Public History in Western Australia

Abstract:
In Western Australia, a diverse range of public history audiences engage with the past. Through community organisations, government programs, and heritage initiatives, the state’s distinctive history and culture are brought to life. Here we review key developments, from the 1970s when popular interest drove increased interest in the past, initially focused on ‘pioneer’ or settler heritage, and from the 1980s driven especially by Indigenous advocacy and growing acknowledgement of more troubling aspects of the colonial past such as frontier violence.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18713
Languages: English

History plays a rich role beyond academia in Western Australia, the continent’s ‘Western third’. Today, diverse audiences concerned with history are served by a range of formats, some uniquely linked to the state’s distinctive history, environments, and culture.

Local Entities

Key organisations include including the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, the National Trust of Australia (WA), Family History WA, the WA History Council, the Oral History Association (WA), Heritage Council WA and many local entities, from the University of Western Australia’s Centre for WA History to suburban and regional historical societies and small museums around the State.

The 1970s saw a tremendous upsurge in popular interest in local and regional history, fostered both by government and heritage bodies such as the National Trust. A unique project was mounted aiming to produce a Biographical Register of all Western Australians to 1914. The oral history program expanded at the Battye Library, capturing the voices of everyday people and providing a glimpse into the memories and folklore of Western Australians. The Oral History Association of WA formed in 1978, followed the following year by the WA Genealogical Society. WAM began opening regional branches in 1968 at Kalgoorlie, and later also Albany, Geraldton and Fremantle. Through the 1970s WAM also ran a program to provide expert advice for the establishment of municipal museums, prompting the establishment of museums at York, Claremont, Cunderdin, Wongan Hills, Geraldton, Yalgoo, Armadale and Esperance. Social history gained momentum, and during the 1970s a new focus on Aboriginal history and relations with colonists emerged, including work by anthropologists and archaeologists based at WAM. The 1979 Sesquicentenary of colonisation stimulated an increased historical awareness, expressed through ‘pioneer’ family reunions, publication of local histories and a state-commissioned 14 volume series of thematic studies covering a wide range of topics. Hotham Valley Railway commenced as a tourist line in 1977, six years after the last commercial steam engine in WA was retired. Yarloop Railway Workshops closed in 1978 and were taken over by the community to be converted into a rail museum.

Controversial Impact

By the 1980s more controversial aspects of their history were making an impact on the public, as revisionist histories challenged the popular celebration of WA’s ‘pioneer’ origins.[1] The State’s troubled colonial past – as elsewhere across the continent – was characterised by violence between colonists and First Nations peoples, and remains contested. An intriguing response has been the phenomenon of ‘dialogical’ monuments, where memorials commemorating colonists’, Euro-centric perspectives have been supplemented and challenged by later additions: at Cossack, a former pearling centre in the north-western Pilbara region, a sign which celebrates the industry has been challenged by the addition of interpretation expressing the Indigenous perspective on this history of labour exploitation and discrimination.[2] Similarly, a 1913 public memorial in Fremantle, memorialising colonial explorers who died as part of Aboriginal resistance to colonisation, was supplemented in 1994 by a second plaque challenging the colonial perspective and acknowledging Aboriginal people killed in frontier wars.[3] Noongar people have strongly asserted the significance of frontier violence, such as the Pinjarra Massacre of 1834; likewise the Kukenarup massacre memorial near Ravensthorpe was established by the local historical society in 2015 after they were approached by Noongar descendants of the survivors. At Dimalurru/ Tunnel Creek in the Kimberley, interpretation of the history of resistance led by Jandamarra, known as the Bunuba wars, is now on display.[4]

Today, an active branch of the Professional Historians’ Association (PHAWA) supports members undertake commissioned histories for a range of clients, including State and local government agencies, not-for-profit organisations, community history societies, the National Trust WA, private businesses, churches, museums and various heritage property owners. Historians frequently work within multidisciplinary teams alongside specialists such as curators, graphic designers, media officers, architects, town planners and archaeologists. Many current PHAWA members work within the heritage industry, often sub-contracting to architects, with the actual clients generally being property owners. Heritage work ranges from brief historical sketches supporting planning application to comprehensive thematic studies of whole areas of WA history, but is fundamentally place-based. Members of PHAWA include historians who work in salaried positions rather than on commission, primarily in government, at State or local level, and often linked to heritage, museums or libraries. Notably, Dôme cafés and coffee has an historian on staff as part of their program of adapting heritage buildings for coffee shops and boutique hotels.

