History and the Public

This class, and the community work I’ve done for this class, has raised an issue that I believe is implicit within the very structure of our projects. To engage with “History Beyond the Classroom” I believe belies a problem with the way that history within the academic world is being done, namely; that historians have become too isolated within their ivory towers, too structured in their intellectual pursuits and too disengaged with a public who would otherwise exist as very receptive audience as it comes to historical works. This is not to say that the work done by historians is not important, otherwise in writing this I somewhat shoot myself in the foot. Nor is it to suggest that academic historians do not produce publically influential work, Tony Judt’s ‘Postwar’ was a NY times bestseller, Foucault’s work remains a penguin classic and Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is a quotable moment in Good Will Hunting (itself a brilliant film). But it is to suggest that in the absence of professionally trained historians presenting to the public a history that is cogent, engaging, accessible and well written, it is left to others to fill the gap.
Far be it from falling prey to elitism in this regard, as perhaps university students and professors are prone to do. But Peter FitzSimmon’s ‘Gallipoli,’ Rebecca Scoot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ and the ever entertaining Bill O’ Reilly’s book ‘Killing Reagan,’ to name but a few, can be said to exist as reaction to the absence of accessible and engaging works of history written by practicing historians. Again, this is not to say that these works are not valid, or valuable – in O’Reilly’s case I’m sure there exists some comedic value – but that these writers perhaps fall prey to some of the theoretical assumptions that are made by those who have not been professionally trained. FitzSimmon’s belief that he can tell “what happened,” and let people draw their conclusions from what he writes, may ring alarm bells in a historian’s head, and for good reason. It is not for nought that we may be wary of those who claim objectivity, especially if we can very easily see otherwise.
Not to sell short popular histories either. They themselves have a long history and are undeniably important, no question. In fact historical fiction has long existed as an engaging way of both teaching and learning history, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is perhaps the most brilliant in this regard. And, speaking personally, the Horrible History series is what engaged an 8 year old me in history. But I wonder if there something to be said in attempting to reengage with the public, as academics and as writers. To “sit in Ivory towers” and write academic pieces almost solely for an audience of academics and students, remains, in my mind, an exercise in elitism. I believe that what individuals like Bruce Baskerville, and Peter Hobbins do is not public history in actuality but just history. Public history has become a name we, perhaps condescendingly in many cases, must give their work because the academia has long ignored the very subject it’s studying; the public sphere. In my opinion, this is not the role of history. Historians must be engaged, not simply for political reasons, for history has always been a political weapon – Prime Minister Netanyahu this week past stating that it was the Grand Mufti of Israel, Amin al-Husseini who ‘put the idea of the holocaust in the head of Hitler’ is a good example of this. But because historians risk becoming irrelevant to the public should we abscond into obscurity.
Anyway, just some food for thought.

The Quarantine Station

As part of my community engagement, I recently visited the Quarantine Station to explore the grounds with Peter Hobbins, an historian working on the Stories from the sandstone: archaeology and history of quarantine project. The Quarantine Station was used from the 1830’s to isolate ships and their passenger suspected of carrying contagious diseases, and has also been found to be of great significance to the Indigenous population of the area. I have chosen a quarantined ship, The Canton, which arrived in 1835, for my research, in part due to the existence of a relatively legible journal, written by 15-year-old passenger Thomas Dawson, relaying the perils of passage and of the quarantine period. As part of my volunteer work, I have been transcribing the journal, a task that is slightly harder, though much more detailed, than anticipated!
A well preserved page of Dawson’s journal.
Viewing the various inscriptions on my visit made it clear just how important the work of Peter and his colleagues is. While the inscriptions made by quarantined individuals offer such a rich source of interest and information regarding early emigration and quarantine procedures, they are at mercy of the environment and weather, and many have already become illegible over time. The appropriate recording and research into the inscriptions will ensure that over time, they are still accessible for use and research.
Examining some of the inscriptions
Not only is the Quarantine Station an incredible place in the history world, it is undeniably one of the most beautiful places in Sydney. I would highly recommend a visit for one of their many tours, or just a walk around the grounds, where the inscriptions and original buildings remaining will give you a great insight into the experiences of the original passengers held in isolation.

