an outstanding educator, Leodan spoke eloquently and passionately about why such projects are important. He particularly focused on the educational role for the student oral historians in developing a sense of identity and pride in their community in both the Spanish and Quechua languages.

Leodan Abanto Alejo Valerio (center) with Hualcayán students

I spoke about the co-creative process. I noted that although Elizabeth and I had performed the technical publishing tasks and secured donations to fund the project, the essence of the volume was locally produced. That is, without the history verbally passed down over the years from community members, and passing that along to the student interviewers, the book would not have been possible. I also noted the uniqueness of the project – there is no other book of which we were aware in the Ancash region that tells a community’s history “contada por sus poladores.” The Hualcayán project is already viewed as model in one U.S. and two other Peruvian communities.

Elizabeth discussed her experience writing the book and presented a copy to every family in attendance. She noted that most of the copies would be placed in the school library consistent with Leodan’s expressed need for a classroom educational resource for students on their community history.

Elizabeth Cruzado and Robert Connolly with two of the oral history project interviewees

Several community residents spoke and expressed their thanks to the Hualcayán students who created the project and to Leodan for the original concept. Elizabeth and Rebecca Bria’s (Co-Directors of PIARA) friendship and long-term commitment to the community was also recognized by all of the residents who spoke. For example, even though pressed for time as she gathers data for her M.S. Thesis on a set of Hualcayán excavations, Elizabeth welcomes community children into the research complex every afternoon from 3:00 – 5:00 PM to watch videos on a laptop, draw, or other activities. She has spent many days, weeks and months over the past several years working in Hualcayán on archaeological and community based projects.

Here are some of my takeaways from the oral history book experience:

  • The process worked. In a rural agricultural community like Hualcayán, where everyone works 7 days per week to sustain their existence (including on Independence Day) the oral history project is a small, but important contribution. “Importante” was the word most commonly used by the residents who spoke at the Independence Day event. They followed that statement up with examples on why knowing a community history is of value.
  • We had a great discussion with Professor Abanto after the event and confirmed plans and responsibilities for completing another volume by next summer for the community where he is now assigned to teach – Huallanco. Leodan is one of several Ancash residents we encountered in the last year who collect oral histories – in some cases for many years. We view the Hualcayán volume not as a completed project, but as an example of the ongoing logistical support we can provide if a community has that expressed need. We have informally discussed with cultural heritage professionals and educators in the region the possibility of establishing something like an Ancash Region Oral History Program. That may happen one day, but the impetus for moving on the project will come from the Ancash communities.
  • Oral history is something we are prepared to support at the museums Elizabeth and I visited in both Nivín and Caraz this summer. However, an expressed need in both of these museums was for Spanish language documents on collections management – not part of our initial plan. Within 48 hours we were able to use our resources and networks to acquire an abundance of these materials.
  • As cultural heritage professionals, in this way we can create value in a co-created relationship. At the museum and site at Nivín, Professor Valencia’s interest is less in our organizing field crews to excavate the Nivín site and find cool stuff for the museum. Rather the need Professor Valencia clearly stated was to train the Nivín students in the proper methods for curating materials and preserving a site that is of little apparent interest to the professional archaeological community but is being impacted by both agricultural and looting activities.

The above lead me to my “go to” snippets for what I mean by co-creation and applied archaeology:

Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs. John Cotton Dana, The New Museum, 1917  

 . . . the act of engagement with others who are trying to make decisions related to particular heritage resources. Erve Chambers 2004:194

 Working together or diversifying audiences is not enough. What is needed are reciprocal, co-created relationships that connect the assets and purposes of organizations. Elizabeth Hirzy 2002

 To give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; to provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; and to help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals. – Nina Simon 2010:187


To this end, our field season this year in Peru is going quite well.



Publication of a Co-created Oral History For Hualcayán, Peru

oral-history-book-coverWe are almost there!  On July 28, Independence Day in Peru, we will deliver the first copies of the La Historia de Hualcayán: Contada Por Sus Pobladores (The History of Hualcayán: In the Words of Its Residents) to the people of Hualcayán.  I am particularly excited because from inception to final production, this book stands as the proverbial poster child for co-creative projects.  Although I blogged about this project before and the sponsoring organization PIARA, here is the bullet point summary:

  • Last summer the Peruvian co-director of PIARA, Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza, and I met with several teachers from the village school located in the rural Andes of Peru.  An “expressed need” of the teachers was a resource that documented the history of the local community.
  • We proposed and the teachers agreed that compiling an oral history project of the community leaders and elders was an important first step. We provided the teachers with video flip cameras and a laptop.  Elizabeth gave the secondary school students a crash course in oral history methods and helped them create a questionnaire.
  • Over the fall, the students carried out the oral history interviews.  This past January, Elizabeth and I returned to Hualcayán and collected the interviews.  Although we were not certain of what to expect, the students did an EXCELLENT job.  In total they collected about 20 ten-minute interviews with their parents and community leaders.
  • Back in Memphis where Elizabeth is living for two years as a graduate student at the University of Memphis and the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program, she transcribed the oral histories and created the text for  La Historia de Hualcayán: Contada Por Sus Pobladores.  We are now selecting photos and laying out the book that will go to the printer in the next two weeks.
  • On July 26th, we will deliver a first press run to families in the village to get their feedback to assure a balanced representation of points-of-view.  Armed with that additional community input, we will print a revised and expanded edition and produce a Quechua/Spanish language DVD.  The community can then decide if they wish to use sales from the books as a source of income from trekkers and other visitors who pass through their community on their way to the Huascarán National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

We aim for this model to be replicated in other small villages throughout the region.  In fact, the school teachers who initially expressed the need for the local history have asked that we follow them on their teaching assignments to the other 30 or so small villages in the Huaylas Province to assist in similar oral history projects.

