Dr Louise Prowse on “What is Local/Community History?
There could be few people better placed to talk to us about “what is local/community history than our guest this week, Louise Prowse. Louise has not only studied and analysed the growth of local historical societies in the second half of the twentieth century, but in doing so she has spent a great deal of time with all kinds of people who have dedicated their lives to recording, preserving and disseminating the histories of their communities. Her PhD, completed at Sydney University in 2015, was entitled “A Poplar Past? Historical Identity and the Rural Ideal in Australian Country Towns, 1945-2000,” so Louise had plenty to draw from not just in terms of helping us understand the ‘place’ of local history in the lives of many, but also in giving us many practical tips about how to build relationships of trust and respect with those who open their doors to us.
More generally, Louise is an Australian cultural historian who specialises in place identity, tourism, heritage and the intersections between local and national history-making. Louise has taught nineteenth and twentieth century Australian cultural and political history, American political history and the histories of media and of tourism at New York University (Sydney), the University of Sydney and at Charles Sturt University. She has worked on a number of research projects, and has just begun a new job with the Office of Environment and Heritage, with a focus on regional heritage in NSW.
Louise’s talk ranged widely, historicising the role and functions of local historical societies, and thinking about the role of belonging and the custodial role many people feel about the past of their community. She also noted the often unexpected discoveries – sources that she realised no one had really looked at or done anything with. A sense of discovery resonated with one of the readings we had from Louise’s work, entitled “Parallels on the Periphery: The Exploration of Aboriginal History by Local Historical Societies in New South Wales, 1960s-1970s,” in History Australia 12, no. 3 (2015), 55-75. In her research, Louise had found that country town historical societies had a genuine interest in Aboriginal history in the 1960s and 1970s, some years before the historical profession took aboriginal history more seriously, and even while academic historians often disparaged the work of local historical societies.
Discussion ranged across a number of issues, including the relationship between the local and the national, the kinds of sources that might be important, and relationships between local authorities, the community, and the professional historian as well as the “hierarchies” of local knowledge and authority too – important issues that students also noted came out in our readings of Graeme Davison on “Community” and Martha Sears work on “History in Communities.” I think students were amazed not just at the importance of the work done by local historical societies and other community groups, but also the sheer range of historical activities in any one place.
We also talked about the tension inherent in working with local groups and writing analytical history, which again raised questions about who our histories are for, and what are they for? Do we need a sense of personal connection, or a common point of interest to work well together? Where do we feel a sense of belonging? What do we feel connected to? How comfortable would we feel with an “outsider” writing the history of our own communities? Do we need to connect with communities/localities that we study? Can we “own” a history that is not ours? Or is written by someone else? What can we bring to the table as “insiders” and as “outsiders”?
Last year, we heard from Mark McKenna that history should be about confronting myths, rather than reassuring stories. But Frank Bongiorno and Erik Ekland have written in their article “The Problem of Belonging: Contested Country in Australian Local History,” that instead of confronting myths, we should think about excavating the “historical meanings of social memory.” What role do myths play in our historical consciousness?
Building on all of this, and like last year, I think one of the most important questions that arose from the readings and discussion this week is whether we can/should think of our histories as acts of reconciliation?
PHA-NSW & ACT Chair, Dr. Mark Dunn on Public History
It was a great pleasure to welcome Mark Dunn as our first guest speaker in History Beyond the Classroom in 2017. Currently the Chair of the Professional Historians Association of NSW (PHA-NSW; http://www.phansw.org.au/), Mark’s career as a professional historian embodies the challenges and opportunities of public history.
After studying history at UNSW, Mark did some volunteer work on an archaeological site in Sydney, which led to a paid job as a historian for a heritage and archaeology firm in Sydney, where he worked until 2010. During that time he was involved in major conservation, archaeology (including digging), oral history, significance and interpretation projects Australia wide. Some of these include doing Oral History for the Cockatoo Island Navy Dockyard, the moving of Prince of Wales Destitute Childrens Asylum Cemetery, The Big Dig in The Rocks and numerous smaller histories. Mark has been a member of the Professional Historians Association since c1997 and is currently the Chair. He has also been a committee member and President of the History Council NSW and is currently Deputy Chair of the NSW Heritage Council. Mark now works as a consultant historian in heritage and research, as well as leading city tours for an American tour company Context Travel. He is also the current CH Currey Fellow at State Library of NSW, and recently completed his PhD at UNSW.
Mark talked to students about the crucial role played by the PHA-NSW, and also the challenges of doing public history, which included negotiating any conflicts of interest, managing expectations, juggling tight budgets and deadlines, and the disappointments resulting from not having control over the final product, sometimes with the result that your work gets buried (sometimes literally).
An unexpected find at the Mick Simmons site at George Street 2013. After excavating and archiving this early colonial pub, the site was completely removed. Recording and archiving such sites before they are completely obliterated is just one of the many kinds of projects Mark Dunn has worked on.
Drawing from his extensive experience, Mark also reflected on why he enjoys being a professional historian, which included the opportunity to work on many and varied history projects, bringing history to a wide range of audiences who often have a real connection with the past that is being presented, and seeing your work on public display, whether it be on television, radio, the side of a building, the wall of a pub, or the web.
Mark Dunn on site with a crew from the popular television show, Who Do You Think You Are?
