Our Fieldwork assignment, “create a significant piece of public-facing work,” seemed, frankly, overwhelming. I wasn’t sure how to put all the bits and pieces—finding a research topic and theme, conducting interviews, finding the compelling stories within, editing the audio, designing a display, crafting promotional materials, presenting the audio—together to pull off making something engaging to the general public.
I thought about scrapping the research topic I worked on first semester and starting over. In the fall, I interviewed three women for an “Empty Nest” research project, and was always unsure if this sort of project was worthy of deep oral history attention.
I listened to my interviews again, however, and thought about how my narrators told many kinds of stories from many parts of life. And how all were told, of course, from a woman’s—actually a mother’s—perspective. Plus, they sounded like intimate conversations. I thought that this might be a more broadly appealing frame for my project. After all, we all are, have, had, or know women and mothers.
So, this became the kernel of the idea: present a few different themes along a sort of continuum of womanhood and motherhood, up to the empty nest. They eventually boiled down to Motherhood, Relationships, Careers, and Empty Nest.
I can’t take credit for the idea to design the exhibit around four symbolic chairs. I believe Emma and Amy came up with it one day when we were looking at the exhibit space. One of them tossed out the chair suggestion and we began brainstorming and creating together.
The whole experience, actually, was a fantastic collaborative effort. Everyone in our class supported each other, gave pep talks, shared ideas, and gave valuable critiques. We all helped each other make the exhibit as remarkable as it was.
Editing the audio was one of my favorite parts. I loved listening to my narrators’ voices, learning their cadence and emotions, finding themes and stories, and putting them together into well-crafted snippets where the editing stays as invisible as possible.
This wasn’t without challenges though. I felt an immense responsibility to both my narrators and my audience—and recognized tension between the two. It’s the tension of using my narrators and their stories to create a product to inform, engage, and entertain my audience. I also thought so much about what I had chosen to include, which meant what I chose to leave out, and how those decisions affected how stories are told and heard and interpreted.
We talked in class about how oral history is messy. And there’s a choice, I suppose: to make the best decisions possible and go forward or to make no choice and stop. I went with the former and made decisions as honestly and ethically as I could. When I asked my narrators to review things that didn’t feel quite right to me, without fail, they didn’t feel right to them either.
At the end, I used stories from four different narrators. Each chair had one or two stories from each woman—with six to eight stories at each chair—ranging from around one minute to around four minutes each. It turned about to be a lot of audio; I had trouble leaving pieces out. But I hoped that the listeners, by moving through the four chairs, would get to know each person (and they did have the chance to skip ahead if they wanted).
I was given the stage as the spot for my installation and designed four rooms to go with each chair. The first was a child’s room with a colorful rug, scattered toys and books, and a rocking chair. The audio was about pregnancy, infancy, new motherhood, and the continued challenges of parenting grown children.
The next room had a small kitchen table and chair, with a coffee mug and cookies, meant to evoke the space you may sit with a friend and talk. The stories were about relationships: engagement, marriage, spouses and partners, and divorce.
The next was an office, decorated with a desk and chair, books, and calendar. The audio pieces here ranged from not finding a satisfying career, to being sexually harassed, to being the first woman department head, to attending charm school, and learning to type in the 1960s.
The fourth chair was a big leather armchair with a cozy blanket. The stories here were about empty nesting: from women whose children were still at home, to stories about the first phase (when children go to college) to the second phase (when they graduate), to thoughts and feelings about what this stage of life means.
I used the Prezi app on four iPads with four sets of headphones to present the audio. Prezi has pros and cons. Pros: the slideshows and templates look great, are easy to create and to navigate, and can be stored locally so they don’t require internet access to work.
The cons: they don’t loop, so I had to create a slide asking people to rewind to the beginning before moving on to the next chair. And the iPad app doesn’t let you skip around (although you can skip ahead), so you have to listen to the presentation in order. This made it a bit less interactive than I would have liked. Next time, I would consider a website instead or hope that the next version of the Prezi iPad app will loop.
What did I learn from this? I learned that a daunting project has lots of accomplishable smaller steps. I learned that a collaborative environment makes a big difference. I learned that lugging four small rooms worth of furniture and accessories into the city requires good car-packing skills on one end and a fantastic team of unloaders on the other.
I learned that stories of motherhood are engaging to everyone—at least to everyone who came to my exhibit. Their feedback was really positive and very emotional. And I learned, along with a team of brilliant and creative classmates, that we can actually create a public-facing interactive exhibit. And that I would welcome the chance to do it again.
To experience the Prezi presentations, follow this link: https://prezi.com/user/wvw2aatnod0w.
Robin Weinberg is a member of the 2016 OHMA cohort. She designed this project two explore the various life experiences of women and mothers because, as a woman and a mother, she is knee-deep not just in the stages and phases of her children’s lives, but also the concurrent stages that parents experience.
Outside of OHMA, she is the founder of a nonprofit called Just So You Know (www.just-so-you-know.org), an oral history project that helps people living with cancer record their life stories. She lives in Westport, CT with her husband and three daughters.
If you'd like to share your stories for the Four Chairs Project, she'd love to talk to you! Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.