Five minutes with Nicole Cama

 

…Nicole Cama is PHA NSW and ACT’s Deputy Chair & Treasurer. Until recently, she was the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW. Her area of historical interest is the history of Sydney. You can see examples of her work at http://nicolecama.com.au/

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I’ve had a passion for history since high school. I had two particularly great history teachers who somehow always managed to make our lessons feel like storytelling sessions. I studied history at university and completed honours but knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in academia, so I volunteered at the Nicholson Museum, finally found paid work for the collections of Sydney University Museums. I wanted to work as a curator and eventually got a job in curatorial at the Australian National Maritime Museum. After that I decided to focus on history, so went freelance and have been practising as a professional historian for the past four years.

Who is the audience for your history?

My work is quite varied, which means my audience is varied.  I have done work for the City of Sydney Council on their park signage, which is aimed at members of the general public in their local government area; for the Dictionary of Sydney I have been a guest historian on 2SER Breakfast radio since 2014 and I have created historical material (articles, signage and labels) for a government agency targeted at their employees and other visitors to their offices. I’m currently working on an oral history project, interviewing alumni and teachers for a school’s anniversary.

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

I am sure you get this answer a lot for website — TROVE. TROVE. TROVE. Choosing a favourite film or book is impossible! I tend to watch period dramas and read historical fiction. The most recent period drama I watched and thought quite good in terms of recreating a particular time was The Alienist. I tend to gravitate toward novels set in the 19th century; one of my favourites is Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

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

Sydney in the 1920s or 1930s because it was a time of transition for the city both in terms of its culture and built environment.

Why is history important today?

History has the power to both divide people and create social cohesion. But I think it is also transformative: it can shape identity and change people’s perceptions of their world and the people around them.

Why did you choose this image of the artist, Hera Roberts?

Because that photograph really changed my career. It was a highlight of  my time at the Australian National Maritime Museum. The image is by Samuel J Hood Studio. When I first came across it, I didn’t know any more about this woman than that she had been at a reception on a Dutch warship HNLMS Java, which visited Sydney in 1930. We published the image on Flickr Commons. It was through this airing that I was contacted by another researcher, who had found Robert’s name on page 52 of the November 1930 edition of The Home quarterly magazine! You can read more about the image and how her identity was unveiled at: http://www.nicolecama.com.au/project/mystery-lady-identified/

Karl Marx two hundred years on

 

… Francesca Beddie visits Trier

The bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth is being celebrated with gusto in the town where he was born on 5 May 1818. Trier is festooned with his portrait, the one taken in 1875 of the white haired, woolly bearded man we have come to know as the father of communism. When you cross the road, the pedestrian light uses that same image of the mature Karl Marx. You can buy Karl Marx cookie cutters and bicycle bells, postcards and snow domes, and you can go to several exhibitions that explain his life and philosophy.

At the city museum, Stages in a lifetime sets out to ‘avoid eulogy or denunciation’ of Marx; instead, it ‘sets out to paint as true a picture as possible of the man himself’. It uses contemporary documents and paintings to trace Marx’s life from childhood and youth in Trier, to his university years in Bonn and Berlin, his journalistic forays and periods of exile in France, his other travels for pleasure and business (including to relatives from whom he pleaded financial support), and finally to being an émigré in London, where he died in 1883.

The exhibition starts not in 1818 nor with Marx but with data collected in the 1830s by the Prussian authorities to better understand the causes of poverty and ill-health in Trier. Seventy per cent of the town’s population was deemed poor or very poor. The interactive display allows the visitor to examine individual records of those designated as paupers, giving their addresses, age, working status, moral standing and family composition. Anna Mueller, 42, lived in Brittanien Street. She was classified as very poor, seen by the authorities as capable of work but ‘slatternly and depraved’. This would have influenced their decision not to give her alms. Peter Conterbach and his wife had six children. They were both said to be alcohol dependent. Their cramped, unhygienic living conditions made them particularly vulnerable to cholera. What the authorities did about this is not recorded. The Voltmar family faced the looming threat of having to pawn their belongings; Johann Zimmer was homeless with a small child. And so it goes on for 627 families. What a data set! And what a fascinating way to set the scene of the city where the young Marx grew into early adulthood!