Mark also noted his most recent public history project for Sydney Trains Heritage NSW (http://www.sydneytrains.info/about/heritage/), the beautifully produced pamphlet called “Running on Time: Clocks and Time-Keeping in the NSW Railways” (you can download a copy at: www.sydneytrains.info/about/heritage/201602-Running-on-time-Report.pdf). There is also an accompanying short film featuring interviews with railway workers and heritage experts involved in the project (http://www.sydneytrains.info/about/heritage/oral_history). Mark revealed that he completed his report in about four weeks of full-time work, giving students something to aspire to….
Some of the many clocks in the collection of Sydney Trains at Central Station
Also check out Mark’s blogsite, with Laila Ellmoos, “Scratching Sydney’s Surface” at: https://scratchingsydneyssurface.wordpress.com/
Mark was an engaging speaker, and the students (and I) were clearly amazed at the breadth and depth of his work. There were lots of questions about ethical dilemmas, disappointments, and missed opportunities in the Q&A, and the interest followed over into our discussion after Mark left. We were excited and amazed that public history could be and was being done in such a variety of contexts, and ways. One student was quite taken aback (and pleased to hear) at the fact that you didn’t have to have a PhD to be an “historian.” So, I think it was empowering for us, too.
Many students also made connections between Mark’s talk and work and the readings, too. These included Paul Ashton’s essay on “Public History” in Clark and Ashton, eds., Australian History Now (2013), in which he reflected on his experiences as a public historian and the growth of the field in general (we also noted that Mark Dunn was one of the first graduates of the Applied History degree at UTS that Ashton mentions that he helped establish).
As I noted last year, Ashton concluded by noting his working definition of public history as “the practice of historical work in a wide range of forums and sites which involves the negotiation of different understandings about the nature of the past and its meaning and uses in the present” (179). Such a definition draws on Raphael Samuel’s idea that “history is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands,” and also points forward to Martha Sears’ ecological view of different forms of history-making as “part of a dynamic system where every diverse and distinctive element contributes to the vigour and health of the whole” (Sears, “History in Communities,” in Clark and Ashton, Australian History Now (2013), 212-213).
Mark’s talk and Paul Ashton’s work helped students reflect on the practice of history in the University and classroom, which often (though not always) precludes these kinds of negotiations about different kinds of understandings about the past, and present uses (though students were also quick to point out that there is a growing group of academic historians willing to engage with different public audiences, and indeed, there always has been). Our reading this week about the Enola Gay controversy in the United States in the early 1990s reinforced the dangers of not doing so, but also how difficult it might be to do so. Once again, and with the help of Anna Clark’s great interviews, our discussions invariably shifted to the History Wars in Australia and both the indifference of many to the history wars, but also the more subtle ways in which many non-professional historians understand “contest” in history. Discussion also ranged across questions about whether there is a historical middle ground between commemoration and historical analysis? Could the Enola Gay Exhibition controversy have been avoided?
Week two in History Beyond the Classroom got off to a good start with almost near-perfect attendance and a good introductory session. Such a diverse range of students with a wide array of backgrounds and interests promises much for the semester ahead. We even have a social media expert in our ranks. That bodes well…
After introductions, we talked about some key questions, including “what is history?” and “What, or who, is our history for?” A spirited discussion ensured that we only scratched the surface of these questions, but I think we did a good job of interrogating what we have been doing so far in history units at the University. Key phrases that came up included “analysing,” “interpreting,” “questioning,” and “criticism.” Students noted they have been pushed to think about alternative perspectives, the richness of historiographical debate, the nature and absence of sources, new narratives, multiple narratives, and to define their own narrative, and also to see the contemporary relevance of what they study in the past to the present. Much of what we seem to do at University is to “subvert,” “undermine,” or “question,” what we thought we already knew, even while we still look for some kind of “lessons from the past” or “truth.”
Though EH Carr’s classic essay “What is History” is somewhat dated now, our sense of history at University is not too far off his idea that history is about a conversation between an historian and his/her facts, and between past and present. Some of this discussion pointed us toward the purpose of history, and while that remained an unfinished conversation, at first glance the “professional” historians’ goals seemed quite different from those surveyed in Roy Rosensweig and David Thelen’s landmark study The Presence of the Past, and the individuals and groups Anna Clark spoke with in Private Lives, Public History, both of which compel us to consider about how non-historians think about the past and do history in their everyday lives, and the deeply personal nature of that engagement with the past. Ultimately though, I think N. Scott Momaday’s preface to The Way to Rainy Mountain reminds us that all history is going to be a “turning and re-turning of myth, history, and memoir.” And Momaday’s definition resonates with the American survey respondents who wanted to explore the past to understand “why I am like I am.” While this might jar with politicians’ desire for citizens to understand “why are we like we are” with the “we” somewhat arbitrarily defined sometimes as the “nation,” I think the main task of students in History Beyond the Classroom will be about acknowledging these different approaches and aims, and trying to find some common ground between them.
One student also brought up the musical “Hamilton” as an example of a public history project that is stimulating all kinds of discussion in the US. A link to one great rap from that production can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNFf7nMIGnE and more info about the musical can be found here: http://www.hamiltonbroadway.com/ Some discussion of its reception among historians can be found here: https://earlyamericanists.com/tag/alexander-hamilton/. We’ll be talking more about public history next week.
And for those in the class who want to continue the discussion on “what is history?” and “who/what is history for?,” see our new Blackboard Discussion Group on extended conversations and make a contribution.
We finished the seminar with a very brief discussion of just how to get started on a community-engaged project, emphasising that the engagement should come first, with the historical questions arising from it.