Presenting the Past – Week 12 in History Beyond the Classroom

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Photo by Tracey Trompf from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/catherine-freyne/3976124
This past week we were again very fortunate to have Catherine Freyne (pictured) as our guest speaker to talk about ways of presenting the past. We couldn’t have got a better speaker on this topic. Catherine is an award-winning historian and media producer who specialises in 20th century urban, social and oral history. She has developed multimedia history content for the City of Sydney, ABC Radio National, ABC Innovation, Think+DO Tank and the Dictionary of Sydney.
Catherine is particularly well known for her work on the ground-breaking Hindsight documentaries at ABC Radio National (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/). But she has also worked on 80 Days that Changed Our Lives (http://www.abc.net.au/archives/80days/) and Against The Tide: A Highway West (http://www.againstthetide.net.au/). For her work in radio, Catherine has received two NSW Premier’s History Awards – a remarkable achievement by any standard.
Since we spoke with her last year, Catherine has started a creative practice PhD in history and journalism at UTS, where she also holds a prestigious Chancellor’s Research Scholarship. Like the poet Muriel Rukeyser, Catherine believes “the universe is made of stories, not atoms” and has a particular penchant for the true ones.
Catherine’s work exemplifies the power of stories. She talked to us about the many projects she has been involved with, and why she is so passionate about public history. She particularly engaged students with her explanation of how her team at the ABC recreated history on Pitt Street and in Hyde Park when making the Hindsight program, Good Sex: The Confessions and Campaigns of W.J. Chidley (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/good-sex—the-confessions-and-campaigns-of-w.j.-chidley/4605590), and also raised the bar on thinking of good public history apps when talking about the Against the Tide project which is still in development and which Catherine contributed to in 2014. The app allows users travelling along the Parramatta River on the Rivercat to make choices about what kinds of histories they are interested in, and hear of the experiences of different groups of people in different voices.
Catherine responded engagingly to students’ questions about how to get the balance right between “important” history and “interesting” history, and told us of her sense of history as political both in giving voice to the marginal and marginalized, but also as giving us a richer sense of the present, emphasising history as a process of sharing. She also talked about the need to think about different formats for showcasing different kinds of sources, and how the digital age allows us to add yet another layer to the landscape of places like the City, noting the importance of thinking about the depth of history in any one place. Catherine talked about the archives of the ABC, and the City of Sydney and great examples of public history.
Though she lamented the end of Hindsight, she also noted that students should tune in to Earshot, Radio National’s new general documentary slot which still broadcasts history features each week (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/). Catherine also told students that if they had a good ideas that might fit the program, to contact her and she might be able to help develop and pitch the idea to Radio National.
Following on from Catherine’s talk, we had a workshop on the problems and challenges that students were facing in getting their project designs off the ground. These ranged from the need for some technical advice, to dealing with creative differences and emphases between themselves and the organisations with whom they were working. While we couldn’t always come up with clear and easy answers, students learned to appreciate that there might be ways to work around some of these problems.
We also returned project proposals. Students were asked to outline their work with their chosen organisations and sketch out their ideas for their major project that has grown from that work. These proposals were a treat to read and mark. Like last year, the work students have been doing with their community-partners has been diverse, and in most cases been extremely important, fascinating, and often heart-warming (you can glean some of this through the blogposts by students on this site).
Their reflections on this work and how they plan to approach the major project were also thoughtful, creative, and provoking, and reflected a real engagement with the work they were doing, and the groups with whom they were working.

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