Johnston’s Creek Extension: hope for residents

For my project I’ve been working with the No West Connex action group, which is campaigning to stop the proposed West Connex road which, at 33km long, is the largest road project in Australia. West Connex will start as an extension of the M4 in Parramatta and end on the M5 in Beverly Hills. Stage 3 of the road, known as the M4 M5 link, will be built between Haberfield and St Peters and involve the demolition of hundreds of homes. My own house in Newtown will be affected due to projected increased traffic congestion and fumes from pollution stacks.
Worried about my local area, I first attended a community meeting on West Connex in Leichhardt Town Hall held be concerned residents and action groups in 2013. Despite being impressed by the knowledge and spirit of the campaigners, I quietly thought; “but what hope do we, residents, have in stopping this road?”. I left feeling despondent. According to No West Connex campaigners, my pessimistic sentiment is widely shared amongst the community.
However, historically, there have been many examples of community action groups stopping roads being built that the community are probably largely unaware of. Namely, in 2005 residents and action groups such as EcoTransit were able to stop an extension to the F6, called the Johnston’s Creek Extension, which would have run from the Anzac Bridge, through Newtown, and into Randwick. Like West Connex, the four lane highway would have involved the demolition of hundreds of houses and businesses. Furthermore, a road reservation had existed along the corridor since 1945 and the RTA had discretely been buying properties along the route for decades. Despite this, the public had still not been informed that the road was even being built. Luckily, town planner Michelle Zeibots realised the government’s plans and launched a campaign to stop the road. 

100 000 newsleafs were produced and distributed in both Newtown and Randwick, campaigners door-knocked and Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon called for papers in parliament regarding the road. All the while, Labor denied plans for the Johnston’s Creek Extension even existed. Labor minister Carmel Tebbutt, the then local member for Marrickville, threatened to sue the Greens and Eco Transit for fear mongering and defamation.
A break-through occurred when one campaigner, Mary Jane Gleeson, spent an entire week sorting through the documents that had been released to the Greens. Amongst the “mountain of papers” she located one e-mail exchange between members of the RTA that referred to the road’s construction. This email was then presented to Carmel Tebbutt who was visibly shocked. Fearing the backlash from her electorate, Tebbutt was skilfully able to not only scrap the plans for the road, but lift the road reservation altogether, preventing governments from building there in the future.
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I want to spread awareness about the Johnston’s Creek Extension campaign mainly to reignite hope in residents that, yes, community groups can take on governments and, through tireless campaigning, can stop their homes and neighbourhoods being demolished. I know personally through doing this project that my faith has been restored that roads like West Connex are not inevitable.

Redfern Legal Centre’s Historical Accomplishments

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Redfern Legal Centre, Annual Report: July 1991 – June 1992 (Redfern: Redfern Legal Centre, 1992).
The Hon. Gough Whitlam, Clare Petre and Valent Santalab cut the cake at RLC’s 15th birthday in March 1992
For the past semester, I’ve been working with the Redfern Legal Centre to assist them in creating a Historical Achievements page for their website. I’ve mainly been going through their annual reports from the last 38 years but I’ve also had a look through trove and Hansard for some newspaper articles and parliamentary comments. I’ve really enjoyed reading about all the amazing work the Centre has done.
Just a few examples of their achievements include:
– Publishing numerous helpful legal guides for the community on a wide variety of different issues from debt to share housing
– Raising over $16,000 in fundraising for the Legal Aid Centre in Aceh following the 2005 tsunami
– Assisting and representing international students, postgraduate students and TAFE students in countless casework wins
– Presenting hundreds of community legal sessions
– Establishing programs such as the Sydney Women’s Domestic Violence Assistance Scheme
These are truly just an extremely tiny sample of RLC’s accomplishments. So far I’ve selected roughly 34 achievements to display on the webpage and I’ve found photos, graphs, case studies and articles from the annual reports to make the page entertaining and engaging.
I chose to work with Redfern Legal Centre because it has a rich history which deserves to be heard now more than ever. With recent government cutbacks to community legal centres, including RLC, this is the perfect time for the centre to remind the community and the government of its incredible impact throughout its almost 40 year history. I hope that the webpage I create will inspire readers to donate to the centre in order to ensure it can continue to do this amazing work long into the future.
If anyone is interested in knowing more about the centre or in donating to help them in providing legal services to the most disadvantaged in our community, please follow this link: http://rlc.org.au/

