Study History in Semester 2

The University of Sydney

Travel in time and space with the Department of History in 2021
We have a range of exciting options in second semester taught by world-class experts in their fields. Find out more about today’s world by studying and understanding its past. Below are just a few of our offerings.

Semester 2 2021
HSTY2606: China’s Last Dynasty: The Great Qing
Explore a broad sweep of China’s history, from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries in HSTY2606 China’s Last Dynasty: The Great Qing with Dr David Brophy. An influential historian, public intellectual and activist, David has just published China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering

HSTY2647: Renaissance Italy
Wishing you could be in Florence? Let Associate Professor Nick Eckstein, internationally recognized authority on all things Renaissance, from art to plague, be your guide. Sign up for HSTY2647: Renaissance Italy and witness the extraordinary cultural flowering that occurred in Italy between the 14th and the 16th centuries.  

HSTY2652: Genocide in Historical Perspective
Dr Marco Duranti
, leading historian of human rights, teaches HSTY2652: Genocide in Historical Perspective. Why do genocides occur? Was imperialism genocidal? Is there such a thing as ‘cultural genocide’? We tackle these controversies – and much more – through a survey of the global history of genocide from the nineteenth century to the present.

HSTY2677: Australia: Politics and Nation 
Are we an ‘independent’ nation? Staying closer to home, in HSTY2677 Australia: Politics and Nation, Professor James Curran (together with Dr Ryan Cropp) take us on a journey from the colonial period to the present, raising the questions of political culture and nationalism we still wrestle with today. A leading scholar of politics and foreign relations, James is a regular public commentator and a columnist in the Australian Financial ReviewRead Professor Curran’s latest article here.)

If you are interested in these units and don’t meet the pre-requisites, you can submit an “enrolment exception request” via Sydney Student

What about a first year July Intensive to fast-track your degree?

HSTY1089: Introduction to Australian History

Australia has been called the ‘quiet continent’, but conflict has been part of its history since 1788. This unit examines the violence of convict society, frontier conflict and early battles for self-government. It maps the political struggles, contested stories and shifts in Indigenous-settler relations that accompanied the creation of a nation state after 1880, and explores the effects of war on different social groups. Finally, it charts Australia’s cultural and political transformation after 1945 into the postindustrial postcolonial society of today.

Watch this video to find out more about HSTY1089!

Find out more about the Department of History’s offerings, a major in History, degree progresssion, Honours, and much more!  Our Department guide has the most up-to-date information on units of study on offer. If you have any queries about units of study, please contact the unit coordinator or the SOPHI Office. E |

Interested in where a Major in History can take you? Each year we run a session where students can hear from graduates from the Department to learn about making the transition from university to the job market. Check out our information session from 2020.

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Vale Neville Meaney

By Professor James Curran

It is with great sadness that I inform you that our former colleague and friend, Neville Meaney, passed away on Sunday. He was a scholar, historian and mentor to many, including myself.  Neville was appointed to teach American history here in 1962 after doing his PhD at Duke: he retired in 2006. His contribution to the intellectual life of the university, to the department, to his field and indeed to the country is vast. 

Neville’s scholarship on Australian foreign and defence policy in particular towers above the rest – his work on the period 1901-1923 is nothing short of magisterial and his account of Australia and the First World War, published in 2010, is the best treatment of the subject. It was in many ways his magnum opus. His documentary history of Australia and the World, his work on Australia-Japanese relations and his many articles and reviews on Australia and America’s relations with the world broke new ground.  His article on ‘Britishness and Australian nationalism’ in Australian Historical Studies in April 2001 is still one of the most frequently downloaded pieces in that journal. And his courses on the American national myth, US foreign policy, Australian foreign policy and Australian political culture inspired several generations of students who went on to either academic careers or senior positions in the Australian public service, including in the Department of Foreign Affairs.  

In our introduction to an edited collection of his most important articles, Stuart Ward (who also studied under Neville) and I wrote:

“We first encountered Neville in the 1990s—a decade where Australian political history was in abatement and a new cultural history was making rapid headway. Neville was untroubled by the demise of the old diplomatic history, recognising that international relations needed anchoring in the broader political culture of the nation, and required more than a faithful account of meetings, cables and policy briefs from the archival coal face. Its value and potential were diminished if treated as a limited sub-specialization. But he was sufficiently old-fashioned to believe that the past held out themes of defining significance; that not everything was ‘contested’ or ‘unstable’, and that the study of politics and ideas remained a valuable point of entry into the national psyche. More to the point, he saw politics and international relations, not as a cul-de-sac of elite mannerisms, but as an extension of wider social, intellectual and cultural trends, particularly in democratic societies where political leaders are obliged to seek a popular mandate”

Neville was also active across all areas of academic life – as but one example in 1976 he was president of the SAUT (Sydney Association of University Teachers)  the quasi-union body that represented academics. A brilliant tennis player and accomplished pianist, he had also  – while an undergraduate at Adelaide – represented Australian Universities in Hockey. 

