Week 5 in History Beyond the Classroom

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This week we had a great discussion with Michaela Cameron. Michaela is currently completing a PhD thesis at the University of Sydney that is a “sound-centred history of early seventeenth-century New France.” She studies the contrasting auditory cultures of French Catholic missionaries and Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking peoples to better understand the experience of first contact. Essentially, she argues that different ways of sounding and hearing the world was often at the core of cultural conflict. Michaela is an amazing student who is pushing at the boundaries of academic knowledge and ways of knowing.
But a funny thing happened to Michaela along the way to completing her PhD. Unsure of the value of the PhD, and the job market, Michaela took a little time out and qualified as a secondary school English teacher and worked casually in a number of schools for approximately two years. At the time, she even had some training in marketing as well.
Then, she ventured into public history about two years ago and became very involved with the convict history, heritage sites, and community organisations in her own backyard: Parramatta. Starting out by writing reviews of historic sites for Yelp, she 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 terrific walking tour app of Convict Parramatta http://home.dictionaryofsydney.org/project/convict-parramatta/
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Michaela is now juggling both the completion of her American history PhD thesis (which she hopes to complete by the end of this year or soon after) with being the project manager of the Parramatta-based public history website The St. John’s Cemetery Project: https://stjohnscemeteryproject.com/
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The scope of Michaela’s recent public history efforts is breathtaking, and her development as a public historian has been inspirational. Many students who took this course last year recalled that Michaela’s talk to them was a real turning point in how they thought about history and public history, and what they could do in terms of major projects. This year, I was taken aback by how much more Michaela has been doing in the last twelve months. She again 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/ www.facebook.com/parrafactorycrimes). 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.
Following this stimulating talk, we only had a brief time to discuss the kinds of organisations students were working with, or hoping to work with. Once again, 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. Some of the 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.