Innovative Programs

In 2020 the Western Australian Museum Perth site re-opened after a major redevelopment, and was re-named WA Museum Boola Bardip, meaning ‘many stories’ in Noongar language – acknowledging the First Peoples and aiming to represent the shared history of all Western Australians. The State Library of Western Australia and the State Records Office of Western Australia, which share a single building, play an important role in fostering historical consciousness and research across the state, including through its staff. Innovative programs aiming to return collections to Aboriginal communities are breathing new life into collections and into public history in this State. The State Library’s Storylines program provides a digital access and engagement platform, returning digitised collections to Aboriginal families and communities and re-describing collections from the perspective of Aboriginal people. New collections have come to light through this form of public history work, such as the highly significant Mavis Phillips (nee Walley) Collection, as well as new understanding of known collections. The Heritage Council of WA, supported by the Heritage Services branch of the Department of Planning Lands & Heritage, administers the State Register of Heritage Places, including management of world heritage listed Fremantle Prison, and contributes to protecting and promoting history and heritage across the State.

The National Trust of Western Australia (established in 1960), works to raise understanding of the state’s past through the conservation and interpretation of the heritage places it manages, through education and learning programs, and through community consultation and engagement. For example, the Trust also manages the Golden Pipeline Heritage Trail which runs from Mundaring Weir east of Perth inland to Kalgoorlie-Boulder, commemorating the great Goldfields Water Supply Scheme: in 1896, following the struggle for water in Coolgardie and the Kalgoorlie-Boulder region, Premier Forrest introduced a scheme to build a 500km pipeline from a dam on the Helena River near Mundaring. During the 1950s a significant collaboration between UWA historians and the state government established that C.Y. O’Connor initiated the project, and saw it to completion, and an annual named lecture in his honour continues to be hosted by the Trust.

Multifocal

WA has a distinctive tradition of institutionally-commissioned histories, which complements the historiographical tendency to localise, through producing political, economic or settler histories reflecting larger ‘Australian’ themes, but focusing on WA. In 2014, for example, the WA company Wesfarmers celebrated its centenary, including a major history of the company, The People’s Story 1914-2014 by Peter Thomson, a free concert in rural Northam by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and the West Australian Opera, and a gala Annual General Meeting. UWA Press, Fremantle Press and Magabala Books all publish Western Australian histories, the latter focussed on Aboriginal history and culture.

Popular forms of history-making are represented on social media platforms such as the Facebook groups ‘Lost Perth’, ‘Lost Albany’ and ‘Lost Broome’, which share images and memories from recent decades, playing to a widespread nostalgic sensibility.  Both the State Library and State Archives regularly post historical insights from their collections via Facebook. Many listen to both the ABC 720 Perth radio segment ‘History Repeated’ which features State Library and State Records Office historical collections and shares stories about WA history, as well as 6PR’s long-running and popular Sunday night ‘Remember When’ program.

In 2016, Noongar traditional owners of the State’s South West agreed to the largest Indigenous Native Title land settlement in the nation, prompting extensive research into Indigenous history and culture. Important linguistic reclamation and revitalisation work has been undertaken, led by Noongar scholars such as Kim Scott and Clint Bracknell. However, during the ‘History Wars’ of the turn of the millennium, for example, Rob Moran’s 1999 Massacre Myth alleged the 1926 Forrest River Massacre in the Kimberley never happened. Indigenous and professional expressions of public history which assert Aboriginal experience continue to be contested in less formal forums, including social media.

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Further Reading

  • Bolton, Geoffrey. A Fine Country to Starve in. University of Western Australia Press in association with Edith Cowan University, Perth 1972.
  • Witcomb, Andrea, and Kate Gregory. From the Barracks to the Burrup: the National Trust in Western Australia. University of New South Wales: Sydney 2010.

