After the war: what next?


… by Francesca Beddie

What could be more apt after the four years of WWI commemoration than the question posed at Professional Historians New Zealand’s fifth conference in its twenty-five-year history — After the war: what’s next?

And the answer: well, yes, more war history but also more diversity in whose stories are told and by whom, and more place-based stories, and more use of the digital medium. Given the continuing dominance of conflict as a theme in history, this post concentrates on that strand of the conference.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s senior historian educator, Steve Watters, gave the keynote address at the two-day conference in Wellington (14-15 April). In a polished performance – framed inevitably by the Christchurch massacre, being referred to in New Zealand as March 15 – he asked what message we send when we emphasise certain events and explain what war means by steeping it in gratitude for sacrifice rather than by asking challenging questions.

One response in New Zealand to the focus on WWI surprised me: in 2014 a visit to the sites of battles in New Zealand’s internal wars prompted some year 12 students to initiate a petition to parliament to officially acknowledge the New Zealand Wars in a national day of commemoration and to introduce study of these conflicts into the school curriculum. The petition gained momentum; it had more than 12,000 signatures by the time the Ōtorohanga College students presented it to Parliament in December 2015.

In August 2016, the government announced that a national day of commemoration would be established (although not as a statutory holiday). In the final year of the WWI centenary, on 11 March 2018 such a day was held in Kororāreka-Russell to remember the battles that took place there in 1845. Finding a fixed day on the calendar that suits the country as a whole will, however, be difficult because the different nations (iwi) within Maori society have different wars to remember.

The Ministry of Education voiced its opposition to introducing the New Zealand Wars as a mandatory part of the curriculum but the government has set aside funds to increase awareness among all Aotearoa New Zealand citizens about local history. As one of the advisors (Kaawhia Te Muraahi) on the use of those funds put it:

We want the country behind the concept of a national day that speaks to who we are – in this country, not in Gallipoli, not off-shore but who we are in this country – where we have come from and where we could possibly go to.

While it is ANZAC that, according to Watters, remains New Zealand’s de facto national day, he thinks history teachers realise the need to incorporate the internal wars into their teaching. Many, however, do not feel well equipped to do so, and are therefore keenly awaiting the outcomes of a project that will provide additional resources. Difficult Histories, The New Zealand Wars is tracing shifting historical perspectives of the nineteenth-century clashes involving Māori and the Crown and investigating how different groups have commemorated these conflicts over time and how memory and silence about this difficult past permeates people’s everyday lives in the present.

Other papers at the conference alerted us to the continuing gaps in war studies: the effect of war on women and others who remained at home, as workers or dissenters or, suddenly, enemy aliens. In one session, Jared Davidson drew on material from his recently published book, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920, to illustrate how war had affected the lives of people who did not go to the front.

Another presentation resonated with the recent book by Emma Dortins, The Lives of Stories: all this WWI commemoration will become part of the history of memory. Ewan Morris suggested there is more to investigate in the cross-overs between public and private memory; and between official and popular projections of the past.

Incorporated into the conference were three tours. On the walking tour of Mt Cook, we saw again the prominence of war commemoration. Outside the conference venue swayed a sculpture of Flanders poppies, produced by students at the neighbouring technical college for their 2015 project. Along the way we saw the remains of bunkers built in anticipation of Japanese invasion in WWII and then we arrived in the National Memorial park, newly created in 2015. The park incorporates the War Memorial Carillon (1932) and other monuments but also has a casual air. As the official website says:

it’s the perfect place to bring a picnic; an oasis of quiet reflection in the middle of our vibrant capital city of Wellington.

Fifteen minutes away is Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, where people are still flocking to the Gallipoli exhibition. This is a display that pulls no punches about the horror of war. It tells its story through the eyes and words of eight New Zealanders, each captured frozen in a moment of time on a monumental scale – 2.4 times human size. The crowds have to navigate narrow passages, one a simulation of a trench in which hand-to-hand battle is disturbingly lifelike. As well as hearing the stories of the men and women, the effects of war are graphically displayed. A little boy ran in front of me eager to look at a grenade. He pushed a button to be confronted by an animation of the effects of that grenade on a human skeleton. His glee turned to silence.

The exhibition sets out to create empathy for the characters who carry its messages about war. It asks people to write their responses on poppies that are placed at the feet of the last great statue. Some convey the familiar gratitude for sacrifice; others the need to learn from the carnage:

‘A great reminder we do not want war.’

But also a reminder that historians have an ongoing role in exploring silences in the official record and bringing these into public view.

Image: one of the monumental figures at Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition (by the author)

Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra – public parklands being traded for apartments


… by Anne Claoue-Long

Historians like time. It is central to our business. Heritage landscapes, be they natural or created by humans, are forged by the passage of time. Historians can read that effect in the physical landscape just as they can read a book.