His devotion to his students was legendary: Neville hosted postgraduate seminars at his home once a month that were occasions of great conviviality and indeed great rigour. It was where arguments and hypotheses were advanced, tested and subjected to scrutiny – mostly after bowls of Irish stew (which he made) and incredibly good red wine from his well-stocked, and terrifically well-chosen, cellar.

He will be greatly missed.

Neville’s funeral will be held at Macquarie Park Cemetery in the Camellia chapel on Tuesday 8 June at 2pm.  I will be delivering a eulogy on his academic career at the service, and my column in the Australian Financial Review on Monday 7 June will be dedicated to his profound influence on Australian intellectual and public life.

There will be a wake at Sydney University in the Holme building from 6pm that same day, 8 June.


James Curran

Professor of Modern History

University of Sydney 

‘Not Your Average Survey: A Student-led COVID-19 Archive’

Recording Experiences of the Pandemic

Authors: Kristian Marijanovic and Bella Bauer

Earlier in December, we heard from Nyree Morrison, from the University of Sydney Archives, on the University at the time of the Spanish flu. Considering nearly 40 per cent of the city was infected at one point, it was surprising how little we know about the University’s experience. One omission that stood out was that society records mentioned next to nothing about this disease that was ravaging the population. We cannot fill this absence but we can at least compensate for it by recording our current pandemic.

We are making a small but valuable archive of student and staff experiences of COVID-19, through an online survey and some interviews. Associate Professor Frances Clarke, who gave us the idea of the project, suggested its name, ‘Not Your Average Survey’, to which we added a subtitle, ‘A Student-led COVID-19 Archive’. It gets at the aim of the project, which is to record and preserve the experiences of a small but representative sample of people at the University during this time.

Beyond basic identifying details, such as gender and faculty, we wanted to know about people’s personal experience. We worked with Frances on setting out a series of questions, optional to answer and fairly open-ended, to get as many topics covered as we could; question 11 asks, ‘How would you describe the way this pandemic has reshaped your life?’ We wanted to know how people heard about COVID-19, what their initial response was, where they got their news about it from, and, of course, how they felt they were affected, whether it be socially, emotionally, education-wise, financially, or in any other way.

There were a few common themes in the survey responses. Some people enjoyed self-isolation; others didn’t. One staff member wrote, ‘Apart from missing physical contact with colleagues, the work experience has been exactly the same as it would be in person.’ But with mental health an oft-mentioned issue, it is clear it was a mixed experience. One staff member, who works in administration and was asked about how her thinking changed about the pandemic, wrote about ‘[m]ental health and feeling less trapped at home as time has passed’.

There were a range of attitudes to online learning but people generally felt the University responded as best as it could. One FASS student felt her ‘transition into online university was pretty good’, although she found it ‘interesting watching every authority figure refer to these as “unprecedented times”, whilst generally giving very few allowances for subpar work.’ A staff member, an Educational Designer, wrote, ‘We went into the proctored exams project knowing it would almost certainly disproportionately affect students who were of lower SES, in particular those in insecure housing or without financial resources’, and this could only be mitigated.

What of restrictions in general, beyond online learning and university? The new circumstances could be frustrating. One academic spoke about how her church adjusted to restrictions. She described what she did instead of singing, during in-person services; she clapped her hands and laughed loudly, saying, ‘I do percussion with my feet, with my hands, and I hum—and I feel frustrated!’ A FASS Honours student wrote that her ‘brother has bought 7+ Louis Vuittons [with stimulus money] … I frankly am frustrated constantly because my brother, the micro biologist, ignores COVID. He’s had 5+ people sleep over before, and he’s gone out clubbing.’ On a more serious note, one staff member wrote that ‘[f]amily relations became strained as we were confined to our home.’ These, more sensitive topics are something we wanted to record but it is difficult; this staff member provided little on the subject and, understandably, did not want to be interviewed.

We felt oral histories would complement the survey responses; interviews would give more depth, more vitality, to individual respondents. About 40 staff and students said they would be willing to be interviewed but many of these eventually ruled themselves out, as we started interviewing in late October, about two months since the last sizable amount of responses were submitted. Nonetheless, we conducted 10 interviews with 10 people, which ranged from half an hour to an hour in length. Five interviewees were professional staff, three were academic staff, and two were students. Associate Professor Julia Horne helped us plan the interviews, and we had two History Beyond the Classroom students, Claudia Rosenberg and Caitlin Williams, volunteering as interviewers.