Students and Communities Make History Together

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Proposals came in from students last week detailing the extraordinary and fascinating work they have been doing with their chosen local/community organisation for HSTY 3092 History Beyond the Classroom. The proposals also outlined the major projects that have grown out of that work and which students will be working on over the next month. We were amazed at the work they have been doing and the ideas they have come up with for their major projects. Some of these I have blogged about already at: http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/historymatters/2015/10/public_history_project_updates.html. Students themselves have also blogged about their work, and I have urged them all to tell us more about their partnerships and projects. Check back regularly for more updates.
For now, it is worth noting that our thirty-eight students are working with a total of thirty-four organisations around Sydney and regional NSW. The organisations vary enormously in purpose, scope and activities, and are listed below. Web links to the organisations can be found on our blogroll.
Historical Societies
Marrickville Heritage Society
Campbelltown-Airds Historical Society Inc.
The Glebe Society
Hills District Historical Society
Canada Bay Heritage Society
Lennox Head Heritage Society
Australian Railway Historical Society (NSW BRANCH)
The Haberfield Association
Blue Mountains Historical Society
Historic Sites
Quarantine Station
Civic Theatre, Scone
Rockdale Market Gardeners
Sports/Community Groups
Ashfield Polish Club
The Temple Society
Hurlstone Park Wanderers Football Club
Parramatta Basketball Association
Rotary Club of Waitara
Powerhouse Youth Theatre
Trading Circle
St Mark’s National Memorial Library
Redfern Legal Centre
Hope Worldwide and the Gumine Community of PNG
The Whitlam Library
New South Wales Writers Centre
Activist/Political Groups
No West Connex Action Group
North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group
Parramatta Female Factory Friends
Pride History Group Oral History Project
Schools and Indigenous Histories
Aboriginal Heritge Office
O’Connell Public School
Cammeraygal High School
Holy Cross College, Ryde
Willoughby Old Girls

Meeting with Pride History Group

When I arrived for the Pride History Group’s general meeting in August I had no clue what to expect. Having never worked or been in contact with a historical society before, I turned up without expectations of any particular activity or process. The group of members present, who are dedicating their free time to their passion for history and LGBTI NSW were truly inspirational. The atmosphere seemed to be that of an open platform for the ideas of members, where projects such as a lesbian walking tour in Newtown and ‘Queer History in the Pub’, which brings historical topics to the public in a fun social way were discussed. What struck me the most was the interest and creativity the members had in engaging with history, which should in hindsight perhaps not be so shocking in a historical society!
The Pride History Group (PHG), works as a database for researchers as well as conduct their own projects such as published books and pamphlets. One of their major projects at the time which I have ended up volunteering for is the ‘100 voices project’. It collects oral history interviews about ‘the queering of Sydney back from around the 1950’s to the present date, of which part of the content is being made available on their website and where the access of full interviews can be requested. The work that I am doing is, transcribing and logging two interviews from the ‘100 voices’ project. The aim is to create a table of venues, names, movements etc. being discussed that are of relevance to LGBTI Sydney and to indicate at what time in the interview they are discussed as well as what is said about them. The purpose of this is to facilitate researchers to search for key words and thereby easily find the information about them in interviews from the project. It takes a lot of time and careful listening but the stories are really exciting!
The PHG is an open membership group, furthermore a great archive for anyone looking to find out more about LGBTI history! You can find more information on their website: http://camp.org.au/.

