Oral History: David Swithenbank

Listening to memories is something we’re very good at doing here in the search room. We hear so many of them during the course of our working day – from all you genealogists, local historians, volunteers, artists and general enquirers! We learn so much from your stories of the town, its people and buildings. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could capture all this history? How would we go about it? What equipment would we need? How would we conduct an oral history interview?

Artist David Swithenbank

We were lucky enough to find answers to these questions when we attended a two day Oral History Training Workshop conducted by Vox Pops in our search room. The training had been arranged by Bury Art Museum who had recently secured funding for an exciting project named ‘Bury Art Society: Archiving People & Place’. Right up our street – as it aims to create a Bury Art Society Archive including an interview with David Swithenbank, the current and longest serving president of the society. And that’s where I come in! It was such a fabulous opportunity to be asked to interview David, especially when I found out his love for wildlife and folk music; both passions of mine.

David’s Sculptures of the Hoopoe, a bird he first saw in India


We learned that this is a key stage for any Oral History Project. My research into David’s life and work began with a pleasurable couple of hours reading his beautiful book Hill Norway. From this I learned of his love of poetry, folk traditions and, of course, his affinity with wildlife and the natural landscape. Part of the preparation for the interview included an informal meet-up with David at his home (and place of the interview); this was the perfect ice-breaker and a way of calculating journey times and parking areas; I wanted to ensure I was punctual and unflustered on the day of the interview.

David at his desk

Preparing Questions

This was very much a collaborative process and guided by the aims of the project which is to leave a legacy of David’s artwork in the form of a digitised archive. David’s narrative would have to complement this and so questions about his painting, sculpting and role as President of Bury Art Society were essential.

The Interview

Although the training session had given advice on recording equipment and how to use it, this particular interview was being filmed and recorded by a professional film-making team which left me to concentrate on my interviewee. David Swithenbank was an absolute joy to interview: lyrical, entertaining, funny, serious and completely passionate about wildlife, art, folk music and dance – I was enthralled from start to finish.

Behind the scenes


As mentioned, I had already read David’s book Hill Norway a few days before interviewing him. This offered me a direct comparison of a written documentary and that of a spontaneous spoken narrative on the same subject. To me the overriding difference is an obvious one – to be able to hear someone’s voice, with all the nuances and subtleties of accent and dialect, offers a far more intimate and personal connection to the past than the composition of words on a page.

All photographs ©Wendy Gradwell

A film of the interview will be featured in a forthcoming exhibition at Bury Art Museum. Please follow the link for further information: http://buryartmuseum.co.uk/Gallery-Exhibitions


This entry was posted in Diaries of an Archive Assistant and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s