Canberra is a famous example of a designed heritage landscape. It is significant for the way the surrounding mountains and nearby hills (many with Aboriginal significance) together with the centrally created Lake Burley Griffin are connected by long vista spaces.  This cultural use of natural landscape has matured over time. It has acquired both symbolic meaning in relation to our understandings of democracy and  social value from its open spaces.

Planning for ornamental waters was a prerequisite for Australia’s National Capital.  In the winning entry to the capital’s design competition a substantial lake system was planned by Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin in 1911 and amended by W B Griffin in 1913 with some further modification in 1918.  The design was again refined by the Menzies Government’s National Capital Development Commission in the light of technical research on waterflows.

Around the lake the parliamentary, administrative and cultural institutions were spatially set out in the landscape.  Surrounding this core are the celebrated garden suburbs whose beginnings came from the two urban planning philosophies of the early 20th century – the ‘Garden City’ and ‘City Beautiful’ movements, which campaigned against the industrialised city ugliness and consequential poor physical and social health of rapidly urbanising populations.  The interconnection of the historic form of the designed landscape with the presence of nature and open space is integral to Canberra and not coincidental.

By the 1960s the completed lake and parklands were a stunning masterwork of landscape design and engineering that successfully kept the spirit of Griffin’s 1911 plan but achieved a functioning and modern attractive expression.  From the moment the lake filled in 1963 it became a major recreation feature of the fledgling city with people enjoying both the natural lake environment as well as the structured environments on the foreshore.

The heritage significance of the entire Lake Burley Griffin and Lakeshore Landscape remains officially unlisted. This is despite considerable professional research on the history and value of the lake and its designed landscape setting, as well as several heritage nominations to the Federal Government, accompanied by continued lobbying in the face of inactivity to process them.  The public open space of the lake waters and parkland shores therefore lack official heritage protection.

‘Space’ is an increasingly important landscape value. It is greedily sought after and mined for profit by governments and developers.  Both may believe and even say that open space is wasted space, as it is not contributing to overall progress and the development of the economy.  Any open areas in urban areas that are not a manicured park designed for ease of maintenance with hardscape walkways and simplistic easy-care plantings are in danger of being termed wasteland. They become ripe for building development.  This is the threat to Lake Burley Griffin and its surrounding parklands in West Basin where the important cultural landscape is being reshaped by human intervention that is disregarding history and heritage concerns.

The piecemeal profit-driven development will result in loss of open public green space and view lines. Not only is green space at risk.  Also proposed is the redrawing of the lakeshore and reclaiming part of the lakebed and adjoining parklands.

The proposal is to take 2.8 hectares of West Basin’s lakebed to create a sizeable estate of private 4-6 storey apartment buildings. The current informal open public parkland and vistas will be privatised.  A promenade frontage with concrete boardwalk will replace the natural soft lake edge. This will damage the three-basin lake form carefully researched and constructed in the 1960s.  The alteration of current natural earth lake edges with small beaches to hard form walls will result in a loss of a wildlife environment for platypus, water rat and waterfowl and loss of around 100 mature trees. The public too will lose the opportunity to connect with nature. In addition, vistas, including those experienced from Commonwealth Avenue, the major route to Parliament House, will be disturbed.

Dense urban development can often be unattractive and unhealthy – the Garden City and City Beautiful movements were a reaction to such ugliness.  Open space once built on is gone.  The impact of that loss is felt ever after.  A further consequence of such building on open space is that a rise in development land values closely follows, inevitably leading to further development for private use and encouraging even denser infill.

The Lake Burley Griffin Guardians, a local community group together with  Australia ICOMOS and the Australian Garden History Society have taken their concerns to the local ACT and Federal Governments, but development proposals are continuing.

What will future historians read in the proposed privatisation and development of Lake Burley Griffin’s West Basin?  Only time will tell but on the record will be the objections from this generation of historians and community members.


Great Strike of 1917 captured on film


by Laila Ellmoos

The Great Strike of 1917 began on the NSW railways and tramways on 2 August 1917 in the midst of World War 1. The strike started when employees from Eveleigh Railway Workshops and Randwick Tramsheds walked off the job to protest against the introduction of a new way of monitoring worker productivity known as the timecard system. This new system added a layer of management in the workshops, and was considered an affront to the skill and craftsmanship of rail and tram employees. Workers across a range of industries soon joined the strike action, as it spread throughout NSW and Australia. The strike lasted for just over six weeks.

The 1917 strike was preserved on film by a prolific but little-known Australian filmmaker named Arthur Charles Tinsdale. He oversaw the filming of the strike as it was unfolding, as well as appropriating footage from other locally made newsreels. His hour-long film The Great Strike was released in early October 1917 by which time the strike had largely ended. It only screened once in NSW, before it was banned, censored and retitled. Although future screenings were planned in NSW, they never went ahead due to the intervention of conservative politician Walter Wearne, MLA for Namoi.

