Oral narrative as intangible cultural heritage and social force
Since the 1980s, there has been a rising interest in oral narration in many fields, as a general competence as well as a speciality for professionals. This project studied various aspects, within a Swedish context.
Oral narrative have during the last decades come to have a distinct position in cultural heritage policy. It is seen as an important strategy for documenting and representing buildings, artefact collections, social institutions and folkways. There is also a process of defining, promoting and exposing oral narrative as cultural heritage in its own right. Furthermore, there is a tendency to view storytelling as an underestimated social power with a huge democratic, norm-critical and social potential. This project aimed to identify important actors, practices, and discourses at work.
Participating departments and units at Umeå University
An important role is filled by the self-pronounced storyteller movement, with the Berättarnätet Sverige as a network platform, in linking different actors and organizations and acting towards the public, authorities, schools and other relevant forces in order to promote oral storytelling. Since Sweden ratified the Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the culture-political framework offers new opportunities for oral storytelling. The Sagobygden (Land of Legends) project in Region Kronoberg was in 2018 inscribed on Unesco’s Register of Good Safeguarding Practices.
In our project, we have highlighted the problems of handling the inherent paradoxes of presenting everyday practices as performing art, and also studied earlier attempts (ca 1890-1950) to promote storytelling as heritage.
The rhetoric on why oral storytelling is a heritage to safeguard uses three different lines of argumentation. One focus on clear-cut stories with distinct chains of events and defined actors which ought to be preserved. There is a long and dominant scientific tradition of collecting and cataloguing stories to refer to, a canon of tales and legends, which can serve as benchmarks for contemporary stories as well. Another argumentation speaks of oral storytelling as a performance style, where vernacular language (including dialect) and addressing the audience directly are central factors. The performer should be personally involved with his/her stories. The authority to tell a story is built from relating own personal experiences, through group identification (for example ethnic or geographical), or from having learnt from elderly people. Furthermore, the ability to listen to the audience’s reactions and have a direct interaction with them is important. Finally, one argumentation speak of storytelling situations, where the meeting between individuals is central. This is closely intertwined with a cultural critique of us “not spending enough time together” and “too few meetings across the generations”.
Storytelling has opened a possibility for Sàmi people to enter Swedish public life and draw attention to Sámi culture. The interplay between genres is a creative force in Sámi art, and the forms of oral presentation are easily discernible in autobiographical written works. The importance of yoik as a form which integrates spoken narrative and music into a unique genre has to be emphasized. One distinctive feature of Sámi poetry, which also strengthens its functions of marking identity, is the possibility to project irony and critique in forms not transparent for the outsider which gives a special weight to public performances.
The rhetoric of storytelling as a social force is to a large extent about participation. One project study notice strategies for getting people to take part in public situations through narration, and thus contributing to emancipatory aims. Another study highlights how storytelling has become a tool for strengthening local and regional identification and cooperation by establishing situations where people can meet and exchange individual experiences.