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?