Walter Wearne would have considered a film like this to be inflammatory against the backdrop of World War 1. But the catalyst for the film’s censorship was the depiction of a key moment in the strike that involved his brother Reginald. On 30 August 1917, Walter’s brother Reginald shot dead a striker named Mervyn Flanagan in the Sydney suburb of Camperdown. When Walter saw the film advertised at the Strand Picture Place in Narrabri, he contacted the Chief Secretary with his concerns, specifically the mention of his brother’s ‘Killing of Flanagan’. The film was then embargoed, censored to remove all references to the murder of Mervyn Flanagan, and re-titled as ‘Recent Industrial Happenings in NSW’. The film was effectively suppressed in NSW.

The surviving fragments of Tinsdale’s strike film are held in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) collection as two separate films. It’s not known how the two separate reels of film came into the collection but recent research reveals that one of the films was acquired from a New Zealand film collector in the 1970s. The other reel came into the collection in the 1960s; its donor is unknown. Both films were transferred from the original nitrate to 35mm safety film.

Only one of the film reels was catalogued, and it was down to the knowledge of Graham Shirley, the NFSA’s former historian and current PHA NSW & ACT member, that we were able to locate the other reel. Piecing together Tinsdale’s film involved intensive research to unravel the story of the film’s banning and censorship, and to understand the scene sequence. This was tricky as the sequence on the two separate films did not follow any particular order.

So what do the surviving fragments of the film capture? There are street processions, mass gatherings in The Domain, commuters finding alternative ways to get home, ships waiting in the harbour, and idle coal and coke operations in the Wollongong area. There are scab camps at Taronga Zoo and Sydney Cricket Ground, arrested strike leaders leaving the Central Court on Liverpool Street, and strikers gathering outside Sydney Trades Hall. The intertitles, although mostly descriptive, sometimes include humour and the lyrics to popular songs, a nod perhaps to Tinsdale’s vaudeville past and contemporary entertainment conventions, revealing that the film was topical but also entertainment.

The film came to my attention when I started work to co-curate an exhibition about the Great Strike of 1917 at Carriageworks. I worked with NFSA’s Simon Drake (Collection Reference Coordinator) to reconstruct the surviving fragments, scanned by the NFSA to 4K format, into a single film that followed the original order. To do this, we used synopses and shotlists found in newspaper advertising and in the censorship records held at State Archives NSW, backed up with my own research into the strike and knowledge about Sydney’s landmarks and landform. The footage was edited by the NFSA’s Richard Carter (Production Coordinator) into a chronology that follows how the film would have been originally presented. Although it was originally around an hour long, the Great Strike film now runs to around 16 minutes. The restored and reconstructed film is a rare survivor – not just because it’s an early Australian film but because it is an early film that documents a strike action.

The NFSA’s restored film titled The Great Strike (Centenary Reconstruction), was a key element of the exhibition 1917: The Great Strike, presented by the City of Sydney and Carriageworks in July-August 2017. This was the first time in 100 years that this reconstructed film, combining the two surviving fragments of the censored film, was seen in sequence. A soundtrack was commissioned for the exhibition by composer Martin Peralta.

Finding Tinsdale’s film, piecing the fragments back together, and unearthing its story was an unexpected bonus in curating the exhibition. It’s extraordinary that this visual document, made over 100 years ago, has survived, and that its history, meaning and significance can be interpreted through a multiplicity of documents from other libraries and archives. The film, as a mediated document, shows the power and value of the visual medium in the early decades of the 20th century. You can view it here.

The restored The Great Strike (Centenary Reconstruction) film has been inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2019. This is a testament to the collaborative teams at City of Sydney and the NFSA that pieced the film back together. It is also a fitting tribute to Arthur Charles Tinsdale, who made the film. He would have been proud to have such a high honour for his filmmaking, a recognition that eluded him in his lifetime.


Image: Paul Patterson, City of Sydney



Sailing headlong into 2020: public historians and the 250th anniversary of James Cook


… by Stephen Gapps

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the waters of considered debate about the commemoration of Australia’s colonial origins, along comes Captain Cook. Again. The famous navigator, once considered to embody the correct set of qualities inherited in modern Australia instead of Governor Phillip and those awkward convicts, is re-surfacing in yet another of the monotonously regular anniversary moments that seem to generate enthusiasm in proportion to insecurity. Cook 2020 looms on the horizon.