If you agree with me that the oral history project is an exciting and innovative means to inform and educate rural communities about their rich cultural heritage, I ask that you consider making a donation to PIARA to help fund this stage of the project.  We are optimistic about future funding, and have received some grant support already, but are in need of immediate contributions to complete this first stage.  Your consideration of making a donation to PIARA in any amount, large or small, is greatly appreciated.

The Community Oral History Toolkit

oral history

When it comes to methods and processes, I am a fan of lots of short focused articles that present multiple perspectives.  For example, the Small Museum Toolkit consists of six short topical volumes on a range of museum issues from leadership to exhibits and all points between.  The Toolkit is particularly helpful because each volume chapter introduces the essence to a specific area but also points to resources for further research and study.  I find such Toolkits, like the Technical Leaflets in each issue of History News from the American Association of State and Local History, essential authoritative introductions on a range of practices, particularly for those of us in smaller institutions who wear many hats.

With this perspective in mind, I anxiously awaited the release of the Community Oral History Toolkit written by Nancy MacKay, Mary Kay Quinlan, and Barbara W. Sommer, published this spring by Left Coast Press.  The Toolkit is composed of five 150-page volumes.

Oral history projects are certainly nothing new but they continue to move more fully to center stage in community cultural heritage projects.  For example, consider the Power of Story theme of the recent American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting in Baltimore.  A fundamental knowledge of oral history process is essential particularly for the cultural heritage professional in a small museum environment.

1998 photo from coffee finca in Los Naranjos Honduras of Billy Pilgrim (?) (right) who worked with James Ford at Poverty Point in 1950s.

From my own archaeological experience, I can recall many occasions when collecting oral history’s would have been helpful.  For example, during my tenure in the 1990s as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point site in Northeast Louisiana, I came into contact with at least three individuals who worked on field crews directed by James Ford in the early 1950s during the first excavations at this premier prehistoric earthwork complex.  Many of the activities from this period at Poverty Point, now under consideration as a World Heritage Site, are based on third-hand here-say.  One of the individuals who worked with Ford I met in a completely chance encounter while visiting a coffee finca in Honduras.  This Central American connection (above photo) is a story in itself.  I regret that the few notes I scribbled in my journal in 1998 were lost during the trip.  Today, I am not even certain of the gentleman’s name. But his memory of the events that had occurred 45 years earlier were remarkably intact.

Based on my past experiences coupled with current projects at the C.H. Nash Museum, The Community Oral History Toolkit is a welcome resource.  The five volumes include:

  • Introduction to Community Oral History – In eight chapters the authors offer summary introductions on a range of topics necessary to consider before planning an oral history project.  The topics include simply defining oral history, an outline of basic steps in an oral history project, and ethical considerations.  The volume also introduces ten best practices in oral history projects that are focus of each chapter throughout the Toolkit. The volume includes a 20-page appendix of sample forms to help conceptualize the project, obtain interviewee agreement and more.  A 15-page guide for resources, most of which are online, complete the volume.
  • Planning a Community History Project – Seven chapters detail several of the processes introduced in the first volume.  The topics include project design, equipment needs, and project funding.  Again, the appendices are important assets to the volume.  For example, a list of recording equipment standards will prove helpful to the novice and more experienced practitioner who need a refresher in best practices.
  • Managing a Community Oral History Project – This volume covers many of the same topics as the previous volume but moves from planning to implementation.  There is a bit of overlap between the two volumes that is the only real short-coming I found in the Toolkit.  As with the preceding volumes, the discussion is based in case studies with sample forms and links to further resources.
  • Interviewing in Community Oral History – Although tempting to start with this volume as the meat of the matter, the strength of the Toolkit is the sequential presentation in the volumes.  That is, a review and understanding of the first three volumes in the Toolkit inform on the actual interview process from the questions asked and topics discussed to selecting the interviewees and interviewers.  Consistent with the entire Toolkit this volume includes best practices such as timeframe for interviews, checking recording quality, and arranging for transcriptions.
  • After the Interview in Community Oral History – This volume builds directly on the previous four to complete a solid conceptual framework for oral history projects.  This final volume in the Toolkit covers topics such as processing the interviews, record keeping, and choices in the transcription.   The volume also details decisions that must be made around cataloging, storage, access, and interview preservation.  A 20-page volume chapter discusses alternative methods for the public presentation of the oral history interviews.

The Community Oral History Toolkit is a comprehensive introduction to the field.  In any research focus, one could fill bookshelves with volumes on the subject.  However, for those working, volunteering, or studying in the cultural heritage field the Toolkit provides a solid foundation on which to conduct oral history projects.  I particularly like the Toolkit’s staged or sequential approach.  As someone who has written my share of institutional review board proposals for interviews and gone on to conduct that research, I intend to use the Toolkit as the foundation for future projects.  I am confident in so doing, I will be able to assure that the oral history interviews will better address the project goals.  I am also confident that with better planning, the interviews will not end up only in file drawers, but will be used to maximize their role in cultural heritage preservation and presentation.