Each of the subsequent rooms presents a mixture of paintings and documents arranged according to Marx’s circle of family, friends, teachers and colleagues. Jenny von Westphalen, his wife, also from Trier, features strongly throughout, as does Friedrich Engels, whom Marx met in 1842. In his letters, Marx addressed his friend ‘Dear Fred’ but continued in German.

As well as the poverty in cities being transformed by industrialisation, the exhibition reveals how Marx became sceptical about religion. His father, the son of a Rabbi, converted to Protestantism not out of faith but to protect his legal practice so that he could continue to provide for his family. This must have been in Marx’s mind when studying in Berlin he encountered Ludwig Feuerbach’s arguments about the idea of God as a human invention.

In one room hang two pictures of grieving parents. The audio guide describes these in detail before extrapolating their significance: the high incidence of infant mortality in the nineteenth century. We learn that, like so many, the Marx family was affected by high rates of infant mortality, losing four of their seven children. A voice reads from a letter written by Jenny describing the heartbreak of watching her eight-year-old son die.

All this material makes the visitor’s head spin with the same influences that Marx and Engels transformed into an analysis of capitalism and arguments for change. Volumes of The Communist Manifesto in German, ‘plain English’ and Braille are there to be thumbed through.

In the last room, the centrepiece is different: it is an oversize metal trunk standing open. Visitors can open the draws to see the artefacts of travel, then and now. Marx, a political refugee, was forced to move around Europe. He renounced his Prussian citizenship, rendering himself stateless. But he moved with his belongings, including furniture and books. The bottom drawer in the trunk contains a mobile phone, along with commentary that this represents the modern refugee’s most prized possession and one of the few they are able to carry with them.

The curators have been careful, perhaps too much so, to offer an answer to the question this bicentenary has posed: what is the relevance of Marx today? Instead, the exhibition ends disappointingly, with a series of pictures of those who followed the Marxist creed around the world over the short century of 20th century: Lenin, Stalin, Castro, and also Social Democrats like Willy Brandt. I don’t recall seeing Mao among the faces. He was probably there. Certainly, the Chinese have embraced the celebrations. It is they who donated the new 5.5 metre statue of Marx, unveiled at the 5 May bicentenary celebrations.

The Trier city council voted last year to accept the statue by Chinese artist Wu Weishan but added a resolution to their approval that cited the importance of observing human rights. The Mayor conceded that the decision was influenced by the fact that around 150,000 Chinese tourists visit Trier every year.

On your bike: the history of cycling in Sydney

 

… by Marc Rerceretnam

Social sports have always brought life to public spaces and our cities. For many people, sport is a crucial way to develop and maintain a sense of belonging. Sporting activities have also helped socialise communities. In a similar way, sporting clubs have traditionally been a positive force for social cohesion within various neighbourhoods.

Within the sport of cycling, clubs have fostered a climate of acceptance and tolerance, not only to accommodate the abilities of all members, regardless of gender, race or ability but also in face of external social and political environments that consciously or unconsciously sometimes cause or support discrimination.

Cycling clubs in Sydney have a long but largely forgotten history starting in at least 1831. Overshadowed by other sports, cycling has survived largely on the peripheries of Sydney’s sporting codes.

The early formation and popularity of bicycle clubs in Australia often closely reflected the costs of buying a bicycle. In the 1860s it was a pastime for the rich and affluent; by the 1890s it widened to include the middle classes. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, the rich and middle classes became smitten with new motorised transportation like automobiles and motorcycles and bicycles became the vehicle of the working classes. Cycling clubs flourished throughout the Sydney social landscape until the 1960s and 1970s, when bicycle users turned away from the low-tech bicycle, looking to the automobile, whose price was now in reach for many more people.

PHA member Marc Rerceretnam is curating an exhibition on the history of Sydney cycling which also commemorates the 110th anniversary of Sydney’s Dulwich Hill Bicycle Club (DHBC). The DHBC established a racing tradition, which has continued through the decades with the formation of various race teams and participation in major race events like the Goulburn-Sydney race, an annual event started in 1902.