We may have thought Cook had achieved his Australian apotheosis in the 1970 re-enactment of his arrival. That display was watched by a young Queen Elizabeth, subverted by a group of Sydney University students in a speedboat with a fake Cook, and protested by Aboriginal people at La Perouse, who threw mourning wreaths into the waters of Kamay-Botany Bay for the re-enactment audience, especially the Queen, to contemplate. The 1970 re-enactment of Cook’s landing – touted as the first ‘authentic re-enactment’ and one made for television ‒ drew together all the previous re-enactments and commemorations that had exhorted Australians to place themselves in Cook’s footsteps and imagine what Cook might have contemplated for Australia and what wondrous cities might arise because of his short stay on the shores of Kamay. Cook has had his fair share of recycling at anniversary moments: from the first tablet to the great man tacked up on a rock in 1822 to the annual pilgrimages of dignitaries on steamships in the mid-nineteenth century who would anchor over the same spot Cook did, to the 1901 re-enactment that was tied to Federation celebrations in order to assert that independence from Britain did not mean abandoning this great symbol of the ‘Mother country’, to the early twentieth-century local politicians who fostered the idea that Kurnell was ‘the birthplace’ of modern Australia.

Rather than, as the refrain went, ‘Cook would surely marvel at what had been achieved’, in his afterlife Cook may have been puzzled by the many uses and abuses of his name. So, what can we expect for the 250th anniversary? Will long-dead self-confessed Cookaphiles such as Thomas Holt or Sir Joseph Carruthers, the local parliamentarians who did so much to make Australia British and who used Cook as a symbol for their projects of acclimatising European flora and fauna to Australian conditions (i.e. introduce feral pests), look down on Botany Bay and find their hard work has borne fruit? Will Australians dutifully build more monuments that, as Holt and Carruthers enthused in the late 19th century, remind Australians of the ‘crimson thread’ of colonisation?

On  25 January, I attended the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) Big Thinking Forum titled ‘Indigenous Australia and Captain Cook: Setting the agenda for 2020’. The panel included Wesley Enoch, theatre director, writer and director of the Sydney Festival, Amrita Hepi, choreographer and dancer, Rachel Perkins, filmmaker, John Maynard Chair of Aboriginal History at the University of Newcastle and was moderated by author, radio host and filmmaker Larissa Behrendt. Their agenda-setting stance was gazumped somewhat by the Prime Minister’s announcement just days before of funding for 2020 events, though these plans found their way into the discussion. The panel made a strong call for recognition of 2020 as an anniversary of the dispossession of First Australians and the beginning of a history of colonial violence against them. Yet most speakers found in this impending anniversary not just the same long struggle trying to assert an Aboriginal voice into proceedings but an opportunity as well: an opportunity for Aboriginal people and their allies to continue to generate a powerful message to rethink the usual repurposed, commemorative, anniversary moment.

PHA member Bruce Baskerville wrote about the announcement of Cook 2020 and the debate around Australia Day, that ‘either this week has been evidence of the existence of parallel universes, or history is fiction and historians don’t exist’. Ever since the 1930s when Cook was wrested from his pedestal of founding father by historians and nationalists wanting to erase the convict stain and propose Phillip as the true founder, people have conflated the two figures. Cook landed in Sydney Cove and Governor Phillip arrived in 1770. Or was it the other way around? It’s a confusing foundational moment indeed, a sign of the elasticity and manufacturing of ‘foundation’ itself.

Historians must be part of setting the agenda for 2020 and the role of the public historian in understanding the ways, means and methods people shape their facts is particularly important. We need to continue to inform history in the public sphere by sifting through the archive to explain the changing ways Cook has been reified in the past. Truth-telling is not just fact-checking.

Dr Stephen Gapps is a PHA member, author of The Sydney Wars – Conflict in the early colony 1788-1817, Vice-President of the History Council of NSW. His PhD thesis was a history of historical re-enactments, with a focus on the re-enactment of Cook and Phillip. He is also a curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum, custodians of the replica HMB Endeavour.

 Image from the State Library of New South Wales with the following caption: Sesquicentenary re-enactment of the landing of Captain Cook [Phillip ?] {sic} at Kurnell

Public history: exploring productive relationships with partner practitioners


by Peter Hobbins

In recent years I have come to favour the term ‘community historians’, in part because it encompasses local, family and special-interest historians, alongside what we in medical history refer to as ‘practitioner’ historians. Indeed, I’ve begun experimenting with the phrase ‘partner practitioners’ as an inclusive term for the variety of folks who research and write history, whatever their training. This approach acknowledges different levels of interest, accomplishment and motivation, while avoiding the odious label of ‘amateur’. Indeed, my growing interest in public history arose from a visceral reaction to an academic colleague’s sneering reference to ‘hobbyists’.

