I’ve never written a blog post before (so what I’m lacking in blogging ability I can hopefully make up in pretty pictures).
On Monday we went on a field trip to the Quarantine Station on North Head. It was hard not to be completed distracted by the stunning view of the harbour, visible from almost every location on the site. At the same time I was completely taken aback by the inscriptions in the stones, the lovely old buildings and the waste which remained from a time when nothing could leave the site.
There existed a strange balance between old and new as we walked from the landing site lined with red leaved trees (where boats would have docked when they were declared to be carrying ill passengers) to the hospital buildings up a steep hill. The site was overgrown, being part of a national park, yet these buildings were in immaculate condition, and now house guests and host weddings. There was a hospital room we visited which is primary used for school education, and had been restored to resemble a 1800’s ward complete with metal bed frames and Florence Nightingale style uniforms on display. Yet as we continued further along the path, towards the isolation area (in which people who were not yet sick but had been in close contact with those who were stayed), there was an restored shed which had a brand new timber deck, deck chairs and a new sign which read “Isolation Guest Lounge”.
The Quarantine Station is not only an archaeological site, a historic site and a site for educational purposes, but is also a four star hotel with a conference centre, function rooms, restaurants and a museum. It’s wonderful that with the support of a private company the Q Station can be sustained and enjoyed presently whilst maintaining its connection to the past and without compromising its historic value.
This week we paused to think more about our work with local and community organisations, and our major projects. To help us think through what we might do, we heard from Michaela Cameron, a PhD student in the Department of History who specialises in early Native-European relations, and particularly the “soundscapes” of early North America (see: https://sydney.academia.edu/MichaelaCameronhttp://) .
On the side, Michaela has also been exploring the local history of her own neighbourhood in Sydney, and over the past few years has developed quite a wide and interesting public history presence. She has written numerous reviews of historic sites for Yelp, for example, created a Sydney history twitter account (https://twitter.com/sydneyhistory), an instagram account for promoting Parramatta history and especially the Female Factory in particular (https://twitter.com/oldparramatta and https://instagram.com/oldparramatta/ and https://www.facebook.com/parrafactory?_rdr=p) and has also done work for the Dictionary of Sydney, including creating a walking tour app of Convict Parramatta which should be out shortly (http://home.dictionaryofsydney.org/) .
Michaela showed many of us what an “outsider” and a trained historian could bring to the public history table, particular if one listens, learns, and collaborates with local experts and the vast knowledge they often bring to the subjects. Michaela offered practical tips about having clear aims, and knowing what purpose any engagement and its public outcome might serve, including thinking about the audience for any public history project.
Michaela also stressed the need to go multi-modal, and think about bringing in text, visual, and audio material. She also showed us some fabulous examples of using primary sources and social media to “sell history” – and noted that while some organisations are already very good about using social media, it is often something we can help with if we are on top of it. So, too, can we try to draw attention to great resources such as Trove (http://trove.nla.gov.au/)
Primary sources in particular can entertain as well as inform, but they can also draw attention to some important causes (see for example: https://twitter.com/1815now and https://twitter.com/queenvictweets and https://pastnow.wordpress.com/ and https://twitter.com/otd_ni1825 and http://parrafactory.tumblr.com/ ). Michaela also notes that we should use a wide range of sources, and look for the ‘gaps’ – the silences, or the history that is not being done, or communicated particularly well.
Finally, Michaela also showed that history students could collaborate with each other to strengthen their efforts, and also help local/community organisations make connections between themselves and others, and with other organisations in particular that might help. Putting a grassroots campaign in touch with the Mitchell library, or the Dictionary of Sydney, for example, can pay dividends. And of course, we can use social media for activist purposes. See the petition to save the Female Factory here: tinyurl.com/mozayt6
Following this stimulating talk, we divided the class into small groups according to the kinds of organisations they were working with, or hoping to work with. There is a great range of interests and different kinds of organisations, ranging from historical societies and historic sites, museums and libraries, to sports and community clubs, health and welfare groups, and activist/political groups. Students shared experiences and challenges, and with Michaela’s talk as inspiration, began to think about how that work might translate into a public history project. The possibilities are endless…