This week we had David Watts (pictured above) come in from the Aboriginal Heritage Office, a unique joint initiative by a group of councils across northern Sydney, including North Sydney, Manly, Warringah, Ku-ring-gai, and Pittwater to protect Aboriginal Heritage in these areas (http://www.aboriginalheritage.org/). David Watts, the Aboriginal Heritage Manager, was one of the key founders of the Office back in 2000, and continues to play a leading role in the preservation of Aboriginal heritage sites, education, and a prize-winning volunteer site monitoring program that empowers community members to take responsibility for our shared heritage and past.
David talked to students about his role in the organisation, the many challenges they faced and continue to face, and his extensive experience in Aboriginal heritage management. He has worked on site surveys and archaeological excavations, conservation management plans and protection works. He has given talks all over the world about Aboriginal site care and managements, as well as cultural tourism advice, and he has developed several Aboriginal Heritage Walks within the northern Sydney region (including some of the walks and resources you can find here: http://www.aboriginalheritage.org/downloads1/). David engaged us all with his honest and realistic approach to public history, and also talked about his own past and the way that shaped his approach to the present, and his responses to continued racism as well.
David’s talk helped set the tone for an ensuing discussion on “Decolonizing Methodologies” and especially the struggle over “research” in indigenous communities where there has been a long history of imperial and post-colonial intrusion by researchers. David’s talk, and the readings, helped draw attention to the sensitivities involved in indigenous history and the need to think carefully about our intentions and purposes in doing it (something we need to be mindful with any project, it seems). We talked about respect for indigenous knowledges and methodologies, and also talked a little more about public history being a route to “purify” the past, in Peter Read’s terms – a place where, if done properly, we can come together to reconcile and start to heal the trauma of the past.
As the mid-semester break approaches, I’m getting ready to buckle down and make a good start on my major project. I’m working with the New South Wales Writers’ Centre, whose headquarters can be found in the picturesque and historically significant Callan Park in Rozelle. This site was once occupied by the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, where several prominent writers and poets were patients over the course of its history. How might strolling through the extensive grounds be changed by the knowledge that the likes of Louisa Lawson and Francis Webb may have done just the same decades ago? In consultation with the director of the Centre, my current plan is to write a page for their website exploring the history of writers on the site. I’m hoping, along the way, to gain a better understanding of how the history of a place can influence the way it is used in the present.
So far, much of my work on this project has been done among the shelves of the State Library. I’ve been researching the writers who were residents of the Hospital at one time or another, looking for any scraps of evidence about their lives there. Over the break I hope to be able to do more hands-on research: exploring what remains of the historic buildings in Callan Park, taking photographs, and really getting a sense of what the site used to be like.
I’m also going to be helping out at the Writers’ Centre, and will hopefully be able to chat to some of the members about their knowledge and perceptions of the park’s history. On previous visits to the Centre, over afternoon tea, multiple people have remarked on different aspects of the history, so it’s clearly of an interest to some members. As my project moves along I may expand on my web page idea to include something more interactive that allows visitors to explore the history themselves – perhaps a walking tour? I’m excited to see where this partnership takes me!
For my community project I am working with the Temple Society, a German society who lived in Palestine for nearly a century after leaving the Lutheran church when “The Holy Land Called” (as is the name of Dr Sauer’s book on the subject). They were keen for me to make them a cookbook; collecting together not only a tonne of recipes, but also documenting the origin of the recipes and the ways in which their food evolved as they moved from Germany to Palestine and then to Australia.
As a basis I was given copies of the 1990 Playgroup cookbook and 1991 Templer Cookbook, both which contain several typed up recipes yet do not make mention of their origin, significance and the stories behind the food. I will be using my volunteer time to gather new recipes, hear the stories of a number of community elders and members, explore the archives and hopefully put together a book which captures their food history.
The working title of the book is Jaffa Orange, an orange variety the Templers were said to have cultivated.
I’ve never written a blog post before (so what I’m lacking in blogging ability I can hopefully make up in pretty pictures).
On Monday we went on a field trip to the Quarantine Station on North Head. It was hard not to be completed distracted by the stunning view of the harbour, visible from almost every location on the site. At the same time I was completely taken aback by the inscriptions in the stones, the lovely old buildings and the waste which remained from a time when nothing could leave the site.