Over October 2018 I had an opportunity to undertake a more pragmatic experiment, namely encouraging community historians to research the local impact of the pneumonic or ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic of 1918–19. This venture was supported by the Australian Historical Association’s Allan Martin Award, which generously provided a $4000 travel grant to visit four regional centres around New South Wales, as part of a larger initiative coordinated by the Royal Australian Historical Society (RAHS).

Hosted by the relevant local historical societies, the ‘flu roadshow’ visited Port Macquarie, Tenterfield, Bathurst and Albury, where Victorian PHA member, Mary Sheehan, was my co-presenter. Concurrently, I was also invited to discuss an overview of the project at the local studies librarians meeting held in Dubbo in early November.

Each 2–3 hour seminar was divided into two sessions. First, I presented an extensive overview of the global, national and local impact of the influenza pandemic. After refreshments, the floor was opened up for participants to share their personal stories, community memories and research ideas. We then workshopped where to locate and cross-reference sources, as well as the surprising social history sometimes revealed in medical materials.

The overall goal was to encourage ‘partner practitioners’ to investigate the local impact of the 1919 flu – and then to share their work via publications, activities, exhibitions or media stories. To this end, I worked with fellow historians to create a 28-page resource guide for all participants. It suggests archival and community sources for researching the pandemic, plus an annotated bibliography of key historical accounts. This guide was supported by funding from the Department of History at the University of Sydney (I am very happy to provide free hard or soft copies to PHA members).

Workshop attendance ranged from 6 to 25, including local historians, genealogists, active and retired healthcare professionals, curators, local studies librarians, and even a bottle collector! I also used the trip to informally take in local archival collections and sites, from cemeteries and civic monuments to council infectious diseases registers and undertaker’s records. Interesting medical materials also turned up in country op shops and antique stores, including a 1925–28 pharmacy prescriptions register and a collection of mid-century nursing certificates.

Part of the process included regularly tweeting about my travels via the hashtag #AnIntimatePandemic, alongside blog posts on the RAHS website.

The tour attracted some media attention, including a Tenterfield Star article , a 2BS Bathurst radio spot and an ABC National Evenings interview with Christine Anu.

Moreover, several attending ‘partner practitioners’ are now planning pandemic-related research projects. Further workshops are also pending for Sydney, the Hunter, the Hawkesbury and Dubbo. The RAHS’s ultimate goal is to create a ‘mosaic history’ of the pandemic’s impact upon families and communities across the New South Wales.

The tragic centenary of the ‘Spanish’ flu offers yet another opportunity for professional historians to connect with our ‘partner practitioners’ and the wider networks of community history.


Image: State Library of NSW: Female typists in masks 1919

The end of the war


by Francesca Beddie

As we approach the finale of the centenary of WWI, an organisation set up in 2013 to promote a balanced consideration of Australian history celebrated its fifth anniversary. The Honest History symposium attracted some big names: Paul Daley, journalist and writer; Clare Wright, historian Michael Cooney CEO of the Australia Republic Movement; Ann McGrath, historian. However, as Matilda House, the Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder, observed in her welcome to country, the event was dominated by the older generation. A few students and early career researchers came and went during the day; a couple spoke. To change the public discussion about our past this is not enough. As Aunty Matilda said, youth need to hear from the knowledge holders.

Engaging young audiences was one topic that surfaced in the discussions. Speakers reinforced the message that historians must move beyond the written word if they want to reach beyond their rusted-on consumers. Television, film, podcasts must be in the mix. Wright observed that young people are comfortable with complexity, with seeing the world from multiple perspectives. That presents opportunities for more nuanced stories about the past, although a strong theme of the day was encapsulated in the term ‘Anzackery’. Wright referred to ‘the great wall of Anzac’ which prevents other aspects of history becoming visible. Some of those aspects aired at the symposium were women’s peace movements and the frontier wars waged with the Indigenous people since colonisation. This led also to critical comments about the huge amount ($500 million) the government has spent on WWI commemoration and the announcement of $498 million for an extension to the War Memorial (which, by the way, will involve the demolition of the Anzac Hall completed in 2001). Could this money not be better spent, Wright and Daley asked, on a women’s history museum or a national keeping place for Indigenous remains or on monuments to hitherto unrecognised figures from history?

While the symposium did not explicitly ask what might emerge as a new focus for public history now that the centenary has come to an end, the discussions did point to some areas of inquiry. Two speakers, Michael Cooney and Ben Jones, ANU, talked about the republic. Cooney posed a question: how can Australia better shape a ‘good’ patriotic sentiment, one that is modern and rational? The answer lies, in part, in nurturing a better understanding of history; teaching history better; and communicating it more broadly. It also entails undoing myths, like the one that says Australia became an independent country on 1 January 1901 or at Gallipoli or later. Which date to choose is still a matter of debate.