Web Resources

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[1] For example, Tom Stannage’s The People of Perth (1979) developed a more nuanced understanding of the State’s past that attended to issues such as class and race relations.
[2] Kate Gregory and Alistair Paterson, ‘Commemorating the colonial Pilbara: beyond memorials into difficult history’, National Identities April 2015, New York: Routledge.
[3] https://cofremantle.wordpress.com/2017/08/27/freos-explorers-monument-shows-a-way-forward-on-statue-debate/; https://www.abc.net.au/radio/perth/programs/drive/statues-truth-telling-perth/12337446 (last accessed 14 September 2021).
[4] http://www.ravensthorpehistory.org.au/documents/kuke.html (last accessed 14 September 2021).

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Image Credits

 © 2021 The Author.

Recommended Citation

Lydon, Jane, Clare Menck, Kate Gregory: Public History in Western Australia. In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 7, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18713.

Editorial Responsibility

Tanya Evans | Heather Sharp

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Categories: 9 (2021) 7
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18713

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3 replies »

  1. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.

    OPEN PEER REVIEW

    Into a shared, inclusive and respectful space

    As Western Australia looks to ways to commemorate 200 years of colonisation 2026-2029, this is a timely survey of approaches to public history in Western Australia. The article picks up on recent debates across the state over how to approach contested histories and divided memories. These are represented in a series of lectures and events held at the State Library of Western Australia in 2019 (http://www.slwa.wa.gov.au ). The first was Dr Chris Owen’s lecture on his 2016 publication, Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905 (UWAP). Owen’s account raised the question of who we name and the extent of intergenerational historical responsibility. Those responding to Owen’s lecture spoke of the trauma of family displacement and loss due to state endorsed and enforced practices such as prisoner transfer away from country and child removal. Owen’s work complemented Professor Anna Haebich’s Dancing in Shadows Histories of Nyungar Performance (UWAP, 2017) which considered the legacy of state-sponsored oppression and how it is linked to intergenerational poverty and a loss of language and culture. Haebich’s lecture in September on The History of Aboriginal History in Western Australia outlined the institutions which supported the doing of Aboriginal history, starting with her early oral history work at what is now Edith Cowan University. Speaking just two weeks later, Whadjuk Noongar man, Ezra Jacobs, grandson of Cecil Jacobs, presented on his work as Aboriginal Heritage Officer on the Prison and burial ground on Wadjemup, the history of which was erased as Rottnest Island became a holiday playground. Speaking to the tyranny of legacies and in respect of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Smith made the argument that truth telling and healing are key to reconciliation. Coincidentally, these speakers came together again in November 2019 at the Historians and Truth Telling symposium organised by Nigena (Nyikina) woman, Dr Cindy Solonec, for the History Council of WA with Alan Carter from Curtin University representing Reconciliation WA and Em. Professor Jenny Gregory. The keynote panel on historians, Truth Telling and Uluru was opened by Nyoongar man, David Collard followed by thoughtful and powerful meditations from Professors Ann Curthoys and John Maynard from the Worimi People. Representing Truth telling Now, Jacobs and Owen joined Noongar and Yawuru woman, Dr Elfie Shiosaki and Aileen Marwung Walsh, a Spinifex Anangu and Noongar woman, to describe how activism charged their work. The afternoon closed with Noongar man, Professor Kim Scott, and Fred Chaney AO reflecting on lives lived Truth Telling (https://www.historycouncilwa.org.au/historians-truth-telling ).

    These efforts to contend with difficult pasts were also reflected through a focus on naming. In February 2019, the State (or Old Treasury) Buildings on the corner of Barrack Street and St George’s Terrace in the heart of the City unveiled new entry signs with “Wanju” prominently displayed along with a small public talks and film series of the same name (https://statebuildings.com/). At Perth Festival, Noongar woman, Kaarljilba Kaardn or Kylie (Farmer) Bracknell joined with Iain Grandage so that in 2020 all places and sites in the Festival were dual named; Hecate was premiered as a Noongar language play; and regular conversations and cleansing ceremonies took place throughout the Festival to recentre the cultural capital (https://www.perthfestival.com.au/ ). At Lakelands SHS, in November 2020, Kalyakoorl Ngoornding Boodjar (Forever Sleeping in Our Country) was established. Led by Deputy Principal and President of the WA History Teachers Association, Mrs Cathy Baron, the garden honours the service of Indigenous soldiers from Western Australia in World War I (Cockburn Gazette, 12 November 2020). Similarly, at Wembley Primary School, and inspired by the Black Lives Matter Protests a student delegation headed by Henry Leaver and Charlotte Keenen led the change of their Faction names and replaced Governor James Stirling, Sir John Forrest and others with those who aligned with school values: Noongar men, Graham “Polly” Farmer and Steven Jackson, as well as Tim Winton and Professor Fiona Stanley (Post Newspaper, 11 Dec. 2020). Finally, in June 2021, after a lengthy debate over the merits of dual naming, and despite the approach taken by WA Museum Boorla Bardip, in May 2021 Kings Square in Fremantle was renamed Walyalup Koort (Heart of Fremantle, https://www.fremantle.wa.gov.au/news-and-media/heart-fremantle-be-renamed-walyalup-koort ).