The exhibition is called ‘On Your Bike’ and covers the history of cycling in Sydney over its 188-year history. It will display lovingly preserved and rarely seen cycling and club photographs, ephemera and vintage bikes from the Sydney’s cycling heyday, before cars pushed bikes off the road. Much of the information used in the display relies on Marc’s recent publications on the history of bicycle clubs (published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, December 2017), the early manufacture and use of bicycles in Australia (paper to be presented at the International Cycling History Conference, London, June 2018).  Marc has since written another research piece outlining the dynamics of bicycle businesses in Sydney from the 1850s to the 1950s (to be published in Sporting Traditions, November 2018).

The Inner West Council is hosting the exhibition from 10 to14 May 2018 at the Stirrup Gallery, 142 Addison Road Community Centre, Addison Road, Marrickville. Entry is free and open to the public. There is an official welcome on Sunday 13 May at 10.30am. To attend the welcome event book online at www.innerwestlibraries.eventbrite.com.au. 

[Illustration: Opening of 1888 cycling season. ‘The Sports of Australia-Cycling’. Illustrated Sydney News, 26 July 1888]

Anzac Day 2018: the final year of the WWI centenary commemorations

 

… by Francesca Beddie

‘War commemoration is now a modern industry tied to family, nation and the emotional life, and Villers-Bretonneux is a measure of its cosmopolitanism. Small parts of the world belong to Australia by dint of commemorative grant, by blood, by graveyards.’ So writes The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly ahead of the centenary of the battle of Villers-Bretonneux. It is estimated 8000 people will attend this year’s dawn service on 25 April 2018 at the Australian National Memorial situated next to the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery in France. Tours from Australia are booked out for the last Anzac Day  of  the centenary commemorations and the opening of the Sir John Monash Centre by Prime Minister Turnbull. The centre was his predecessor’s idea. Mr Abbott wanted, Kelly says, ‘to revive the historical memory of the Western Front as the greatest focus of human sacrifice and military achievement in our history’.

What happened a hundred years ago? In April 1918, Australian units helped defend Villers-Bretonneux from a German onslaught. At dawn on 24 April the Germans attacked and captured the town. Leading the British counter attack, the Australian 13 and 15 Brigades enveloped the town and successfully cleared it of Germans on 25 April, the third anniversary of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli. This action effectively ended the German offensive.

To keep the historical memory alive, the Sir John Monash Centre tells Australia’s story of the Western Front in the words of those who served:

This cutting-edge multimedia centre reveals the Australian Western Front experience through a series of interactive media installations and immersive experiences. The SJMC App, downloaded on each visitor’s personal mobile device, acts as a ‘virtual tour guide’ over the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery, the Australian National Memorial and the Sir John Monash Centre.

The experience is designed so visitors gain a better understanding of the journey of ordinary Australians — told in their own voices through letters, diaries and life-size images — and connect with the places they fought and died. A visit to the Sir John Monash Centre will be a moving experience that leaves a lasting impression.

In principle this sounds good but we do need to ask the question whether the $99-million price tag can be justified at a time when at home national institutions like the National Library and National Archives have faced years of budget cuts. Moreover, some historians have questioned the quality of the historical interpretation. Professor Bruce Scates​, who will be giving the keynote address at this year’s PHA conference, Marking Time (see below), resigned from being a consultant on the project because he was worried the centre would convey too warm and fuzzy a picture of the war. A complete picture would also need to include dissenters like Arthur Rae. Rae was a Labor politician who lost two of three sons to the war. One, Billy, is buried at Villers-Bretonneux, under the lament ‘for what’. Rae had argued bitterly against Australia’s participation in the conflict and plans for conscription at home, only to be branded a traitor, tearing the family apart.

Nostalgia and commemoration instead of history is a recurring theme in the debate about what Anzac Day means and how war should be remembered. On our blog, in 2015 Caroline Adams  a member of the PHA South Australia suggested professional historians could offer insightful and contextualised accounts of history, which offered more than ‘digger stories’ and ‘nursing angels’. And last year, PHA NSW member Ian Willis wrote about the contested nature of Anzac:

Anzac is a fusion of cultural processes over many decades and it has been grown into something bigger than itself.