Of course, there were issues with the survey and interviews. Diversity, for one. There were only three male interviewees and five of the interviewees were professional staff. It was a similar issue with the survey responses. As of 1 November, we recorded 139 responses. 74 per cent of respondents were female, 45 per cent were affiliated with FASS, and 91 per cent of students were domestic. Zoom interviews could be problematic. They were not recorded in an archivable file format, unlike the in-person interviews, and the interview sometimes might not ‘flow’ well; it is the same issue with a Zoom classroom. There were some other issues and oversights, such as neglecting to ask respondents for their age.

It is the end of this tumultuous year. The UK and the US have just approved vaccines. With the virus under control in Sydney, it seems like there will not be another opportunity to record how people experienced self-isolation and the other things that came with this pandemic. While we only began accepting responses from late June, which was after the State Government lifted some restrictions, this is still a valuable archive. It is a small but, we feel, representative sample of the University during this time.

Kristian Marijanovic and Bella Bauer

The Story of Gleebooks

This semester, I worked with Gleebooks to tell their history of over forty-five years of book trade and community engagement. To do this, I created a podcast episode titled “The Story of Gleebooks,” as well as an accompanying website.

I realised early on in my research process that Gleebooks has a long and fairly extraordinary history. However, this is not widely publicised and there is limited information easily viewable online. I also came to appreciate the depth of loyalty held towards the store by many of their customers. Yet, these same customers are often unaware about the details of the business’s history and its involvement with larger causes. The importance of uncovering marginalised or unknown histories in order to democratise the idea of history itself is something I have become acutely aware of this semester. Accordingly, I wanted to uncover Gleebooks’ history for its own community.

I chose to create a podcast because this is an accessible format for anyone with a computer or phone and internet access, meaning most members of Gleebooks’ community would be able to listen. The process for creating this episode involved going through online archives, interviewing relevant individuals, and gaining an understanding of the Australian book industry. I then wrote up a script based on my research, recorded myself speaking, edited this into one podcast episode, and inserted clippings from the interviews I conducted.

To create my script, I drew evidence from two main types of primary sources: oral histories and newspaper articles. I conducted oral histories on three people who have been involved with Gleebooks in different ways. The first was David Gaunt, co-owner of the business since 1978. Then I interviewed Dr. Zora Simic, an enthusiastic and loyal customer, and Dr. Ann Curthoys, also a long-time loyal customer, Glebe resident, and author who has launched books at Gleebooks. Each interviewee shared with me their personal stories and through these, I gained new insight into how Gleebooks’ has operated over the years, beyond what written sources could convey. Conducting these interviews and hearing about my interviewee’s experiences, I was reminded about the centrality of storytelling within history, and the fact that all stories are worth sharing.  

While the idea of a history podcast is far from original, I have not seen many podcasts about local history or individual small businesses. Rather, most tend to focus on either national or global histories. Furthermore, the idea of storytelling in an oral format is obviously not original and something that has occurred across different cultures for hundreds of thousands of years, as we were reminded in the Week 2 reading The Way To Rainy Mountain, a Native American story which has been passed down throughout generations.

In terms of the accompanying website, I want this to be like a database or hub for information on Gleebooks’ history; somewhere that the general public can easily find historical sources about the business. I want it to be a collaborative space, and I am encouraging viewers to get in touch if they have suggestions. I have included a page titled “Gleebooks Media Articles” which includes a chronological list of articles relating to Gleebooks.

The underlying question throughout the podcast relates to how Gleebooks has survived for over forty-five years. Those forty-five years have involved numerous external challenges such as restrictive trading laws, increased taxes on books, and the introduction of Amazon and its monopoly over the Australian book market. My answer to this question, outlined below, was informed by both background research as well as my interviews with David, Dr. Simic, and Dr. Curthoys, as I asked them all this same question.

  • Their location in Glebe, amongst a community who valued their products, ethos, and messages.
  • Their wide-ranging selection of books on a range of intellectual and political topics, which appealed to the local university populations.
  • Their community focus – especially their literary events and ideas programmes, which bring people together to share and discuss contemporary topics and ideas.
  • Their strong brand identity, which is associated with trust, knowledge, and expertise. They are also known for their involvement with the Sydney Writer’s Festival. These factors have contributed to their expansion across Sydney.
  • Their ability to continually adjust to the challenges facing them, whether that’s the threat of Amazon or the COVID lockdown.

My overall conclusion is that Gleebooks has survived for so long because of the loyalty of its customers and due to their desire for the business to maintain its success. This loyalty is a direct outcome of Gleebooks’ thorough understanding of their customer base as well as their continuous community engagement.   