Australia’s place in the world was the subject of Alison Broinowski’s contribution. She spoke of war being in Australia’s genes, arguing that Australia has defined its place in the world in terms of real and perceived threats. Fear has driven it into alliances first with Britain and then the United States. With a flourish of hyperbole, she said Australia did not have its own foreign policy; it simply falls into step with its allies. Exaggeration aside, she has a point. In a changing, multi-polar international order, with new power dynamics, including the rise of populist leaders in the West and the growing strength of our neighbours in Southeast Asia, it is time for Australia to discuss how it best engages with the world. Does it make sense to have such a close alliance with the United States, to still be a member of the ‘Western Europe and others’ group in the United Nations?  Should we be exploring new ways to conduct foreign relations, even revisiting ideas of non-alignment? Sue Wareham, a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (the organisation awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize), warned that Australia will find itself on the wrong side of history when it comes to the latest international moves towards nuclear disarmament. (Australia has yet to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.)

We also heard about an important Australian Research Council project that is exploring how to make our national collections more representative of our diverse community. Michael Piggott explained that the project is trying to establish what has not been collected as a preliminary step towards building archives that better represent multicultural, multilingual Australia.

Further on the matter of language, in another ARC project, Ann McGrath and her colleagues are working across the disciplines to see how historians can work with scientists, linguists and others to better explore deep time and to learn from Indigenous ways of interpreting the past.

Older and younger academics discussed their career trajectories, demonstrating that the occasional thrill of archival work and reinterpreting the past can overcome an uncertain job market. Quite a few of the speakers at the symposium were not historians but all recognised the power of history to shed light on the story of Australia.

The PHA was not represented on the podium, which was a shame for it does have things to contribute to the discussion of the public use of history and its practice outside universities and journalism. One hundred years after the war to end all wars is a good moment for us to think about what professional historians can do to shift the conversation away from the valour and sacrifice of the solider to the contribution of others to building the nation and, lest we forget, to fighting for peace.


The RSL sub-branch held a commemoration of hundred years since the armistice on 11 November 1918 in my little town. The crowd was modest, much smaller than the one that gathers next to the soldiers memorial hall on Anzac Day. The main street was closed off; signs warned motorists: ‘ANZAC service ahead’. A school boy proudly delivered a speech about a young Australian soldier and all the suffering he had seen on the battlefield, only to die jumping from a moving train in his eagerness to get home to his family. His words echoed the mythology of the gallant digger. I could not help feeling that, if the occasion arose, he might be wooed to join up, as so many before him, by the words just recited from John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. For all the nationalist sentiment at the memorial, when it came to singing Advance Australia Fair the crowd left it to the choir. The RSL organiser quipped that he’d have to include the second verse in next year’s order of service.

Our local history group organised an additional event for the centenary, the screening of a documentary called Lest We Forget about First World War memorials in Australia. The director Geoffrey Sykes received a grant from the Anzac Centenary (sic) Arts and Culture Fund. It’s a thoughtful film about the lasting painful effects of the war on communities but too subtle to put chinks in the wall of Anzac. Sykes makes passing reference to women in the war and to the frontier wars but not, surprisingly, to Aboriginal servicemen. He also seeks to explain the reason for Australia going to war, not to fight for freedom as the schoolboy said, but for King and empire. In so doing, the soldiers helped protect our trade routes but that doesn’t sound quite so heroic, does it? One of the women who organised the morning tea, showed me a photograph of a man she’d nursed. He’d been in the Light Horse Brigade. What he remembered was the noise and the fear.

At the service there was one prayer for peace; a prayer that’s been around since the sixteenth century.


Image: Mourning Arab, 1935, sculpture by Marjorie Fletcher (student of Rayner Hoff)

Keep in touch exhibition – a curator’s perspective


…by Birgit Heilmann

I had a busy ‘I am away from my desk’ week in mid-October, installing my new exhibition Keep in touch. After more than one year in the making, I can now sit back and observe how visitors to Hurstville Museum & Gallery engage with this latest exhibition. Keep in touch takes you back to the analogue world. It highlights the development of early communication services and a few more recent ones, as well as showcasing other forms of communication such as braille, Auslan and community languages.

The exhibition provokes different responses from its visitors – depending on their age. The younger generation is be able to learn about the world of analogue communication and might even wonder how to dial a number on telephones without buttons but a rotating disk. The older generation might feel nostalgic as they recall using some of the items on display from our collection.

So, how did I come up with this particular exhibition layout?

Curating an exhibition is much more than just researching historic information, writing exhibition text and selecting objects for display. You need to be able to imagine how the exhibition will look in the space and see what’s possible within your budget.

