Telling a Story

There comes a point in one’s academic studies when you begin to wonder why on earth you are doing what you are doing. What are you supposed to do with all this knowledge about theories and concepts, other than become an academic and teach another generation about all the concepts and theories you have learned? What if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life tied to the University? What can you possibly do with all of this study that will impact the world in any way? Where on earth is the practical side to all of this learning? I cannot begin to express the relief I felt after attending a class that showed this very “practical side” of history. I still remember the growing excitement within me as I sat in my very first class for the semester and listened to Michael talk about how historians have taken their university learning out into the “real” world. I remember thinking over and over again, with a mounting passion, that this, this was the answer to the oppressing question of ‘what on earth am I going to do with my life?’.
As the course unfolded, my passion only grew as, week by week, guest speakers spoke of the numerous ways in which they interacted with the world of public history. They talked about the ups and downs of working in both the “professional” academic sphere and the “amateur” local sphere. They described their various works and how they had taken their university learning out into various areas of Australian society and created so many projects of all shapes and sizes. The opportunity to travel to places one would not normally go and to dig in to histories that aren’t widely heard, and then use your own creativity to express and communicate the history you find to a wider, public audience is everything I could hope for in a career. Unfortunately, finding these opportunities with the addition of getting paid is not always easy. But the encouragement I felt in listening, week after week, to how these various historians had done it inspires me to reach forward regardless.
Our semester-long project is one of the most exciting things I’ve done at university and I have thoroughly enjoyed the prospect of going out and “doing history”. As I scrolled through the numerous organisations listed on the History Beyond the Classroom website in my first week of semester (the earliest I have ever started any project in my entire life), Saint John’s Cemetery immediately caught my eye. I have always loved cemeteries. That sounds a bit morbid, I know, but cemeteries hold so many glimpses of stories that we will never fully know. Not just in the words carved into a gravestone, but in the pictures on the stone, the font of the text and the shape and placement of the gravestone itself. Even just the dates given on each stone, the simple statement of one’s age, has always drawn me into the stories of cemeteries.
And so, on the Monday of week 5 (the eagerness I had to start this project only took me so far) I finally pushed through my anxiety of talking to strangers and composed an email to the secretary of the Friends of Saint John’s Cemetery, enquiring as to whether they might be interested in working with me for my project. Only a few hours later, I arrived at class to realise that our guest speaker was none other than Michaela Cameron, a member of the Friends of Saint John’s Cemetery and the driving force behind the Saint John’s Cemetery Project! I listened eagerly as Michaela spoke of her work with the cemetery and with getting biographies of the first fleeters written and made available through the cemetery’s website (stjohnscemetery.jimdo.com/). Michaela also talked about building a strong presence in social media, and so inspired me to begin my own history blog (which can be viewed at hideawayhistory.jimdo.com). I very much enjoyed setting up the website and have found great pleasure in researching and writing about small parts of history I find in my day-to-day life.
I have begun work with Michaela and am currently working my way through the burial records of Saint John’s Cemetery to find Female Factory workers who are buried in the cemetery. Though I have not worked out what my final project will be, simply going through these records is as enjoyable and intriguing as walking through a cemetery. Seeing patterns in names or noticing when there is an above average number of deaths suggests so many stories left untold. And there is a great deal of satisfaction in finally deciphering a word written in such cryptic handwriting! The chance to tell the stories of those buried in the cemetery, even if it only through a list made available to any curious web surfer, is a chance I take on with a passion and with much anticipation of what I might find.

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