The Organ Music Society of Sydney: 70 years young

Being an organ student at St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Parramatta I’ve had some opportunities to meet and interact with other organists in Sydney, and particularly those who are members of the Organ Music Society of Sydney (OMSS). I thought it would be a worthwhile and relevant pursuit to complete a project with the Society that would benefit them. Seeing that the OMSS website did not include significant historical detail I initially envisioned making a timeline – of particular benefit as 2020 is the 70th Anniversary year of the Society.

My regular contact, committee member and Sydney Organ Journal editor Peter Meyer, conveyed to me a few topics that the Society were interested in researching. These included: a report on the impacts of CoViD-19 on the Society; a survey of achievements of members, particularly those who took up organist positions internationally; or a discussion of the impact of prizes and grants on recipients (mostly students), particularly as these have seemed to increase in value over time. Reflecting on my original idea for a timeline, Peter suggested that this would be difficult to research in the time I had available due to the large number of past Journals (at least 50 years’ worth) and the lack of insight I might have on my own to identify important events. I also was not able to find many significant sources that cover the history or activities of the OMSS from its founding in 1950 until 1970 when the Journal was first published.

While still formulating my mode of research, Peter invited me to attend the 3rd annual ‘Organ Spooktacular’ concert on October 30th hosted by current and former organ students of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in support of Headspace. During the concert and subsequent discussions held with the performers over dinner, I was inspired to meld my research on the Society’s history around the experiences of young organists over its lifetime. Though my article would be focussed on this topic, I also had opportunity through that lens to include many of the other areas that the committee also wished to investigate. A written report, which could be published in article form through the Sydney Organ Journal to all members, seemed like the best approach by which to distribute my work to those interested in the OMSS’ history and others such as students who are indirectly linked through teachers who are members.

3rd Annual Sydney Organ Spooktacular at St Stephen’s Uniting Church, Macquarie St. Source: Personal image

I have worked substantially on my article for the Society but am still at the stage of completing my first draft. I have yet to access copies of the Sydney Organ Journals archived at the Mitchell Library and a range of other documents that cover histories of the OMSS and sister organisation, the University of Sydney Organ Association, through the 1960s and 70s. I utilised a Google Form survey to begin a process of obtaining oral histories that was distributed to Society members, teachers, and students and which worked very well as a method of contact to gain initial insights. I have received 25 responses so far!

My report will show that the OMSS has done significant work to improve the regularity and accessibility of organ playing since 1950 and to support young organists through initiatives such as the Young Organists Day, Sydney Organ Competition, and various organ academies. I will also conclude with a section to encourage reflection on the future of the Society and the work it might choose to do as organ music still remains out of the spotlight for many in Sydney. Survey responses indicated that Australia in particular (compared to places like Europe and the US) is seeming to take organists and their roles in worship leading and public performance increasingly less seriously. I think that the method I took of shaping my project around oral histories and insights of Society members will be hugely beneficial to its final impact for readers, and reflects themes learnt during this semester. We discussed in class how oral histories reveal unique and personal engagement with events, and the ways that objective events are made significant by how people experience them. I have attempted to include historiography and debate where applicable, such as the contemporary ‘Organ Reform Movement’ during the beginnings of the Society. Research of the OMSS has been tricky as it is an umbrella organisation with many overlapping groups such as the Organ Historical Trust of Australia, students and teachers at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the University of Sydney Organ Association, or the Royal School of Church Music Australia etc. I haven’t found significant sources with cohesive records of the OMSS and its activities, though hope that further research of the Fisher Library archives or Sydney Organ Journals will be insightful.

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Co-founder of the OMSS doctor Vincent Sheppard outlines the aims of the Society, the desire to promote the organ and its music to young persons, and decries the underutilisation of the Town Hall organ in public performance. Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 20 March 1951, Page 2.

I am hopeful that my completed report will provide a unique reflection on young organists and the culture of the OMSS with consideration of the Society’s future. I wish still to include further integrated insights from Society members through follow-up discussions based on survey responses. I also hope to include additional historical detail that will bring fullness to the article and meet its original aims as a public history project. The process of completing this project has been very interesting and rewarding, and I hope to share my research with the Society in due course.

Community Through History: Parramatta’s Multicultural Past

Students of history in Australia are privileged to be writing at a time when the exploration and, in some ways, emancipation of minority voices are encouraged. This diversity in the topics covered and ready to be covered is unprecedented, helping to bring the past one step closer to a more realistic interpretation. Whilst historians at the university and in academia benefit from this agenda from the top-down, and progress towards uncovering more minority perspectives is in full swing, local histories paint a different picture. This was the problem I faced when I began searching for a research topic: a modern council and society embracing multiculturalism despite glaring gaps in their white-washed past.

