Public History in Australia

Monthly Editorial September 2021

Abstract:
Public history, in diverse forms is booming across Australia but there is room for public historians in and outside academia, to communicate more often and in more productive ways. It is also important for public historians to make absolutely clear the political motivations of our work and to make more obvious the relationship between the production and consumption of history for all, at every stage of the life-cycle, from primary school students to life-long learners.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18719
Languages: English


Public history, in diverse forms is booming across Australia but there is room for public historians in and outside academia, to communicate more often and in more productive ways. It is also important for public historians to make absolutely clear the political motivations of our work and to make more obvious the relationship between the production and consumption of history for all, at every stage of the life-cycle, from primary school students to life-long learners.[1]

Revealing the Significance

This is a vital task at a time when the Arts and Humanities, as subjects taught in the secondary and tertiary sector, are under constant attack from governments and commentators across the world.[2] The current Australian Liberal government is deliberately destroying the Arts and Humanities higher education sector across the nation, after decades of bilateral political support. Funding and job cuts have been particularly severe in Australia and all Vice Chancellors are bemoaning the loss of ‘market share’ as international students flock to nations with open borders and more welcoming campuses and political contexts.[3] We simply cannot sit and watch while history is demeaned, the Arts and creative industries are destroyed, and STEM subjects and pathways are revered, funded generously and declared the answer to all our neoliberal world’s problems. Everyone who loves history as much as we do need to work a good deal harder at revealing the importance of the subject in all our lives and its significance for the world around us.[4]

Current political instability in many nations, including a “harking back to an unidentifiable by gone era as is alleged of some in conservative politics…cannot be ignored”[5] and history can be utilised to show the importance of a democracy-literate populace to avoid similar political instability witnessed throughout history. At the fore since Trump was elected US President in 2016 has been concern about the general population succumbing to so-called ‘fake news’ and what has been observed is a rapid acceleration of political instability in some nations across many different geo-political regions worldwide. Widespread, although still in the minority, protests against government measures to curb the corona virus pandemic demonstrate the lack of trust some citizens have for their respective governments in making sound decisions to benefit them and others in the community. As a discipline, history is well placed to be able to respond to issues facing the present and into the probable future.

The Need for Collaboration

Our authors this month demonstrate the different ways in which public historians are doing this work across Australia, but we need to get better at sharing this knowledge. The Australian and Aotearoa NZ Public History Network was established this year by Macquarie University’s Centre for Applied History. The aim of the network is to develop public history across Australasia by creating opportunities to communicate, meet and share knowledge among individuals and organisations who practice public and applied history in the academy, communities, industry and professions. It aims to promote teaching, research and engagements between these diverse communities and encourage best practice through an online portal. There are a number of history organisations across Australia such as Museums AustraliaAustralian Historical Association, the several branches of the Professional Historians Association (PHA), History Council of NSW, varied Family and Local Historical Societies (some helpfully listed by the National Library), Heritage Councils, AIATSIS, State and Territory History Teachers AssociationsOral History Australia, the Federation of Australian Historical Societies, and GLAMx Living Histories < https://www.newcastle.edu.au/library/access/places-and-spaces/cultural-collections/glamx-lab> The same can be said of the many fabulous history organisations across Aotearoa/New Zealand, including the Professional Historians’ Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa (PHANZA). However, members of these groups who understand themselves as public historians do not always communicate effectively with each other about public history. We want to encourage national and international communication and collaboration at a time when we need to emphasise the cultural and social benefits of public history learning, teaching and community engagement for everyone.

We want to create opportunities to communicate, meet and share knowledge among individuals and organisations who practice public and applied history in the academy, communities, industry and professions. The AAPHN is home to a vast network of specialists and enthusiasts who have shared contact details and bios. This way our community can collaborate and share their vast expertise with one another, and members of the broader community are able to reach out to appropriate specialists. The network is available here, and if you would like to join please contact us at arts.CAH@mq.edu.au. To learn more: https://phn.edu.au/

History and Education

The HERMES (historical experience, representation, media, education, society) research group concentrated at the University of Newcastle, Australia and including affiliated scholars across the globe, seeks to provide an avenue for the integration of scholarly, public, and educational history to converge, with a particular focus on historical representations. The group produces solo and joint authored publications reflecting their projects in representations of history connected to a range of topics such as history in picture books, student mobility experiences, family history, curriculum inquiry, historical consciousness, historical thinking, national identity, and filmic pedagogies. For more information about the HERMES research group, message through https://www.linkedin.com/company/hermes-history and follow at https://twitter.com/hermeshistory

Engaging in public discussions about history within education settings is one of the purposes of The Tertiary History Educators Australia (THEA), established in 2018 by History education academics to represent History education matters nationally, taking a broad definition of education to include formal, informal, and public educational settings. To date, the group has explored ideas of broadening the scope of History education in the Australian context to include aspects of what is commonly considered public history, such as the role of museums and other experiential learning opportunities. The group sees public history defined as the study of how the past works in culture and society. In particular, public history considers the ethics and issues associated with the representation, consumption, and enactment of the past in museums, public life, memorials, films, novels, computer games, replicas and in augmented and virtual reality (A/VR) experiences. These public history learning objects communicate versions of history, and create popular historiography that connects learners to the past in powerful ways and is part of their life worlds beyond school.  A recent The Conversation article (https://theconversation.com/history-made-the-world-we-live-in-heres-what-youll-learn-if-you-choose-it-in-years-11-and-12-163366) by two members saw a very high level of engagement from an interested public in what history is taught to school students. It is the case that people both within and outside of school and formal education contexts are interested in what is taught in schools, especially narratives about the nation’s traumatic and sometimes controversial past, for example first nations’ histories, a matter addressed by Robert Parkes and Debra Donnelly in their article featured this month. For more information about THEA, initial contact can be made at thea@newcastle.edu.au