I spent a very long time thinking of interactive ideas and the right layout and feel of the exhibition. Over my six years working on exhibitions that will engage the community, getting the layout right has become my favourite part of the project. My focus has shifted from predominantly working with archival material and researching historic facts to more browsing the internet to find a Morse code machine that makes a beeping sound, hiring a 1960s working TV and creating a string telephone from cans. A trip to Kmart for finishing touches was mandatory for this exhibition.

Besides my interactive-prop-shopping skills, I also had to use my technical skills to reformat and cut old TV snippets together and create interactive content for two Ipad kiosks. A highlight on one of them is the dial up sound of the 56k modem – I am sure most of you will remember that painful process connecting to the internet.

There is a lot to discover in Keep in touch – if you want to check it out the exhibition is on show until 27 January at Hurstville Museum & Gallery.

Five minutes with Alinde Bierhuizen


Alinde Bierhuizen is the newest member of the PHA NSW & ACT committee and its new Secretary. She moved from her home country, the Netherlands, to Sydney last year and currently works as a freelance historian.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I have always been interested in people: their stories and where they come from. When I realised that’s what history is all about, I enrolled in a History degree at the University of Amsterdam, where I completed an MA in Public History. During my Master’s degree I started working at the Amsterdam City Archives. As a junior curator I got a real taste of what it’s like to ‘do history’ as a job. I enjoy sharing stories and engaging people by trying to find a personal connection to the past. Moving to Sydney meant I had to find my feet again as a professional historian. Becoming a PHA member and joining the committee feels like a big step in the right direction!

Who is the audience for your history?

At the Amsterdam City Archives I aspired to make exhibitions for all ‘Amsterdammers’. As the youngest person on the team I worked hard to attract a younger audience. I hosted social events for students, organised special tours and evening openings, and set up an Instagram account for the Archives. It was great to see people who might not otherwise show interest in historical sources get excited about an old photograph, drawing or document.

The best thing about archives and their collections is that, as well as the big histories, they tell the intimate and personal. By contextualising objects so they become relevant to the person observing them, anyone should be able to experience an historical sensation.

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

The first exhibition I co-curated at the Amsterdam City Archives was about the period Vincent van Gogh spent in Amsterdam, before he became an artist. For months I read through hundreds of letters he had written as a troubled twenty-something to his brother, Theo. The letters – and this might sound very clichéd – brought van Gogh, and the city he lived in, to life. I started referring to him as ‘Vincent’ and colleagues often teased me for talking about van Gogh as if he was an old friend! I would recommend reading Van Gogh’s letters* to anyone as they provide a great insight into the mind of the artist as well as life in western Europe between 1870-1890.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

That question is impossible to answer! I find every historical period fascinating in its own way. However, I would love to go back to Amsterdam at the end of the 19th century; not just for a cup of coffee with Vincent, but also to witness a city bursting out of its pre-industrial boundaries and modernising at a rapid pace.

Why is history important today?

There would be no today without history. History creates connection, understanding and a sense of belonging. As a newcomer to Sydney, learning about its history makes me feel more at home and a part of this beautiful city.


* This website houses all Van Gogh’s letters, digitised, transcribed and with English translations!

Whose story is it? Indigenous practitioners talk about writing and curating history


…by Minna Muhlen-Schulte, who chaired a panel on Indigenous history making at the recent PHA national conference, Marking Time.

PHANSW was proud to present a panel by some of Sydney’s leading Aboriginal curators and cultural strategists – Ronald Briggs (Curator of Research and Discovery at State Library of NSW),  Melissa Jackson (Indigenous Services Unit, State Library of NSW),  Emily McDaniel (freelance curator for Museum of Contemporary Art, Biennale of Sydney and Art Gallery of NSW) and Peter White (Head of Indigenous Strategy and Engagement, Sydney Living Museums). The panel provided a thought-provoking discussion on interpreting Aboriginal history in the public sphere.

Emily McDaniel demonstrated how her project 4000 fish, inspired people to engage with story of Barangaroo as an Eora fisherwoman instead of thinking of the name as an embattled urban development. McDaniel curated four Aboriginal artists’ works including a large scale nowie/nawi bark canoe by Steven Russell, to bring together an interactive installation. Participants were invited to symbolically return to Barangaroo and her fisherwomen, the 4,000 fish excessively hauled by British colonists on one day in 1790. Audience participants scooped harbour water into cast  moulds that after refrigeration created ice fish. People then placed these fish on the fire burning in the canoe. McDaniel talked about temperature, seasons, texture and sculpture as compelling ways for audiences to feel and imagine stories of the past. She also observed that the power of installations like 4000 fish was drawn from their temporality rather than the static way history can be commemorated in bronze, to be walked past and forgotten on a sidewalk. Instead, the 4000 fish ‘put history into people’s hands’. McDaniel touched on the complexities she encountered as Wiradjuri woman telling the stories of Eora people, inviting our profession to understand the nuances of Aboriginal identity within Australia. She spoke from the standpoint of an artist not an historian but argued convincingly for collaborations that help audiences interpret and reflect on history.