My mission, therefore, was simple: to complete the council’s agenda of fostering an inclusive and diverse community by unravelling their colourless history and understanding the development of multiculturalism in Parramatta. Implicit in this mission is the argument that Parramatta’s multiculturalism is one of its major strengths as a community, and engagement with this aspect should be encouraged, particularly by immigrants alive today. Additionally, this project is also a criticism and revision by presenting a version of history that contradicts the predominantly European narrative; in other words, by arguing that multiculturalism is present in the past.

In consultation with the team at the Parramatta Heritage Library, the idea of a biographic approach and presentation was adopted: to focus on the abstract notion of multiculturalism through the lives of real people and immigrants. Some figures included were already well known and well documented in local histories, such as John Shying or Mak Sai Ying, but most likely had remained unknown to new or recent immigrants as well as those whose English skills were not fluent. Additionally, I made a point to include the lives of less notable figures such as Lee Gumbuk Sing who, though well documented, have not been covered by public histories. Further, given the format of a tour, this project embraced the physical aspects of history by tying these figures and their lives, long past, to buildings or locations still visible today in order to reinforce the notion that these histories, though long past, still influence our present. Though this tour was originally intended to be multilingual via a transcript in visitors’ native languages, this proved too ambitious and given the time and resource constraints, could not be achieved. Nor were the intended interviews with local immigrant business figures, such as the owners of Sing Kee Grocery or Sun Ming Restaurant, able to be achieved despite their lives and stories being highly valuable to the biographic nature of this project.

Lee Gumbuk Sing, the cheapest grocer on the earth!
John Shying, grandson of Mak Sai Ying

Nevertheless, some of the major themes of this tour were successfully achieved, including the exposure of multicultural roots in the iconic Australian heritage locations of Parramatta. Such places included Elizabeth Farm or St. John’s Church and Cemetery which all were influenced by and attended to by immigrants. This theme of an underlying and suppressed multiculturalism, and the subsequent retribution in revisionist histories such as this, thus furthers my overall agenda of strengthening Parramatta’s diverse and inclusive identity by embodying a genuine commitment to multiculturalism by the dominant establishment. Furthermore, this tour hits the second key theme of community building through engagement as the rhetoric of harmony through contributions to community is littered throughout the tour, particularly in highlighting notably charitable immigrants like Lee Gumbuk Sing.

To support my argument, and to ensure that these histories are factually reliable as well as legitimate, I relied on many local histories as well as digitised documents. These can be divided into three categories. First are secondary sources which represent the majority of the sources used in this project. Many of these secondary sources, and perhaps unsurprisingly, were government produced as the local and state governments represents a major source of funding for historical projects in Parramatta. However, this results in a narrow variety of sources as many were commissioned for particular purposes, such as informing policy decisions or celebrations and anniversaries. Unfortunately, the scope for these histories were also narrow in terms of cultural diversity as the embrace of multiculturalism was relatively recent. The second category are digitised primary sources which are relied upon, where accessible, to provide a more nuanced picture of the past. Thirdly, visual sources comprise a large proportion of the tour in the form of supplementary materials. These images, including portraits of figures and historical buildings, help bring the past closer to reality by visualisation and humanise the lives of the immigrants mentioned.

Chinese Lunar New Year in Parramatta 2019

This project is highly significant in helping Parramatta become a truly multicultural city. By understanding the past through a more wholistic and accurate lens, current residents can appreciate the contributions of immigrant locals whilst understanding the importance of diveristy in shaping Parramatta. Furthermore, this tour, which targets the current immigrant population in particular, represents a major opportunity to access and engage with their past. This act of engagement can act as a form of community-building and inspire members of the community to continue exploring the past of their new home. Increasing the accessibility of history, therefore, remains a key strength of this project but, as mentioned prior, would greatly benefit from multi-lingual support to broaden the reach.

Further work on this project can be achieved through the Visitors Centre and Heritage Library, as new stops and stories can be added or the tour can be incorporated into existing programmes over time, rendering it highly sustainable. Marketing for this project, additionally, will not be necessary as the Council and Centre already offers a broad range of advertising for their tours.

Overall, this tour represents a step towards a more inclusive, more diverse and more multicultural Parramatta. I hope to be able to continue my work on this important mission in the future with the Centre, so that the multicultural past of Parramatta can finally be in step with that of its future.