Local Sports History: the scramble to salvage the past

For the past few months I have been working with local football (soccer) club Hurlstone Park Wanderers. We have been trying to recover records of a metropolitan-wide football tournament that ran through the 1950s called the Canterbury Cup. Hurlstone Park won the tournament numerous times and calls this period its ‘golden era’.
An issue that I have come across in my research is access to archival material. Local sporting organizations are invariably run by a handful of dedicated individuals who have precious little time for preserving and maintaining archives. There is also a high turnover in these administrative roles, making it very easy for records to go missing. A more general problem is that these materials are almost always held in private collections (i.e. in a box in someone’s garage). A huge chunk of my work has been making phone calls to many very willing but mostly bewildered former players and administrators.
This week I met with the President of the Canterbury Football Association, Ian Holmes. Ian is typical of many people working in local sport. He spends countless unpaid hours dealing with complaints, negotiating with uncooperative councils and, interestingly for me, tracking down lost archives. Ian explained that although the association is nearly 100 years old, it has very little record of that history. Most of the archives were destroyed in a fire many years ago. Recovering records from personal collections has become a matter of great urgency as many older players pass away. Ian’s work is as much genealogical as it is historical. It is quite literally a race against the clock to recover these records.
The history of local sporting organizations should not be forgotten (or lost). The place of sports in local communities can reflect wider cultural phenomena (e.g. race, class, gender). Often, sport can be a vehicle for social change, as was the case with the influx of non-British migrants into the Canterbury area in the 1950s. It is to history’s great benefit that in sporting organizations around the country there are likely to be hundreds of people like Ian, doggedly salvaging what remains of the past.

Aboriginal and European history on the Northern Beaches

It’s hard to say where the inspiration for my project came from. As a resident of the Northern Beaches, I have lived my whole life in close proximity to sites of incredible natural beauty, many of which are of spiritual and cultural significance to Aboriginal people. However, ever since I chose Modern History as an elective in Year 11 I’ve had a huge love of European history (which was only furthered by a school trip there that same year, and through study at uni).
I don’t think that these were conscious influences on my project. It’s only by typing this that I’ve really come to realise it. Forefront in my mind as I developed my idea was our class field trip to the Quarantine Station, which I was fascinated to learn was a site devoted to healing in pre-European times. I found it incredible that both Aboriginal people and European settlers viewed the site as a place for the ill, and that really got me thinking – this is a place that two almost incompatible cultures have come to consider significant. How unlikely! I wondered if there were other places in the region that might also have a significance that transcends cultures.
My mind was all but made up when David Watts came to speak to us about his work at the Aboriginal Heritage Office, which sounded like a match made in Heaven as far as my project was concerned. I contacted David in the hopes that I could volunteer with the AHO as an Aboriginal site monitor, a proposition to which he agreed!
The first Monday of the mid-semester break was spent with Viki Gordon and other volunteers at Manly Dam, learning how to locate and protect Aboriginal sites in addition to discovering more about the varied projects the AHO participates in. This was a truly fascinating day, and I learned just how steeped in indigenous culture my local area is!
I have high hopes that my work with the AHO will help me uncover more sites of significance to Aboriginal people, and then research the reasons why Europeans may also find these sites to be worthy of preservation or if they are significant in a different way. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to share the location of the sites that I’ll be monitoring, but I strongly suggest coming up this way and wandering around the national parks or along the coastal walks, you never know what you might find!

