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HISTORY MATTERS Session 8: The elephant in the room – Ignored histories

Wednesday 6 November
5pm for 5.30pm – 6.30pm
Macquarie Room, State Library of NSW

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Historians actively choose their research topics and methodological approaches, shaping the histories presented to the public. In this final session of History Matters we consider the subjects that often get ignored or sidelined in history. History practitioners will unpack why some subjects are not as popular for research: available sources, cultural assumptions, methodological biases, historiographical trends, presentation formats, and the influence of commissioning bodies and grants. How many elephants will we find in the room?


A new seminar series set up by The Professional Historians Association NSW in conjunction with Oral History NSW and the State Library of NSW in 2019.

This is a seminar intended for professionals, students and those with a long standing interest in many aspects of the theory and practice of public history to meet on a regular basis for discussion of issues that stimulate and bedevil our work and how we communicate it to the world. In our first year we plan to cover how we collaborate with communities; what can be done to improve heritage interpretation; raise questions about historical authority and the role of journalists; find out about oral history collections; and explore histories that are regularly ignored.

The aim is to encourage a more reflective approach to our work, increase historical literacy and generally help us to see that history is not static and nor are the skills we have to investigate it, but that it can be both seriously rewarding and fun.

Sessions will take place on the first Wednesday of every month from March. The papers will be short and the discussion lively.


5 for 5.30pm – 6.30pm

Macquarie Room, State Library of NSW


Session 1 Why/Why Not? Life in the Past Lane – Wed March 6th

Chair: Paula Hamilton, UTS – Speakers: Paul Irish, Historian and Archeologist and Director of Coast History & Birgit Heilmann, Curator Hurstville Museums and Gallery, Georges River Council

The first session is designed to introduce the audience to questions about why history is important to all our lives. We explore how ideas about the past are changing  through the voices of two practitioners who work with history in very different settings. They will reflect on their own experience about the issues that have emerged in communicating history to different groups.

Session 2 Commissioned Histories – Wed April 3rd

Chair: Tanya Evans, Macquarie University – Speakers: Greg Young, urban planner and editor of Paddington: a history (2019) & Pauline Curby, public historian and writer of Randwick (2010)

This session questions the ethical issues involved in working on commissioned histories for different groups or communities. Is some level of compromise always inevitable? How do we work with indigenous clients and keep a professional distance? Is it particularly hard to do commissioned work using oral histories as part of the historian’s skills? Should we only work with sympathetic employers?

Session 3  Beyond Signage? Heritage Interpretation – Wed May 1st

Chair: Mark Dunn – Speakers: Sue Hodges, Heritage Professional and CEO of SHP (Victoria) & Sharon Veale, CEO GML Heritage (Sydney)

Session 3 asks: ‘In the professional field of heritage interpretation, are historians out in the cold?’ Heritage interpretation is dominated by specialists other than historians. And more often that not, interpretative schemes are concerned largely with aesthetics and texture. History is often accused of throwing heritage interpretation into a ‘grey area’ or a ‘hot mess’. Are complexity and contested viewpoints incompatible with heritage interpretation? What are the opportunities for interpretation in the public domain beyond the traditional plaque or signage? What can historians do for heritage interpretation? What can heritage interpretation do for historians?

Session 4 Historical Authority and Alternative Voices – Wed 5 June 2019

Professional historians are certainly not the only people who research and communicate the past to broad audiences. ‘History is the work of many hands’, as one writer said. This session addresses alternative voices and ways that journalists and novelists write about and use history in their work.


Paul Daley is a Guardian journalist who has won many awards for his outstanding articles. He also  writes about Australian history and culture and is particularly interested in Indigenous histories.

Christine Piper is a novelist of Japanese Australian Heritage and draws on extensive historical research from both countries. Her first novel After Darkness won the Australian Vogel’s Literary Award in 2014 and she is now working on her second novel.

Chair: Minna Muhlen-Schulte, historian and Senior Heritage Consultant, GML Heritage.

Session 5 A Babble of Voices: Using Oral History Collections – Wed 7 August

Oral history collections have been around for decades, but with the advent of digital technology our access to and use of collections is changing. Curators from two key repositories will highlight elements of their collection, and reflect on changing delivery and use by practitioners. Are oral history collections becoming more widely used? Will audio be surpassed by video? How important is social media for oral history collections? What about privacy issues in the internet age? And how should we incorporate Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property rights? Discussion following the two presentations will focus on how public historians can best make use of oral history collections in their work.


  • Dr Shirleene Robinson, National Library of Australia
  • Maria Savvidis, State Library of New South Wales

Session 6 Memory and Landscapes

Working with communities on their history can be one of the most rewarding (and frustrating) elements of being a public historian. How can we collaborate authentically with communities? What are the most productive forms of consultation? How do we shape the proposed outcomes to the needs of the community? Do we need different approaches for different communities? This session will explore the gamut of community histories from oral history projects to genealogy, native title, cultural heritage and thematic histories.

Chair: Dr Lisa Murray, City Historian


  • Professor Paul Ashton, Adjunct and Co-Founder Australian Centre for Public History
  • Emily McDaniel, Indigenous curator

Session 7 Collaborating with communities

How do individual and collective memories attach to cultural landscapes? In response to the History Week theme “Memory and Landscapes” two practitioners of public history and artistic interpretation reflect upon the significance of landscapes for our communities. How do our landscapes embody official and unofficial knowledge, public and private experience? Expressions of Indigenous country and cultural landscapes – and their connections – will be explored. 

Chair: Brye Marshall, Indigenous archaeologist


  • Kate Waters, Director, Waters Consultancy
  • Dr Madeline Shanahan, GML Manager, Public History and Research