Public History in the Land of Oz

Public history in Australia is practiced by members of the country’s six state and territory-based professional historians associations, by a small number of advocates and activists, by some academics and by community-based individuals and groups. Tensions remain over the nature and practice of public history at a time when the traditional discipline is in serious decline.
Languages: English

Public history in Australia is at a crossroads. While public history has generally become accepted as a sub-field, history is effectively no longer a core university discipline. There are around 850 professional historians in Australia of which around 60 per cent are academics. A more capacious understanding of the many roomed house of history may shore up history’s uncertain future.

No Longer the Only Professionals

In 1991 Australian Historical Studies – the premier journal for academic Australian history – published a special issue on a new field of history that had emerged in Australia in the 1980s and had lots of people talking. It was public history. But they weren’t all saying the same thing. Some historians welcomed the new history. In the introduction to the volume academic cultural historian John Rickard wrote that public history made traditional, archive-based historians rethink their practices. It raised ‘questions about the relationship between the history historians write for themselves … and the history they should write for others.’ And it served ‘to question our understanding of what constitutes the profession itself.’ Academics were no longer the only professionals. Government departments, local councils, museums and broadcasters like the ABC were employing historians to work in media, heritage, material culture and commissioned history.[1]

Issues and Tensions

Some academics were suspicious of the new field. For them it wasn’t proper history. Others were openly hostile. They were unwilling ‘to move out of the conventional archive, in which “the documents” were preserved, dutifully awaiting interpretation.’ And they refused to accept things such as photographs, art, film, artefacts and sites as serious historical sources. Rickard also mentioned that ‘many of the new sources had to be pursued and found, and their interpretation often required skills which had to be learnt.’ For not a few academics, public history was ‘intellectually a little dubious, and certainly more trouble than it is worth.’ But it had arrived. And it demonstrated that history had ‘a future, not only in the academy, but in the real world.’[2] The new professionals were slowly making headway into cultural areas and institutions that most academic historians had largely ignored for years.[3]

In many ways the Australian Historical Studies special issue encapsulated some of the issues and tensions that continue around public history practice. Blending theoretical concerns and ideas in the academy with historical practice is not easy. Some of the new professionals are also driven in part by concerns over social justice and history which became increasingly evident from the late twentieth century as public issues: trauma from the ‘stolen generations’ and institutional child abuse persist in the present as ‘unfinished business’.[4] Thrown into this mix are other professions. Architects, for example, often controll projects involving historical production. Film and television producers have modes of operating that imposed limits on historical representations.[5] Different levels of government regulate, for example, history’s marginal role in the heritage industry and paid historians to work in a range of cultural institutions, especially museums. And then there are a huge range of communities – from ethnic to location based – who have varying needs and budgets as well as understandings and expectations of history.[6]

Public History’s Visibility

Awareness of public history is growing, albeit it slowly, in Australia. It is being adopted in school curricula and textbooks. Government agencies, such as the City of Sydney Council – that employs a city historian, Lisa Murray, and has a history unit – have included it in cultural plans. Cultural institutions like libraries and museums are becoming more familiar with public history as graduates and postgraduates trained as public historians move into employment. The body of literature about the field in Australia has also been increasing at a modest rate, unlike Europe where here there has been a boom in courses and publications.[7]

Ironically, at the same time public history programs in Australian universities have largely ceased at the masters level, with the exception of coursework offered as part of the Masters of Research at Macquarie University. Tanya, with assistance from us, has set up the Australia and Aotearoa Public History Network at the Centre ‘for practitioners and enthusiasts across Australasia to share research and collaborate’.[8] They have also been replaced by training for more specific public history locations such as the Museums and Heritage MA course at the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland; a heritage studies MA at University of Western Australia; an advanced museums and heritage program at the Australian National University (ANU); an MS in urban and cultural heritage at the University of Melbourne in the School of Design; and a new masters of tourism, environmental and cultural heritage at the University of Tasmania (UTas). Kate Bagnall also runs a Graduate Diploma in Family History at UTas which contains several units of public history. Similarly, the graduate diploma at the University of New England in local, family and applied History has been enduring and popular with local communities and recently a separate unit on public history has been on offer.

Public History is still the focus of some centres at universities as part of their public engagement programs and to support existing courses. We established the Australian Centre for Public History (ACPH) at the University of Technology Sydney in 1999 which continues to operate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The refereed journal Public History Review, which we edit, is hosted at the ACPH. The Centre for Western Australian History was established in 1985 and focuses on histories from a regional perspective. It produces the annual journal Studies in Western Australian history and now specialises in environmental and commissioned public history work. The Centre for Museums and Heritage at the Australian National University, run by Laurajane Smith and Alex Dellios, teaches into related courses and is home to the International Journal of Heritage Studies.

The diffusion of public history to the broader history curriculum in tertiary institutions has coincided with the indigenising of university courses across their spectrum of offerings. This usually involves subjects which address indigenous history-making, which almost invariably to date is not practised in universities. There are, however, a handful of heritage and history firms, including Waters Consultancy, GML and SHP, that engage collaboratively with Indigenous communities and their knowledges and research protocols.