In the Australian context, unlike in some European jurisdictions, the school subject History is often dissociated from the academic discipline of history and it is not viewed as public history. It sits outside of these and is often not taken seriously by purist historians. Both the HERMES research group and the THEA association seek to remedy this situation through research that acknowledges the school subject of history as part of public history.  Most people do not study history in any formal sense after Year 10 and while they still consume history, especially through films, museums, television and exhibitions, there is no further engagement with it in a systematic or educational way. Therefore, school provides an important avenue for learning about history, especially the nation’s past, and to apply a critical lens to history.

The Contributions to the September Issue

This month’s articles begin with a contribution written by leading scholars and practitioners of Australian public history, Paula Hamilton and Paul Ashton. In their piece traversing the state of public history across the states and territories of Australia they reveal the tensions that remain over the nature and practice of public history at a time when the traditional discipline of history is in serious decline. We learn about the teaching of public history within Australian universities as well as the widespread practices of public historians outside of academic contexts including heritage and consultancies. Something we might want to think about is why so many public historians across Australia and elsewhere are women?

DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18705

Our second writer, Imogen Wegman, who teaches within the Diploma of Family Studies program and the Bachelor of Arts at the University of Tasmania reveals the practice of public history in Tasmania and her engagement with dark tourism. This is a thriving industry that public historians should focus on globally. She demonstrates Tasmania’s complicated history of heritage, and the different ways cultural institutions, heritage and tourist sites are telling different stories about the past, incorporating more diverse perspectives.  Many people are enjoying learning about the good, the bad and the ugly of Tasmania’s past, feeding a thirst for more knowledge.

DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18711.

Our third contribution written by a leading scholar of Indigenous history at the University of Technology Sydney discusses examples where Aboriginal communities, through their Local Aboriginal Land Councils are engaged in documenting their own history as a conscious process of becoming and being in dialogue with younger generations. This has revealed a different means of doing Aboriginal history that is local, emphasising nation building and pedagogy.

DOI: [to come]

From their vantage point in Western Australia our authors write about the shifts in public history in that state. A focus on ‘pioneer’ and settler heritage in the 1970s made way in the 1980s for the inclusion of more diverse perspectives informed by Indigenous advocacy and increased knowledge of colonial and frontier violence.

DOI: [to come]

Our final contribution is written by  founding members of the HERMES research group and editors of the Historical Encounters Journal < https://www.hej-hermes.net/> and they report on a project undertaken at the University of Newcastle, ‘Remembering Australia’s Past’ (RAP), which sought to develop an understanding of how initial teacher education students understood or placed importance on national history through responding to the question Please tell us the history of Australia in your own words. Analysis examines if students reflect the school curriculum, public discourses, or their own knowledge of topics independent or encompassing more than what is typically learnt in school or presented in public forums.

DOI: [to come]

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Further Reading

  • Paul Ashton, Tanya Evans and Paula Hamilton (eds.), Making Histories: Public History in International Perspective (De Gruyter, 2020).
  • Pedro Ramos Pinto and Bertrand Taithe (eds.), The Impact of History? Histories at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2015).
  • Silvia Edling, Heather Sharp, Jan Löfström, and Niklas Ammert, ‘The good citizen: Revisiting moral motivations for introducing historical consciousness in history education drawing on the writings of Gadamer,’ Citizenship, Social and Economics Education, 19(2), 133-150. doi:10.1177/2047173420936622 (2020).

Web Resources

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[1] Frank Mort, ‘Foreword’, in Sasha Handley, Rohan McWilliam and Lucy Noakes (eds.), New Directions in Social and Cultural History (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), xv.
[2] Paul Ashton and Meg Foster, ‘Public Histories’ in Sasha Handley, Rohan McWilliam and Lucy Noakes (eds.), New Directions in Social and Cultural History, (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 156. Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit:  Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (New Haven: Princeton University Press, 2010).
[3]https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/education/humanities-courses-under-threat-from-the-chorus-of-philistines-20210721-p58bmd; http://honisoit.com/2020/05/the-slow-decline-of-australian-humanities/; https://www.smh.com.au/national/oh-the-humanities-critically-wounded-in-the-culture-wars-20210407-p57h3w.html; https://www.theage.com.au/national/i-feel-like-a-commodity-covid-hit-only-beginning-for-australia-s-unis-20210331-p57fne.html (last accessed 1 September 2021).
[4] For further discussion of some of these ideas also see Pedro Ramos Pinto and Bertrand Taithe (eds.), The Impact of History? Histories at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2015).
[5] Heather Sharp and Niklas Ammert, ‘Primary sources in Swedish and Australian history textbooks: A comparative analysis of representations of Vietnam’s Kim Phuc.’ International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, 14(2), 1-14, 2017.

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Image Credits

Jamison Valley, Blue Mountains, Australia – Nov 2008 © 2008 Diliff CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended Citation

Evans, Tanya, Heather Sharp: Public History in Australia. In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 7, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18719.

Editorial Responsibility

Marko Demantowsky | Moritz Hoffmann

Copyright © 2021 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

The assessments in this article reflect only the perspective of the author. PHW considers itself as a pluralistic debate journal, contributions to discussions are very welcome. Please note our commentary guidelines (https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/contribute/).


Categories: 9 (2021) 7
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18719

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