Everyday oral histories – what makes Digbeth, Digbeth?

This brief article reflects upon a recent experience Touch TD had gathering oral histories from around the industrial heritage heartland of Birmingham. It outlines how the collecting of such experiences and memories can help to map out not only a sense of place, but additionally highlight some of the processes that can lead to such a shared or consistent appreciation of a location.

Earlier in the year Touch TD were asked to bring an intangible layer to the job of recording the historic setting around the vicinity of Birmingham’s emerging HS2 Curzon Street station in Digbeth/Eastside. This entailed approaching some of the diverse range of individuals, communities, organisations and businesses that currently congregate around the collage of industrial heritage which marks the cityscape around Digbeth. Many questions including,

‘what attracted you to the area?’

‘what were your earliest memories of the place?’

‘which aspects of Digbeth inspires, stimulates or frustrates you about the locality?’

needed asking. All these and more had to draw some rapid responses!

Much to our relief given the tight deadlines imposed on this task, an early finding was that the good folks of Digbeth are certainly not shy in opening up to discuss their recollections and perspectives from this gritty, visceral, often transitory, but always appreciated backdrop to the industrial revolution. Given the diverse suite of interviewees, a remarkably consistent description of what makes Digbeth, Digbeth, was provided.  This built up an image of what is seen to matter and what’s appreciated about the place. At the same time, as memories and events were relayed back, a shape of the stimuli, and adaptations to a shifting landscape also started to emerge. Explanations of linkages, interactions, pathways and way markers, all helped to animate the busy spaces between the historic, significant and inspiring built structures.

Those buildings, factories, viaducts, bridges, canals, were considered not just as a static stage. Rather, a way of formulating and connecting through that heritage to help create new projects, partnerships, and creative opportunities. In turn, it is hoped that redevelopments do not simply plough ahead knocking down and disregarding previous structures to impose an external gentrified vision. Instead, interviewees spoke consciously of a gaze back to acknowledge the past as a way to assist sustainable future developments. Seeking a form of renewal that is more ‘Dr Who’ like – regeneration from within! A tangible expression of this process could immediately be seen on the bank of one canal section, where the formerly toxic industrial soil was being transformed into a productive ‘neosoil’ – springing back to life and providing the grounding for a revived habitat through the combined creative efforts of artists, volunteers, researchers and the support of landowner Canal and River Trust.

Gathering and analysing interviews, however, is only one aspect of the journey. Whilst conducting oral history recordings around Digbeth, it became clear that this method represents a rich seam of research. It has been taken on not just by Touch TD in 2022, but across a wide range of projects and initiatives conducted over many years. In turn this has led to challenging questions around how best to build awareness, provide easy access and juxtapose these different layers of recordings representing Digbeth’s voices over time. Zooming out, the issue of access, archiving and presentation of oral history recordings more generally, can be recognised as being a consistent and far-reaching debate and one that isn’t easily answered.

A useful overview of issues can be seen in the Oral History Society website: https://www.ohs.org.uk/advice/archiving/

And of course, please contact jonathan@touchtd.com OR julie@touchtd.com if you’d like to connect with us on your Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) or oral history project 🙂