Erskineville Public School: A History of Community Activism

For my HSTY3902 major project, the community organisation that I chose to work with was my old primary school, Erskineville Public School. Unfortunately, after writing to them, and then calling them, they said no to my proposal. However, with encouragement from the unit coordinator Sophie Deane Loy-wilson I was undeterred and decided to design and execute my own history project about the school. It was a massive undertaking, the likes of which I had never done before. I decided I wanted to create a multimedia presentation which would reflect on the attempted closure of the school from 2001-2002 and how the local community rallied together to save it. I had seen past student’s multimedia videos and found them to look professional and be quite engaging. I also thought that this would be the most efficient way to allow many people’s voices and stories to be heard.

After looking at the school website I also realised that there was no information about the school’s history presented there, and after talking to local community members I learnt that while there was an abundance of historical information and sources regarding the school, there were very few organised presentations.

With this project I hoped to portray what I felt was a very important part of both the school’s, Erskineville’s, and the local inner west’s history, as well as portray the importance of community to individuals. Next came the difficult part, I had to begin preparing interview questions, and seeking out local community members to interview. This is where my ‘insider’ position became really useful as I was able to get in touch with a wide variety of Erskineville Public schools community members. Included in this group were past students, past parents and P&C members/Presidents, past teachers and even a past ‘Erko’ Principal. I had planned to interview more people however some people were more difficult to arrange a time with. In the end it was probably for the best as I ended up with almost 4 hours’ worth of interview footage to use.

I also was given old interview footage (from local historian and ‘Erko’ parent Sean Macken) of a woman named Frances Cusack being interviewed about her involvement in managing to save the school which was very useful. These people all proved to be invaluable resources both in the personal stories and testimony they provided but also in many cases in the access to physical sources such as articles, letters, and photographs that they granted me. It took me hours and hours to sort through and scan the huge range of newspaper articles, reports, and letters that I was given. These primary sources have made up the majority of the visual aspects of my video, overlayed on the audio and video footage that I recorded.

One of the many newspaper articles I was given by past Erskineville Public School P&C President Jeni Mulvey

There are a few central themes which I addressed through the video. The most obvious one being a strong sense of community and why that is important to people. Another theme is the process of government-driven gentrification and how a small community resisted such. This project also alludes to broader themes of public education and the importance many parents place in supporting local schools.

Numerous posters and leaflets such as the one above were distributed to local community members and local shops in the fight to save Erskineville Public School from closure

I am hoping this project will benefit the wider Erskineville community in that it documents and preserves an important part of Erskineville, and the wider inner-west’s history. It is also a history that is often forgotten or just not taught, so I hope that by presenting the history in an easily accessible form it will reach a wider audience and be more effective in its delivery.

One of the more challenging aspects of this project was the actual construction of the multimedia video. As a history student I have much more familiarly with writing essays and so it really challenged my skillset and creativity. However, I really flourished in being able to create something so out of the ordinary and being able to experiment with various audio and visual effects. The program I used was Adobe Premier Pro. This program is quite advanced and so it took me an entire day of just watching YouTube tutorials and experimenting with the various tools in order to create only 2 minutes of my video (which ended up being around 26 minutes in length). Luckily as the days bore on, I became more proficient in my skills and the process became faster.

I have also sent the video to all the people I interviewed. By doing this I wanted to ensure that they were happy and felt comfortable with the way I used their interview footage, as well as ensuring my project creates some form of impact. All the people I interviewed were really interested and passionate about the history of the school and its attempted closure and so I hope that they will forward it on to other interested parties. That way more people will learn about the fascinating history of Erskineville Public school and its importance to the local community.

Arundel House Alumni Database: Fostering Community and Preserving History

‘Among the most powerful impulses behind the writing of local history has been the desire to know one’s own ‘place,’ to uncover its hidden stories, and to gain a greater appreciation of what makes it distinctive. Much of this endeavour… is driven by the desire for an ethical and emotionally satisfying sense of belonging.’[1]

Place, stories, distinction and belonging – these are the foundation stones on which the Arundel House Alumni Database (AHAD) is being built. This semester, I was challenged by the Arundel House Director (Mel Hanger) to begin the process of building the AHAD. The aim of the database is to foster an alumni community to celebrate the centenary of Arundel House and to support its sustainability by demonstrating its importance and value to stakeholders through oral histories. Arundel House is currently experiencing lower resident numbers and declining public visibility. Re-engaging alumni into the functioning of the house, the growth of its residents, and the promotion of its purpose, will be a significant step in addressing these challenges.

Arundel House: ‘our “Little House”’[2]

People are what make up Arundel House and so it is their stories that hold testimony to Arundel House’s success and its value alongside other on-campus residential colleges of the University of Sydney. The AHAD is a unique way of capturing history as it not only seeks to collate Arundel House’s history (through the alumni) but also recognises the utility of alumni in bringing Arundel House’s history into the present and employing it in the daily function of the college.

