Jun. 19-30: Memory, Visuality, and Mobility Oral History Summer Seminar in Florence

2017 Oral History Summer Seminar


June 19-30, 2017
Florence, Italy

Villa salviati.jpg

Applications are now open for a new two-week long intensive seminar exploring oral history, memory, visuality, and the body. The course is co-sponsored by the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR), European Research Council Project Bodies Across Borders: Oral and Visual Memory in Europe and Beyond (BABE), and the Columbia University Oral History Master of Arts Program (OHMA), and hosted by the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute, Florence.

The main instructors will be Luisa Passerini as Principal Investigator of this research project, as well as researchers composing its team, and Mary Marshall Clark, Director of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research and Co-Director of the Oral History Master of Arts Program.


The course will draw on case studies and materials from the ongoing Bodies Across Borders research project and new approaches to teaching oral history, visuality and embodiment developed at OHMA.

In the history of memory as an object of study within the socio-historical disciplines, there are at least two turning points: the insertion of oral sources as independent ones, and the use of visuality. Orality became relevant in the form of oral memory in the period after the Second World War, when the phonograph, invented by Edison in 1877, started being widespread and affordable. However, recording of oral memories throughout the world became common practice only in the 1960s and 1970s, together with the explosion of memories of various kinds that accompanied the interest for cultural and political identities.

The visual turn is more recent, although technical developments such as the invention of photography and the development of moving pictures date from the nineteenth century. The recent provenance of the term visual culture indicates a historical shift in the importance of vision that has led to an ongoing re-conceptualization of the visual. In this context, ‘visual’ and ‘visuality’ are not understood in a literal sense.

For a long time the principal historical sources were written ones, which are also visual and, as such, distinguished from ‘oral’ ones. These terms have come to be significant for history on the basis of their reference to images (under the influence of developments in the critique and history of art) and, more recently, of their relevance to the connection between vision and neuronal processes highlighted by neuroscience.

Memory studies owe a great deal to the media and the arts, especially for what concerns bringing bodies into full light. The two turning points mentioned above have been crucial moments of encounter between the socio-historical disciplines adopting a cultural perspective, on the one hand, and the world of art, technology and the media on the other. This course will center on the effort to connect the visual (including the written) and the oral in the study of memory, and both with the history of the mobility of bodies. The impact of the study of visual memory on the understanding of memory as a form of subjectivity and intersubjectivity is very relevant, in as far as it adds to the theoretical and practical methodology of oral history a special attention for embodiedmemories. Thus, relations between moving bodies come to the forefront and are taken into account in the interpretation of memory.

The connection memory/visuality/mobility has been established in the field of neuroscience, for instance for what concerns mirror neurons, which fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting, in a process that is essential for learning, in both humans and animals. A similar process could be seen, at least in a metaphoric sense, in the study of socio-cultural relationships within collective movements of bodies, for instance in the ways networks preside to individual/collective decisions and actions in the course of migration.

Anthropologists and cultural theorists have argued that ‘place’ has been superseded by modes of mobility as a geographical source of identity, as a variety of case studies of mobile practices from tourism to diaspora through various historical ages have suggested. All forms of mobility take place in socially and culturally constructed systems of meaning; thus “mobility” has different meanings to different people in different social, political, cultural and historical contexts. Mobility has both a collective and an individual dimension, which lead to various disciplinary perspectives; fields of knowledge that can be relevant for this approach are both the history of migration and the history of dance.

Many examples or case-studies for this course will be drawn from the ongoing research project Bodies Across Borders: Oral and Visual Memory in Europe and Beyond, sponsored by the European Research Council. In this project’s fieldwork, the interviewees are asked, after being shown examples of visual art concerning migration, to document visually their own itineraries of mobility. The resulting drawings or collages of photographs are interpreted in conjunction with their oral testimonies, connecting oral and visual memories and studying the relationship between these two forms of memory.


We welcome applications from practitioners, advanced undergraduate students, and graduate students from all backgrounds and affiliations. The seminar will also be composed of approximately sixteen participants, half chosen by each of the host institutions. Some priority will be given to current OHMA students.

Potential participants should submit a letter of interest (no more than 1000 words), CV, and two letters of reference to ohma@columbia.edu by January 15, 2017 with the subject heading "Memory/Visuality/Mobility." The letters of reference can be submitted separately by the recommender to the same address.

Course fees are $1500 for OHMA students and $2000 for non-OHMA students. Participants will be expected to cover their own transportation costs to and from Florence. Tuition, some local travel and meals, and housing are included in the fee.

Requirements for Columbia University participants:

Students will gather in Florence, Italy, for two weeks of intensive study, from June 19 to 30, 2017. They will be required to read/watch and discuss in class the suggested readings/images and to participate in the activities planned outside the class.

Students at any institution are welcome to apply for credit for this program from their home institution. Columbia Oral History Master of Arts Program students may take this course for 4 credits. Students taking the course for credit will submit a final project or paper for grading by Professors Clark and Passerini.

Requirements for European University Institute participants:

Potential participants specifically from EUI should instead submit a letter of interest (no more than 1000 words), CV, and one letter of reference to laura.borgese@eui.eu by January 31, 2017 with the subject heading "Memory/Visuality/Mobility."

They will be required to read/watch and discuss in class the suggested readings/images. They will receive a Certificate for having followed the course if they will be present for 80% of the time.

Please do not hesitate to spread the word about this seminar or write us with any questions: ohma@columbia.edu & laura.borgese@eui.edu. We look forward to reviewing your applications and seeing you in Florence next summer!