There existed a strange balance between old and new as we walked from the landing site lined with red leaved trees (where boats would have docked when they were declared to be carrying ill passengers) to the hospital buildings up a steep hill. The site was overgrown, being part of a national park, yet these buildings were in immaculate condition, and now house guests and host weddings. There was a hospital room we visited which is primary used for school education, and had been restored to resemble a 1800’s ward complete with metal bed frames and Florence Nightingale style uniforms on display. Yet as we continued further along the path, towards the isolation area (in which people who were not yet sick but had been in close contact with those who were stayed), there was an restored shed which had a brand new timber deck, deck chairs and a new sign which read “Isolation Guest Lounge”.
The Quarantine Station is not only an archaeological site, a historic site and a site for educational purposes, but is also a four star hotel with a conference centre, function rooms, restaurants and a museum. It’s wonderful that with the support of a private company the Q Station can be sustained and enjoyed presently whilst maintaining its connection to the past and without compromising its historic value.
This week we paused to think more about our work with local and community organisations, and our major projects. To help us think through what we might do, we heard from Michaela Cameron, a PhD student in the Department of History who specialises in early Native-European relations, and particularly the “soundscapes” of early North America (see: https://sydney.academia.edu/MichaelaCameronhttp://) .
On the side, Michaela has also been exploring the local history of her own neighbourhood in Sydney, and over the past few years has developed quite a wide and interesting public history presence. She has written numerous reviews of historic sites for Yelp, for example, 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 walking tour app of Convict Parramatta which should be out shortly (http://home.dictionaryofsydney.org/) .
Michaela 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/ ). 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. See the petition to save the Female Factory here: tinyurl.com/mozayt6
Following this stimulating talk, we divided the class into small groups according to the kinds of organisations they were working with, or hoping to work with. 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. 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. The possibilities are endless…
This week we had both Louise Prowse and Mark McKenna in as guests to talk about local history. Both have “done” local history, as well as engaged with their communities and with local historical societies. They spoke about the theoretical/conceptual challenges of doing local history, as well as some of the practical issues that might arise. Of course, there is a strong relationship between the two, especially when raising questions that don’t always resonate with those who you are raising them with, as Louise pointed out. This can at least help push us to change the questions or think differently about our approaches.
Discussion ranged across a number of issues, including the relationship between the local and the national, the kinds of sources that might be important, and relationships between local authorities, the community, and the professional historian as well as the “hierarchies” of local knowledge and authority too.
We also talked about the tension inherent in working with local groups and writing analytical history, which again raised questions about who our histories are for, and what are they for? Do we need a sense of personal connection, or a common point of interest to work well together? Where do we feel a sense of belonging? What do we feel connected to? Do we need to connect with communities/localities that we study? Can we “own” a history that is not ours? Or is written by someone else? What can we bring to the table as “insiders” and as “outsiders”?
And the key question again, what is our role as historians? Mark McKenna has written that history should be about confronting myths, rather than reassuring stories. But Frank Bongiorno and Erik Ekland have written in their article “The Problem of Belonging: Contested Country in Australian Local History,” that instead of confronting myths, we should think about excavating the “historical meanings of social memory.” What role do myths play in our historical consciousness?
Building on all of this, I think one of the most important questions that arose from the readings and discussion this week is whether we can/should think of our histories as acts of reconciliation?
This week Annette Cairnduff, the University of Sydney’s Social Inclusion Director, came to talk to the class about the issue of inclusion, especially at Universities, and the University of Sydney in particular. She told us of her own background, the work done at the University of Sydney over the past six years, the collaborative projects encompassed in the Bridges to Higher Education Project, and why she is a passionate believer in the goal of inclusion. Both Annette and Hannah Forsyth, whose work we read in tandem (A History of the Modern Australian University ), noted that while Universities have become more inclusive over the past one hundred years or so, they have also continued to be sites of exclusion, too. And Sydney University still has some way to go to fulfil a more expansive vision of an inclusive University. For some of the efforts of Annette and the social inclusion unit, including Compass, see http://sydney.edu.au/compass/.
Annette’s talk echoed the readings on community history, too, or perhaps histories in communities. As noted last week, Martha Sears has urged us to think about history in ecological terms, as a dynamic and organic system where diverse and different parts contribute to the health of the whole. A more diverse and inclusive University will be a healthier and more dynamic place, too. Genuine engagement with a broader community is also a route toward a healthier University and is of course part of the University’s strategic plan.