The AHAD is a collection of alumni details (years and roles at Arundel House) and alumni voices (through surveys), bound together in a web-like structure that enables family members, cohorts and alumni of similar occupations/countries/interests to be linked. I have worked with the Director to build a ‘flow’ system, which alumni will be added to once they have become re-connected with Arundel House. There are currently three steps: initial contact, level of engagement, and story collection. The first two steps are largely administration based (organising alumni according to their preferred level of interaction with Arundel House), and the last step focuses on engaging with alumni stories to promote Arundel House and to strengthen Arundel House’s community.

In her seminar on visual and oral communication in public history this semester, Emma Kluge posited that oral histories are important because they allow people to narrate history their own way. If history really is ‘the narratives we write about the past’, as Emma argued, then it is crucial that individual Arundel House alumni are the ones to write Arundel House’s history.[3] Stories also help us to interpret the past, and alumni, as the embodiment of Arundel House’s success and influence, play an important role in this process.

Building the AHAD required many conversations between the Director and I about how narratives are formed and who narratives are for. In many ways, this forethought will make the process of engaging with alumni more effective, as we are more aware of the importance and function of alumni narratives in promoting the larger Arundel House narrative. While the database itself is not a coherent narrative of Arundel House’s history, it is tool that will enable Arundel House to collect, build and communicate its narrative. Thus, the process of establishing the AHAD has involved an investigation into the Arundel House community and how its ongoing reinforcement is crucial for the long-term prosperity of the college.

“I found Arundel a welcoming and dear home.”[4]

Alumni voices are a crucial aspect of the AHAD establishment process. ‘Once you have achieved a sense of audience, you will know what kind of history you need to write’.[5] This statement has resonated deeply with me, as it validates the work I have been doing with Arundel House; it is valuable even though I was not working on the project I initially thought. While I have experienced several changes in the way I have carried out my project, due to various delays and differing priorities between the parties involved in this project, keeping my focus on the alumni (my audience) has meant that the direction of my project has actually kept more in line with the priorities and desires of the alumni themselves. In truth, I think it is more important that I spent this time getting to know my audience, to ensure that I both create a resource that is valuable for them and that I maintain a respectful and constructive relationship with them.

The next step for this project, is to actively pursue alumni engagement. I have sent surveys out to a number of alumni (the majority of whom are girls that I lived with at Arundel House) asking them for their thoughts and reflections on three main ideas: community, mission and vision. The aim is to identify if there are weaknesses in Arundel House’s community and mission as it currently stands; their voices will provide a gauge of how connected alumni feel to the house and to other alumni. At this stage, I have only had one respondent but, in time, these voices will be an invaluable aspect in shaping the database. In other words, I am currently at the beginning of a much larger and more long-term project.

For privacy reasons, the entire database itself will not be accessible to the alumni. Rather, it is the alumni’s level of involvement in the college and the eventual sharing of their stories (through the Arundel House website, on social media and in person) that will be the visible evidence of Arundel House’s community.

The centenary was finally launched on 18 December 2020 via Facebook, calling alumni to begin the process of re-connecting with the college, beginning with a simple registration form.

[1] Frank Bongiorno and Erik Eklund, ‘The Problem of Belonging: Contested Country in Australian Local History’, New Scholar: An International Journal of Humanities, Creative Arts and Social Sciences 3, no. 1 (2014): 39–40.

[2] CENEF Council, CENEF Minutes, vol. 2, 2 vols (Forest Lodge, Sydney: CENEF, 1993).

[3] Emma Kluge, ‘Oral Histories’ (University Lecture, Zoom, 29 October 2020).

[4] Lara Rayner, Arundel House Alumni Survey, Survey, 12 December 2020.

[5] Ann Cuthroys and Ann McGrath, ‘Who Is Your History For?’, in How to Write History That People Want to Read (Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales, 2009), 25.

A Deep Dive Into the Cooks River

Through the process of creating my historical project on the Cooks River, the thing that struck me the most was how much I personally learnt about the place that I grew up next to. Obviously I had a basic understanding on some of the history that is centred upon the Cooks River. I knew that it had an important Indigenous history from doing a walking tour when I was younger. The tour guide explained all the Aboriginal uses for the flora and fauna around the river, for medicine and food as well as for building huts – and this knowledge was something that informed my project. With that obviously comes European invasion, so I felt that I had to highlight the events that happened with colonial development around the Cooks River. However, it was the little historical stories that I read that left me spellbound – from the fact that limestone was not available for building houses in the early 1800s and how oyster middens provided lime and mortar instead, to learning about how the river was once so clean that visitors used its water to make tea!

