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?