Based on some of the exciting proposals for community work that have emerged so far in this unit, and which we discussed a bit this week in our tutorials, I am hopeful that students can play an important part in both connecting and engaging with diverse constituencies, and thinking more inclusively about history and history-making. It is clear from the readings and discussion this week that that would involve a recognition of the limits of our own knowledge; an openness and attentiveness to new forms of expressing knowledge; and a valuing of other ways of thinking about history and knowledge.
As Michael Frisch has written, an engaged history is about sharing authority, and letting go of some of our preoccupations and interests and what we know (like our traditional idea of research, writing a history essay, and playing it safe with something that we already know we do well). Doing so does and has raised anxiety levels a bit. This is understandable. Students are doing something new here – something so new that we don’t actually know what will result exactly. As Martha Sears notes, if we take this seriously, let go of our “authority” (as a history student) and engage, listen, and learn, history and history-making can be something more alive – organic, dynamic, etc. But not knowing what will result is scary, maybe even terrifying at times (and part of the “letting go”), but it is also the point at which we’ll all hopefully learn most.
A student report on HSTY3903: History & Historians.
The Middle Ages may well occupy a distant past, but the period seems to have a persistent hold in one way or another, whether invoked by political leaders in the West to designate the religious fundamentalism of ISIS or car-parks offering up the remains of long-dead kings. I just had a lecture on medieval Spain where Hélène Sirantoine explained Francisco Franco’s appropriation of the Reconquista narrative to service his political goals during Spain’s civil war in the twentieth century.
Among historians, the Middle Ages continues to undergo new treatments and approaches. In recent years, as global history gains general momentum (or rides the crest of a wave), some historians have turned to the concept of a global Middle Ages, with dedicated journals, conference roundtables, teaching units and research centres in tow.
My project for History & Historians began with investigating this concept of a global Middle Ages and its development among historians. My research led me to the work of Henry Pirenne (1862–1935), a Belgian medievalist renown for his famous ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne’ thesis. Briefly, the thesis argued against the then conventional proposition that the Germanic barbarian invasions of the fifth century instigated a break from antiquity and the start of the Middle Ages. Instead, Pirenne proposed that these Germanic tribes embedded themselves in a continuing Roman world, establishing a syncretic Romano-Germanic culture, while it was the much later seventh-century event of Islam’s rise (Mohammed) that broke Mediterranean unity and gave rise to the Middle Ages, Western Christendom and Charlemagne. Pirenne made the bold statement that without Mohammed there would be no Charlemagne.
Reading Mohammed and Charlemagne for the first time, it struck me that not only was he writing about the early Middle Ages, but also a post-war Europe of the 1920s. In making a case against Germanic exceptionalism in late antiquity, Pirenne seemed to be challenging the triumphalism of the German nation-state with medieval roots as written by German historians of his time (and suggesting a modern Romano-Germanic culture, which is particularly relevant for a Belgian).
I then turned to his historiographical writing and a speech he made as president of the International Congress of Historical Science (Brussels, 1923). A consistent theme across these sources is his criticism of German historicism, Rankean political history, theories of race and ‘the nation’ as adequate frames for understanding the Middle Ages. Pirenne felt they were limiting, unscientific and/or dangerous. While it’s unlikely he would have used the word ‘global’ (though he might use ‘international’), I discovered in his post-war works a vision one could call global — looking beyond Europe, enthused by 1920s internationalism and concerned with connections between peoples.
This is, of course, Pirenne at the end of a long, successful career. His influence would be felt by his successors. After hearing Pirenne present his thesis in Algiers in 1931, Fernand Braudel wrote: ‘His lectures seemed prodigious to me; his hand opened and shut, and the entire Mediterranean was by turns free and locked in!’
In a 1924 article, ‘De l’influence allemande sur le mouvement historique contemporain’, Pirenne criticised German historians for valorising the Prussian state and ignoring the reality of events around them. He wrote, ‘Ces historiens se placaient volontairement dehors l’histoire’ (‘These historians willingly placed themselves outside history’). And while Pirenne’s words may be charged with the experience of war, occupation, detention and collegiate betrayal, they are a firm reminder that historians are themselves historical actors.
‘HSTY3903: History and Historians’ was a great opportunity to place history and historians in their own historical contexts.
