British Motor Museum Volunteers

British Motor Museum Volunteers

Friday 22 March 2024

The British Motor Museum Oral History Project

Almost since the Museum’s volunteer programme began, Vince Hall has been leading the Oral History Project. Here he gives an excellent account of the project so far. 

I think many people would picture an archive as a physical collection of material in many forms: letters, books, brochures, and drawings. In this day and age, however, an archive can take many other forms, often digital. That is certainly the case with our Oral History work at the Museum.

The project has been running since early 2013, not long after the first group of British Motor Museum volunteers had joined the Museum. The Collections Centre was still being planned and funded and we were all at work on various tasks, such as data gathering, assessing vehicles, and undertaking restorations. 

An opportunity was identified to try to capture spoken memories and reminiscences of the motor industry and its influence, especially the post-war giant carmakers of the West Midlands. After some training from an outside expert, a small group of volunteers began to practise, starting by interviewing each other and then other volunteers – an easily reached captive audience. Since many of our volunteers have some sort of motor industry connection, it quickly provided quite a wealth of material (and continues to do so as more volunteers join us). I remember some of these interviews taking place in the back seats of our royal limousines, apparently an excellent acoustic location. See below.

Volunteers Leslie and Chris during an interview session

Soon other interview subjects were being identified, particularly visitors to the Museum and people donating material to the archive department. The interviews took place either in the Museum, or in several cases at the homes of more elderly folk. 

Over the following years we have collected memories from much of the Midlands car industry: Austin, Rover, MG, Jaguar, Daimler, Triumph, suppliers such as Dunlop and Lucas and more widely Ford and Bentley. Recurring themes in these stories are apprenticeships and their value, industrial unrest, and family connections. We even have some memories of working in the factories during the war.

As we began to gather interviews and stories, we were also able to link up with some of the Museum’s community and outreach work. The ‘Car Stories’ project involved visiting care homes and schools to collect stories and provided some lovely anecdotes in support of the final exhibition. More recently, we’ve helped with the ‘Factor Us In’ exhibition, recording the experiences of workers and their families who grew up in the shadow of huge manufacturing sites such as Longbridge and Canley.

Most of our interviews have been with individuals, but we have also hosted and recorded some group discussions, including a group of Dunlop veterans and a group of Rover engineers who are currently reliving memories of the ‘Fifty 50 Challenge’ – driving Freelanders through fifty countries in fifty days - to support the launch and Land Rover’s fiftieth anniversary.

Oral History work is not just about interviewing. Clearly putting a subject at ease and drawing out the stories is a key part of the process, but subsequently it’s important to summarize the interview in document form so that it can be catalogued and listed. 

Although the whole interview is retained verbatim for the archive, another activity is to identify potential ‘soundbites’ – short clips of particular themes or anecdotes - which can be used separately, perhaps to support an exhibition. Currently, there are two ‘listening stations’ in the main Museum (under the mezzanine) with some great examples of these edited highlights. Below I’m pictured at one of the stations.

In summary, the Oral History activity is proving to be a truly valuable way to preserve the past, not only the history of the industry, but the social history, which is inextricably linked to it. We’re thinking about other ways to use all the material we’ve amassed. Clearly these activities are fairly time consuming and with our original pool of volunteers having dwindled over the years, there may also be some opportunities to help with interviewing, summarizing, or editing.

We are of course continuing to conduct interviews as subjects are identified. If you, or someone you know, has a car industry background and has a story to tell, please do get in touch.