The process for my ‘History Beyond the Classroom’ assignment began with contacting various organisations. With some luck and persistence, I spoke with a man named Miguel from the Blacktown Arts Centre, who directed me to a lovely lady named Debbie Higgison (Solid Ground Education Project Officer). Debbie had been helping an Aboriginal Elder named Uncle Greg sort, catalogue and archive his personal collection of historical ephemera.
Debbie and I agreed to meet every Thursday from 3pm to 5pm at Uncle Greg’s house. The first day I turned up at Uncle Greg’s house I was amazed by the artwork and tools sitting on the front porch. I was welcomed inside by Debbie and we had a chat about what the project involved, my role and how I could help her in relation to Uncle Greg’s historical records. Throughout the project I made sure to take direct cues from my supervisor, based on what they needed me to do. When I first met Uncle Greg we began talking. During the first half an hour our conversations were short and slow. It was not long before Uncle Greg had me entranced with stories about his family and Indigenous culture. He often talked about how the past always related to ‘good old values’. This was a clear indication of the importance of values, knowledge and lore passed down by the Elders before him. Everything had purpose. Learning was often done outside of the classroom. The photographs I began to explore documented a timeline of Uncle Greg’s involvement in the community and his participation in important historical Indigenous events since the 1960’s. Examples of this include Uncle Greg’s involvement in a Land Rights Protest, and his visit to Uluru when it was being handed back to the traditional owners of the land.
The project is made up of several parts. The project was created mainly through Uncle Greg’s need to clean up and sort the physical ‘stuff’ in his house that had gotten in the way of his ability to get around. The ‘stuff’ was made up (partly) of amazing photographs that dated from the 60’s to the present day and featured key events in Indigenous history that corresponded with Uncle Greg’s life. I loved the idea of working with photos, especially ones taken by a 35mm camera. Photographs allows us to visit the past, but also understand the values placed on ideas in the present. Photography acts as a primary source, but can be interpreted in many different ways. Archiving is crucial for those that come after us, stepping into the historical landscape. The photographs are physical links to Indigenous history which uses storytelling to teach about lore and connection to the community.
I was asked by my supervisor to categorise the photographs in a way that could be used to contribute to a potential Indigenous museum and with Uncle Greg’s future autobiography in mind. My supervisor reminded me of the importance of storytelling and it’s inextricable link to Indigenous history. She stated that often the physical items like photographs can sometimes be forgotten. The project consists of an online photographic archive, with a corresponding excel sheet that are both easily accessible. It is also made up of a presentation and interview, merging the public history process and Uncle Greg’s story telling.
This project is highly unique. Stepping into the household of another person and going through photographs that include intimate details about one’s life create a sense of trust between the two parties involved. It is unique in the sense that documenting this community history is not just about the physical objects, but rather about the connection between historian and history maker.
This assignment had me asking lots of questions like:
What is my responsibility for this kind of public history making sure its told how it should be? Does archiving photos with the creator and featured person create more meaning? How does one create a comfortable space for oral testimony?
Creating the online archive and the excel sheet was extensive and hard work. I chose to create an online archive because of the easy accessibility for Uncle Greg, those working on his book, and (if he decides to donate his collection) future museums. Google Drive seemed like the easiest platform for sustainability as it can be contributed to at any time and can change with changes in the historical landscape. Using the Google Drive means that museum’s will already have online records on the photographs. I began first with sorting through several boxes that had been used to store photographs, after Uncle Greg’s house had being cleaned.
There was what felt like thousands of photographs. Previously the photographs had not been stored correctly and many of them had been partially damaged. I began picking up bunches of photographs and sorting them thematically into different boxes (artworks, family, important people, significant events and Uncle Greg). After I had sorted through majority of the photographs, I began scanning and uploading images onto a USB and then copying them to the Google Drive archive into different folders using a numbering system. For example, all photos of Uncle Greg have a sticker on the back with a number from 1001 to 1999. I began to inquire about different photos with Uncle Greg and record details about them on the back. After scanning the photos I placed them into a plastic box to keep the photos dry and to prevent the possibility of them getting further damaged.
I then went through all the photos and created a record of each one on the excel sheet. Each photo was given a number on the back and then corresponding details like the date, event, and a description were added to the excel sheet.
The presentation was created to support Uncle Greg during his Welcome to Country ceremonies. Together Uncle Greg and I began adding the photographs we both thought would be appropriate and relevant to his work in the community and that reflected his life. The presentation would be used to play behind Uncle Greg and to act as a visual aid for when he is sharing his stories.
At the beginning of my visits Uncle Greg would tell me the most amazing stories about his family and what it was like growing up in La Perouse. I was unsure how to interrupt him and how to record his stories. I also began to question my ethical position. Was it ethical to record his story telling, because storytelling is such an important part of Indigenous belief and culture. In fact – I struggled to interrupt him when he was talking because I was too engrossed in his stories and with his storytelling ability. When creating the interview, I would have to ask Uncle Greg in advance. I would prepare and provide explicit questions that evoked stories I had heard before and thought reflected the archive. I had a conversation with Uncle Greg about whether he would mind doing an interview with me for my assignment and provided him with potential questions. He agreed straight away. Prompting Uncle Greg and creating what is more like a conversation, with follow up questions ensured the interview flowed.
Historical interviews should be conducted as a dynamic and fluid conversation, moulding and shaping as the interview expands. During my interview with Uncle Greg I was aware that he was shaping the story with my own nationality as an important part. He specifically talks about Maltese people to relate the story back to me. I think this is an example of an important part of storytelling in general. The idea that stories are used to engage people and teach them a moral lesson.
Throughout the project, I considered my own role in telling history and my responsibility to uplift Indigenous histories, not just tell them myself. A central part of the project was being conscious of what Uncle Greg wanted, and considering whether what I was doing was a true representation of how Uncle Greg wanted his history told. My goal was to contribute to the historical work Uncle Greg needed, instead of dominating the space with my own ideas.