Public History Comes of Age

Today public history in Australia has come of age. There are around 350 ‘new professionals’ working across the country mainly in capital cities and in the more populous states of Victoria and New South Wales. Many would call themselves public historians. Three quarters of them are women. This compares to just over 500 academics around forty-five per cent of whom are women. Professional Historians Associations are well established, self-confident and less concerned today with industrial matters such as fee schedules and ethics codes. Some run regular conferences. A significant number of public historians have doctorates. About one-third of the PHA NSW’s members hold a PhD which gives them greater authority in workplaces. There seems, however, a reluctance among some to adopt a ‘more generous definition of the historical profession’ which Raphael Samuel called for over a quarter of a century ago.[9] Doing so would only strengthen history’s place in Australia’s culture and economy.


Further Reading

  • Paul Ashton, Tanya Evans and Paula Hamilton (eds.), Making Histories, Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2020.
  • Paul Ashton and Paula Hamilton (eds.), The Australian History Industry, North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, forthcoming 2021.

Web Resources


[1] John Rickard, ‘Introduction’, Australian Historical Studies, vol 24, no 96, 1991, 1-2.
[2] ibid, 2-3.
[3] See Paul Ashton and Paula Hamilton, History at the Crossroads: Australians and the Past, Halstead Press, Sydney, 2010, chapter 11, ‘The New Professionals: Public History’, 121-133.
[4] Ashton and Hamilton, History at the Crossroads, 192-197.
[5] See, for example, Michelle Arrow, ‘”I want to be a television historian when I grow up!”: On Being a Rewind Historian’, Public History Review, vol 12, 2006, 80-91.
[6] See, for example, Community History Program, History and Communities: A Preliminary Survey, Community History Program, UNSW, Kensington, 2000.
[7] The German publisher de Gruyter started a major public history series in 2020. The first volume was Paul Ashton, Tanya Evans and Paula Hamilton (eds), Making Histories, Berlin and Boston: de Gruyter, 2020.
[8] See (last accessed 1 June 2021).
[9] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, Verso, London and New York, 1994, 19.


Image Credits

Australia War Memorial © The author.

Recommended Citation

Ashton, Paul, Paula Hamilton: Public History in the Land of Oz. In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 7, DOI:

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Tanya Evans | Heather Sharp

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    The Nail on the Head

    The article, Public History in the Land of Oz, hits a frustrating nail right on the head: it feels like public history has come a long way in Australia over the past thirty years or so, while at the same time not having progressed very far at all.  The decline in the number of universities teaching public history in Australia has coincided with graduates from courses in the late 1990s and early 2000s (of which I am one) rising to positions of influence and authority in public history outside the academy, generating work and promoting the professionalism of public historians.  A place in public debate, policy development and community engagement has been created, but with now fewer and fewer public historians coming through the system to maintain it.

    The suspicion around public history amongst some academics in the 1980s appears to persist.  An unconscious bias around work outside the universities remains, ironically at a time when opportunities inside the academy shrink and those outside are booming.  A recent seminar advertised by the Australian Historical Association discussing non-academic career potentials noted that “while getting a job outside the academy has never been a sign of failure it’s becoming increasingly common (and necessary)…”

    The AHA advertises itself as the peak national organization for historians working in all fields of history, and yet, while many non-academic historians are members (again, I am one) it remains steadfastly an academic association that has little engagement with the world outside the university gate.  No doubt the seminar developers did not intend to suggest that a non-academic career was somehow a failure, but it is not hard to see the thinking when so few courses show a pathway for their students to follow.  This is not a problem confined to bodies such as the AHA.  The public facing online magazine The Conversation, a journal which has become an increasingly popular public outlet for expert discussion, only accepts contributions from those with an academic affiliation, leaving half those involved in public history out of the conversation altogether.

    Happily, there is much for academics to learn from public historians.  There are few if any public historians, including those active in each of the state Professional Historians Associations around Australia (which combined have upwards of 400 members), who do not have an academic qualification or years of professional experience, so our work is built on a foundation of research and rigor that one would expect of any historian.

    As the article’s author points out, public historians work in multiple areas of history, including public policy work, museums, as council historians and in heritage and conservation.  Much of the work is interdisciplinary and collaborative, is done in conjunction with local communities and indigenous groups, or is for clients who are not historically minded.  This is not a new development, but has always been the case with this form of history.  The nature of engagement requires a certain flexibility and an ability to take complex historical concepts or research and distill it into clear, reliable and readable work.  By its very nature a multitude of sources are used to tell these histories, from the traditional archival documents and academic sources, to art, pictures and images or even the site, building or landscape itself.  These may not have been considered the traditional sources when public history first began to gain traction, but their ongoing and successful use in the field has seen this influence seep back into academic teaching.

    From those early public history courses in Australia, like the one established by the article’s author, a generation of trained public historians have built an industry in which there are endless possibilities.  Closer collaboration with our academic colleagues would be a welcome development.  For many in the public history world, there is not as much engagement in this debate as maybe there should be.  The problem is we are all so busy doing history we don’t have time to look back and see who is following.

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