Ronald Briggs and Melissa Jackson discussed the State Library of NSW’s Indigenous collection strategy, which now has a focus on Indigenous-created material.  Their approach is to get the community to engage with the collections, including by inviting people to identify Aboriginal people represented in the archives, for example in the library’s collection of Barbara McGrady’s portraits of families at the Koori Rugby League Knockout. Brigg’s spoke enthusiastically about the recent acquisition of  a portrait of a young man at Parramatta named Toulgra (also known as Bull Dog) by Nicolas-Martin Petit, an artist on French explorer Nicolas Baudin’s expedition to Australia. Detailed portraits of named Aboriginal people in Sydney from this time are very rare.

Melissa has a special interest in Aboriginal languages. She talked about The Rediscovering Indigenous Languages project, which  aims to preserve and revitalise some of the oldest languages in the world by digitising Indigenous word lists, language records and other cultural documents, starting with the State Library of New South Wales’ collections.

As chair of the session Peter White asked the panel and the audience to consider the challenges of working as an Aboriginal curator within traditional colonial institutions: ‘it’s an uphill slog in bastions of memory to get an Indigenous world view’, he said. And now that he is finally learning his Gamilaroi language, he is realising too that the language used to interpret the past reflects ways of thinking about that history. Peter invited us to continue the conversation with Aboriginal curators and communities to help us all reach a level of maturity that allows for truth telling and for creating a shared history.

Navigating emotion: one facet of the historian’s job


by Francesca Beddie…

Presenters at the 2018 PHA conference, Marking Time, (Sydney, 30-31 August 2018) embraced its many-faceted topic with insight and sensitivity. They provided us all with much to ponder about the role of public historians in recording the history of people, places and organisations.

One theme to emerge was the delicate task historians must often play in winnowing the emotion and/or myth surrounding historical events to create a more accurate record and offer a better understanding of the past.

Over the last four years commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War One, public historians have had to navigate strong feelings and attachments to the Anzac legend, as well as cater to the requirements of funding bodies and target audiences. Sometimes local lore has triumphed over fact; at others, a yearning for private comfort has overshadowed objectivity. Further, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has issued professional historians with a new challenge: how to record exceptionally difficult truths while also not overwhelming all other aspects of institutional histories nor inflicting more hurt on survivors.

Clever and sometimes novel presentation of the evidence can be effective: it can help to bring the pendulum back towards an appreciation of the need to learn from the past as well as commemorate certain events or people. Also important is for historians to reveal forgotten stories of the past, such as the frontier wars within Australia and the role of Indigenous servicemen, the devastation wreaked by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919 or the prominent role of female artists in creating memorials to the Great War.

Important tools in the historian’s kitbag are their sources. Several papers discussed how a primary source, an object (a convict love token), an original document (a letter from the front, the transcript of a hearing), a map or photograph can inform, affect or indeed change historical interpretation. The conference also heard much about the possibilities new technologies offer to make these sources accessible and the skills and collaborations required to do this effectively.

A couple of papers were salutary warnings about changing fashions and their effect on commemoration. Different attitudes to war have had a profound impact on what and how we remember what was won and lost and which participants we honour and how, with the original intent, for example, of maintaining a democratic approach to all Victoria Cross holders being undermined by private initiatives.

Discussion of the preservation or neglect of certain physical monuments also pointed to the importance of careful consideration about how these are maintained and respected, whether they need to be permanent or not, and what can be achieved with the benefit of new technologies. Take a look, for example, at this innovative presentation of people reading in the Mitchell Library in the 1940s and 1950s.

This post drew, in particular, on the following presentations at the conference, abstracts for which can be found in the conference program:

Keynote by Professor Bruce Scates: see also Australian Journey: The Story of a Nation in 12 Objects, a free web-based video series exploring the nation’s history through captivating objects from the National Museum of Australia.

Deborah Beck, A woman’s place: the depiction and role of women in the Anzac War Memorial, Sydney

Neville Buch, Emotion and reason in local history and war and peace commemoration: a Queensland case study

Roslyn Burge, Callan Park: forgotten memorials

Sue Castrique, One small world: the history of Addison Road Community Centre

Stephen Gapps, Why are there no monuments to the Sydney Wars?

Helen Penrose, Out of darkness, into the light: recording child sexual abuse narratives (the sequel)

Mary Sheehan, A monumental disease: the Royal Exhibition Building and the Spanish flu

Geoff Wharton, Western Cape York Peninsula war memorials: honouring Indigenous service

Bill Wilson, Albert Borella VC MM – brave and (very) well remembered