In an essay entitled “Public History” in Clark and Ashton, eds., Australian History Now (2013), Paul Ashton reflected on his experiences as a public historian and the growth of the field in general. He concluded by noting his working definition of public history as “the practice of historical work in a wide range of forums and sites which involves the negotiation of different understandings about the nature of the past and its meaning and uses in the present” (179). Such a definition draws on Raphael Samuel’s idea (discussed last week) that “history is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands,” and also points forward to Martha Sears’ ecological view of different forms of history-making as “part of a dynamic system where every diverse and distinctive element contributes to the vigour and health of the whole” (Sears, “History in Communities,” in Clark and Ashton, Australian History Now (2013), 212-213).
For me, this is a useful way of thinking about public history, and immediately encourages us to reflect on the practice of history in the University and classroom, which often (though not always) precludes these kinds of negotiations about different kinds of understandings about the past, and present uses. Our reading this week about the Enola Gay controversy in the United States in the early 1990s reinforced the dangers of not doing so, but also how difficult it might be to do so. Our discussions invariably shifted to the History Wars in Australia, but particularly the commemoration of Gallipoli and the ANZAC tradition. Is there a historical middle ground between commemoration and historical analysis? What role should the historian play in negotiating a kind of common ground that might move the debate forward, too? Opinions varied… Of course the Enola Gay controversy has resurfaced once again, especially in the USA and Japan, where the seventieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has just passed. History News Network, a useful clearing house for history-related news has been alive with discussion of this event (see, for example, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/159701http://).
We were also fortunate to have Bruce Baskerville https://twitter.com/mrbbaskerville join us to share his story of how he became a professional historian and the many challenges and opportunities he has faced. We were impressed with just how hard he has had to work at this and yet how many interesting projects he has been involved with. Students were keen to know how he got started, and also his hints on practical issues such as how to approach local and community organisations. Questions about ethics and responsibilities of the historian doing public history again came up in the discussion. Bruce, who is the current chair of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT http://www.phansw.org.au, talked about some of this and also noted that the Professional Historians Association of Australia has some guidelines that might be useful in their “Code of Ethics” (see http://www.historians.org.au/). But Bruce also recognised that there are many grey areas that need more fulsome discussion. No doubt we’ll be coming back to some of these questions throughout the unit.
…REFLECTIONS on leading HSTY 3903 in semester 1, 2015…:
A surprise nudge, then a step: a new centre of gravity.
Some of the most stimulating intellectual environments encourage movement in our thinking even when we might not expect it. Thoughts are like bodies: they jostle, touch, struggle, fall, and leap. Discussion is a motive force, and I was thrilled by the directions we travelled as individuals and as a group in “History and Historians” – or “H&H” as we came to call it.
For teachers, building a new class always entails an ideal projection: “this is where we’ll start, and that is where we’ll end up.” But a class like H&H – by inviting its members to shape the direction of the semester, particularly in its last month, when we share our research in roundtable discussions – challenges that projection in exciting ways. My generic conception of what we’d learn by semester’s end had to be reformulated and expanded. My centre of gravity had shifted. The questions H&H members were asking were excitingly diverse; they dug into the construction of histories on at least five continents and over 10 centuries. Everyone had to learn how to “talk history” across those spaces and times while still addressing central questions about the craft of interpreting the past.
But amidst that diversity were some remarkable consonances. I hadn’t foreseen the thematic accords that would bind the projects of the 2015 cohort together: a questing after the nature of nationalism and its relationship to memory and politics; a concern for histories of global social justice and Indigenous peoples; a dissatisfaction with existing periodizations and a pursuit of new methods; a debate over the way that historians engage with the world outside the university; a desire to open up to analysis our accepted histories of class and gender. These were just some of the many links we forged.
By the end, it seemed to me as if we had all been nudged in new directions, prodded forward by the curiosity of our peers. In 2016 it will happen again, energized in different ways by a new group’s perspectives. And we’ll all step forward once more.
For those who don’t know the class, here’s the official description:
HSTY 3903: History and Historians
In this unit you will independently frame, research and write an original essay analyzing how historians have written about the past. In choosing your topic you may draw upon historical issues, approaches and debates encountered throughout your previous studies in history. The lectures and tutorials introduce you to new methodologies and approaches to the past, and guide you through the stages of identifying an issue or debate, researching and understanding its different aspects, and shaping your own argument in response.