Something to Talk about Besides the Food

Emily Oswald, Alumna, UMass History

17. mai i Slottsparken (May 17th in Castle Park), c. 1975. From the Oslo Museum collections available on oslobuilder.no.

17. mai i Slottsparken (May 17th in Castle Park), c. 1975. From the Oslo Museum collections available on oslobuilder.no.

“Oh look,” one of the elderly women said, pointing towards the image projected on the screen. “He decided to lie down because, you know, you get so tired standing all day to watch the parade.” It was a recent Tuesday in May, and my presentation of historical photographs of May 17th, Norway’s national day, was winding down. The other women around the table nodded. “That’s right, you do get tired,” another said. We paused for a moment, and I could almost see the memory of aching feet and tired legs travel around the table.

Since January 2015, I’ve been coming to a senior center on the east side of Oslo every other Tuesday evening. I bring a USB drive with a PowerPoint slideshow and my best Norwegian grammar to sit down with men and women in the 70s and 80s. We spend about an hour together, looking at historic photographs from the digital archive, Oslobilder.no, projected onto the wall of the senior center’s cafe. We’ve seen pictures of Oslo winter from the 1890s and more recently Oslo in spring from the 1970s. We’ve flipped through images that document the working lives of Oslo residents, and photographs of the city’s schools and breweries and newspaper kiosks.

Overselling this program is easy: imagine a grant application that declares ‘Historic photographs inspire reminiscing and conversation, and build community among nursing home residents! Use digital resources to draw out analog memories!’ In reality, I’m not sure how to measure the success or the impact of the program. The number of participants varies according to so-far indiscernible rhythms of life in an assisted living facility: as many as 15 and as few as three participants have showed up. It’s often not clear who came knowing there would be pictures, and who happened to wander in for some company or a snack before bed. Sometimes, the people who do come think the pictures are boring (one woman said as much on the evening we looked at pictures of Oslo cinemas). Sometimes, everyone is in a bad mood because the weather is rotten or there was a funeral earlier in the day.

But what I do find exciting and satisfying about the project is the way it solves a real problem. The project meets the only explicitly articulated goal that I and the senior center’s activity director laid out when we first talked about collaborating. “We’re really happy for just about any kind of evening programming,” I remember her saying. “It can be easy for conversation to get stuck on what they didn’t like about the lunch menu.” I want to recognize what’s been accomplished with modest resources at a small scale. For five months, elderly people at the senior center have continued to show up, smile as I turn on the projector, and say thank you at the end of the presentation. I know a bit more about their lives and the city I now live in, and they seem to appreciate that I keep coming back, even if the pictures I bring are sometimes boring.

It can be easy for community-oriented public history projects to get wrapped up outsized objectives (reach all the kindergarten-aged children in the city) or abstract measures of success (participants will experience a new connection to the history of their neighborhood). Such objectives and measures of success have their place, but volunteering at the senior center in Oslo has been a good reminder of another way we can approach public history programming. A public historian’s skills, like curating images and facilitating conversations, and resources, like online historical photo databases, can meet concrete, everyday challenges, and solve small-scale, intimate problems. We can give people something to talk about besides the food.

Emily Oswald is a 2013 graduate of the Public History program. She has lived in Oslo, Norway, since August 2014.

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