    As the article effectively argues, the initiatives led by the History Council WA, bodies representing history in the State and institutions and individuals, are impressive and signal a shift in the treatment of public history in WA. However, legal (?) destruction of rock shelters of Juukan Gorge, a 40,0000-year-old cave site of exceptional significance, by mining giant Rio Tinto in May 2020 raised the question of whether with holistic and state led oversight these shifts could lead to change rather than piecemeal and inconsistent approaches  (https://www.riotinto.com/en/news/inquiry-into-juukan-gorge). The need to do so was reinforced when the move to change the name of City of Stirling was met with defeat in a Council vote (Perth Now, 9 June 2021). In this respect, Encounters, the South West Heritage Conference hosted by Heritage Council of WA and Heritage Services, Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage in Busselton in April 2021 was a demonstration of the potential of coordinated planning with regional oversight to direct a position on heritage (https://www.historycouncilwa.org.au/event/encounters-2021-south-west-heritage-conference ). It was welcomed and shifted the debate squarely into a shared, inclusive and respectful space. It is the hope that the government will take such consultative and bold actions as they steer the course of public history with 200 years anniversary on our horizon.

  2. Thanks for this excellent extended response Sam! What a terrific review of these changes- and a hopeful future for exchange and acknowledgement.

  3. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.

    Some further aspects of the Western Australian public history landscape

    It has been almost eleven years since I left Western Australia, and I have been pleased to witness from afar some of the positive changes that have taken place in regard to an honest engagement with histories of frontier violence and indigenous dispossession. The opening of Yagan Square, the introduction of new naming conventions regarding placenames and of course all the examples mentioned above are all part of a seismic shift in the way in which the story of Western Australia’s settlement is being reinterpreted by a new generation.

    I think however that seem key aspects of the Western Australian public history landscape have been missed in this overview, which I would like to touch on here.

    ‘Historical’ public history: Even though the discipline is relatively young, the acts of commemoration and historical mythmaking have deep roots. How did memorialisation look before the 1960s, where the timeline here begins? In what ways did the Swan River colony narrate its own past in a way to give it greater historical legitimacy?

    ANZAC: The persistence/existence of ANZAC memorials within most towns/settlements in WA retain huge ritualistic significance. They are (literally) the pillars of public history in WA. April 25 remains the most significant day for national myth-building, and arguably sucks the oxygen out of alternative public history practices in Australia, at least for those that receive funding form the state. The federal funding for the commemoration of 100 years since the First World War dwarfs investment from the state in other areas of public history.

    Politics: How does Western Australia’s sense of itself as a political community rest not only on the physical barriers to entry at its borders, but more fundamentally on a shared view (though contested) regarding a shared history? How does that history look and to what extent is it reinforced by WA Day (formerly Foundation Day)?

    New technologies: Which apps are available for people to interact with the heritage landscape in both Perth and beyond? Are there any podcasts or series that have been created to do self-guided tours?

    Heritage: There is a reference to the Heritage Council of WA, but I would be curious to know whether there has been any critical engagement with it as an organisation. Is heritage a blessing or a curse? To what extent is it entangled in the legitimation story of Western Australia as a settler society?

    Links to broader trends in public history: How does public history in Western Australia look in a national, regional, and global context (eg. 1970s’ history boom, memorialisation)? In what broader contexts have the above-mentioned aspects of WA public history taken place?

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