Source: A group of young people picnic on the banks of the Cooks River. Courtesy of Patricia Cook and City of Canterbury Local History Photograph Collection. Canterbury Council, 1920s circa.

The form I chose for presenting my research was to create a webpage on the Cooks River Alliance’s website, under their ‘learn more’ tab. I still have more work to do, such as commissioning the artwork and working further with my organisation to ensure the webpage is what they want. So, the form my project ended up taking for the course was a mock-up of what the website will hopefully look like. The webpage will consist of a timeline from around the mid-1700s up until current times and is an informational and educational source for the greater public to learn more about what the Cooks River has provided in terms of its historical impact on the city of Sydney and the communities who are part of the geographical locale.

What I feel is unique about my project is that there has not yet been a thorough and conclusive timeline on the Cooks River. Online, the Dictionary of Sydney which has multiple webpages on the Cooks River but it is not centred in the one place. As well, the addition of my father’s watercolours for the webpage, as symbolic guidance to each historical event that includes the river, will differentiate it from other historical projects – making it a piece of visual history.

The argument I am attempting to present with my project is that the Cooks River, a river that has often been called a variety of not so flattering names, and as a public space, has only just recently returned to being a spot for recreation, deserves its stories to be told and to be heralded as an important place within the history of Sydney. This includes looking at how it shaped the development and progress of suburbanisation, industrialisation and leisure.

The river also reveals a lot about the people who lived around it, what their interests were; for example, the illegal boxing matches in the early 1800s, and what they metaphorically fought for, such as the outbreak of typhoid in 1894 that led to an outcry from the public regarding pollution in the river. These mementos of history shine a light on the historical depth of Sydney itself and provide a stronger connection to place and belonging, something I feel is needed as a resident of the Cooks River community.

Source: ‘Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer’. Courtesy of T Clayton and State Library of New South Wales, 1848.

The significance of my project is that it captures not only the previous history of the river but will serve as a watermark for the river’s progression into the future, environmentally and societally. Many changes are occurring with the river currently and it will be interesting to see in ten years or more how else it has evolved. I think it is important for the Cooks River Alliance, which is a council-run organisation, to acknowledge the river’s history on their website, including both the negative and positive aspects. They must be aware of what has come before and disclose all facets of the river’s past to be able to move forward and aptly shape the river’s current role in the history of Sydney.

Source: ‘Cook’s River Dam’. Courtesy of the American & Australasian Photographic Company and the State Library of New South Wales, 1871.

Manly Museum and Art Gallery – Final Project

This semester I worked with Manly Museum and Art Gallery (MAG&M) to create a children’s exhibition booklet for their 2021 Sydney Harbourside Exhibition. This exhibition booklet will have a wide range of activities, from drawing to writing, to get young children (aged 7-12) engaged with the exhibition. While volunteering for MAG&M I was fortunate enough to help them create their exhibition labels, this allowed me to be exposed to different artists and the history of the Manly area. Prior to this volunteering, I did not entirely appreciate the close relationship between art and history, and how this can be a way that people can use art as a way to explore their personal and public history.

Manly North Head Lookout (

MAG&M is an organisation that is committed to education, particularly to the education of young people. This was evident to me through previous exhibition booklets, that try to engage young people and get them interested in learning. Whether it be learning about art, history or a combination of both. I used previous booklets as inspiration for my booklet, though my booklet did have more of a focus on history due to the fact that I was coming at this project from a historical standpoint.

Doing this project for MAG&M got me thinking about how we should get the public to engage with history, especially with younger members. It has made me realised that there are many interesting and different ways that we can teach history – and that there is something for everyone. For example, in the booklet, I have activities that range from drawing with inspiration from the paintings to writing stories about features of paintings. By having a variety of activities there are multiple ways for young children to engage with the past of Manly and Sydney Harbourside, regardless of where the children have come from.

North Head: A tied island in space and time by Nick Hollo (2018)

Additionally, what makes the exhibition unique, is the artworks interpersonal connections to the Manly area – even though it is a Sydney Harbourside exhibition, it is situated within the context of the Manly area. A number of the artists, such as Joan Ross, have their own connections to the Manly area – either living there now, used to living there or having familial/personal history with the area. By showcasing artworks and artists that have a personal connection to the area, we are able to show children that their personal histories are something that they can take pride in and show off to the public, and that we can get people to relate to our personal histories, regardless of where we have all come from.

I was lucky enough to have a supportive organisation throughout this entire project, who gave me the resources and mentoring required to finish this booklet. I am excited to see this booklet in use next year – in whatever capacity that may be – and I hope that this will excite children to learn more about art and history. This project has shown me possible future historical projects that I would potentially like to undertake and has shown me how personal and public history can impact communities, and educate young people.