Public History Project Updates – Week 11 in History Beyond the Classroom

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Our class reconvened this week after the AVCC break and public holiday last week. While difficult to get restarted after the break, and with only three weeks left in the semester (hard to believe), I’ve been inspired anew by some of the amazing projects that students are developing. Proposals were due on Friday, and a first glance over them revealed some thoughtful and exciting initiatives. This was only confirmed in class, where we discussed projects in small groups then heard short presentations from individuals brave enough to talk about their work to the class.
Up first was Steph Beck, who has already blogged about her project here: http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/historymatters/2015/09/community_project_beginnings_1.html We learned about her amazing journey to Melbourne to visit the rarely-used archives of the Temple Society (http://www.templesociety.org.au/), her horror at discovering the damage to some of the documents there by a fire (pictured above), and some of the marvellous discoveries she made in some of the files. She has documented a little of her physical and metaphorical journey into the foodways of the fascinating Temple Society on her instagram account at: https://instagram.com/stephsfoodhistory/ But recognizing that some of the older members of the society may not have easy access to the internet, Steph has also been thinking about how she can make her major project – an annotated collection of historical community recipes that span three countries and over one hundred and fifty years – more accessible to all of the community. A book publication awaits…
We also heard from Mitchell Davies, who has also just blogged about his work with the Campbelltown and Airds Historical Society (http://www.cahs.com.au/) at: http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/historymatters/2015/10/campbelltown_beyond_the_classr_2.html Mitchell, a lifelong resident of Campbelltown, is keen to bring together his love of local history with his teacher-training work to inspire a new generation of high school students to learn more about the interesting past all around them. Mitchell regaled us with some of these tales, including the story of Fisher’s Ghost, which animates much of Campbelltown’s community history, and has inspired an annual Festival http://www.fishersghost.com.au/ Mitchell is keen to use the social media platform Tumblr to bring these stories alive for students, but also to showcase the thoughts and work of those who work at the Historical Society.
Michael Rees also spoke about his work with the Female Factory Friends http://www.parramattafemalefactoryfriends.com.au/ Michael, who also blogged about this recently at http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/historymatters/2015/10/democracy_in_action_first_cont_1.html, recounted his first meeting with the Friends at a rally at the NSW Parliament House in Sydney as they presented a petition to save the Heritage Precinct in Parramatta (pictured below). He spoke about his steep learning curve about Parramatta history, and the various political and cultural interests at play in the controversy, and how that raises interesting challenges for presenting particular versions of the past at this critical juncture in the campaign to save the Heritage Precinct.
Finally, we also heard from Erin Gielis, who is working with the Rotary Club of Waitara (http://www.waitararotary.org/). Erin spoke of her engagement with the Club and how influential it was in shaping her own experience of community and the broader world to which the Club gave her access. She also brought to light the different kinds of challenges – and opportunities – students faced when working with non-historical organisations. The Waitara Club is relatively young, formed about thirty years ago. Though interested in the past, they have not had the chance to do much with their history and few of the members feel qualified to write it, and so the field is wide open for Erin to help them fill that gap. She has been interviewing members, past and present, and thinking about different ways of presenting this history via their website especially. Erin also raised important issues about the kinds of purposes such a project serves in not just documenting the activities of such an important community organisation, but also in drumming up interest and support for its survival in the future.
I hope I got everyone. Needless to say, these were inspiring stories of adventures in community history that could be of lasting impact. Students have certainly inspired me. After holding out for years, I’ve finally joined the twittersphere in order to get the word out about these great projects. Join me at https://twitter.com/HstyMattersSyd for updates about these great projects.
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Campbelltown Beyond The Classroom

As a lifelong Campbelltown resident I have been only too willing to make Campbelltown, my home, the subject of a major project. I feel fortunate that Campbelltown is not only an area of historical importance (especially in the early days of the colony), but is also a place where much of the heritage has for the most part been well-preserved.
On my journey thus far, I have discovered that Campbelltown has many stories to tell many of which I had little to no knowledge about. Thus far it has been an enriching experience. For my major project I aim to establish a Tumblr blog entitled Campbelltown Beyond The Classroom, which shares some of these interesting stories. These stories will be targeted towards high school students studying history elective in years 9-10. I feel that local history is often a neglected part of school history, despite being one of the more accessible components of it. I believe that local history has a great deal to offer students, and is often a kaleidoscope of fascinating stories, places and personalities – something for everyone.
Prior to creating my Tumblr blog, I was fortunate enough to meet with members of the Campbelltown Airds Historical Society stationed at Glenalvon House – and am forever grateful for members consenting to participate in some sit-down interviews and sharing their experiences and passion for Campbelltown’s local history and heritage. The society also graciously provided many resources which have thus far have proved extremely useful. A piece on the society and Glenalvon House (in addition with interview excepts) will form a prominent piece of the blog.
Although this still very much a work in progress, my preliminary sketch of the blog looks a little like this –
A. Introduction page – purpose of the blog – history elective
B. My volunteer work – Campbelltown-Airds Historical Society & Glenavlon House
C. My volunteer work – Oral Histories excerpts – local and community histories
D. Local history – Personal connections/recollections
E. Campbelltown – Birthplace ~ The Lachlan & Elizabeth Macquarie
F. Campbelltown Stories –
1. Tale #1 – Early Industry: James Ruse
2. Tale #2 – Contact History – Bull Cave
3. Tale #3 – The Appin Massacre
4. Tale #4 – St Peters Anglican Church
5. Tale #5 – St John’s Catholic Church
6. Tale #6 – William Bradbury
7. Tale #7 – Military Past: Bardia Barracks
8. Tale #8 – Campbelltown’s Communist Past
9. Tale #9 – Campbelltown’s Notorious Claim to Fame – Fishers Ghost