In August this year, professional historians will reflect further on the four-year-long commemoration of World War I at our biennial conference. Marking Time will be held at the NSW State Library on 30 and 31 August. The conference will also explore the changing ways in which we mark time and interpret events through tradition and new media in the 21st century. The call for papers is now closed. Successful paper givers will be notified by the end of April. The full program will be available from the middle of May

Five minutes with…Martina Muller

 

Martina Muller recently set up her own business, Storialines. Storialines provides historical research and interpretation services to the heritage sector, local councils and other clients in  Greater Sydney and New South Wales. Martina also works as a historian at a heritage consultancy firm in Sydney.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I never made a conscious decision to become a historian but I am extremely happy about the way things have worked out for me.  After realising that I was too much of an introvert to enjoy teaching (I started out as a primary school teacher in Switzerland), I decided that anything involving a lot of writing and reading would suit me. I ended up studying Classical Archaeology, even though I knew that career opportunities would likely be limited. After migrating to Australia and writing a PhD, I was lucky to get a job as a heritage consultant. The transition into heritage consulting was quite easy, as my PhD thesis had focused on the interpretation and presentation of Roman buildings at archaeological sites in Western Europe (research-repository.uwa.edu.au/files/3217875/Mueller-Zaugg_Martina-Sara_2012.pdf) and I was already acquainted with the current guidelines on heritage conservation and site interpretation, including the Burra Charter which provides the best practice standard for managing cultural heritage places in Australia. Fortunately, my boss quickly realised that I was much more interested in research than in the more tedious aspects of report writing and was happy for me to focus on historical work.

Who is the audience for your history?

I mostly research the history of heritage-listed buildings and sites and write historical summaries that are included in Conservation Management Plans and Statements of Heritage Impact. The histories are generally used as a basis to assess the significance of sites, which in turn informs the decisions made for altering significant places. In theory, the audience includes property owners, architects, developers and Council officers. While I have wondered if anyone ever reads those histories, I have had some very uplifting feedback from architects or owners who said they were fascinated by the background stories that came out of my research.

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

To be honest, I mostly read fiction as my reading usually happens on the train and I need something easy. Among the non-fiction books that I could not put down are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.  Trove is a wonderful website. I also get quite excited about old photographs of buildings and streetscapes. It is amazing what you can find by looking at digitised images, and sometimes they are simply works of art in themselves.

Why is history important today?

Because it shows us who we are, and it is fun.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is 40!

 

Nicole Cama talks about the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. (The following is an edited article, which first appeared on The Dictionary of Sydney website. It accompanies a podcast of Nicole talking to Nic Healy from 2SER Breakfast.)

The first Mardi Gras parade in Sydney was held on 24 June 1978, part of a worldwide International Gay Solidarity day to commemorate the Stonewall riots in New York that had happened in 1969. After a day of festivities, about 1000 people gathered at Taylor Square at 9.30 pm to make their way down Oxford Street to Hyde Park. As the parade arrived at Whitlam Square, the police, who had given permission for the parade to take place, intervened, confiscating the lead truck and telling the crowd to disperse. The now angry crowd marched up William Street to Darlinghurst where they clashed with police and ‘a two-hour spree of screaming, bashing and arrests‘ followed, and 53 people were arrested amid many reports of police brutality.

It wasn’t until 2016 that a formal apology was made by the New South Wales police for the events of 1978, and this year for the first time, New South Wales Police have raised the rainbow flag, in honour of the parade’s 40th anniversary and a symbol of solidarity with the LGBTQI community, outside the Sydney Police Centre.

The Sydney Mardi Gras is now one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world, and an important and much-loved part of this city’s history and culture.

The City of Sydney history team has been working with Sydney’s Pride History Group to update the Oxford Street walking tour on their Culture Walks app. It now focuses entirely on the area’s LGBTQI history. Called Parade, it’s available for download for mobile devices via the app here. The 21 stops on the tour also contain excerpts from oral histories compiled by the Pride group and articles in the Dictionary of Sydney. Take the tour and listen to stories about bars like Patch’s and Ruby Reds, both sanctuaries for gay and lesbian people. Or the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial in Green Park, which commemorates the homosexual men and women who were tortured, murdered and persecuted in Nazi Germany. You can do the tour remotely too, just by following along with the stops.

In conjunction with this year’s Mardi Gras, Surry Hills’ TAP Art Gallery  had a multimedia display called Serving in Silence, which explored LGBTQI service in the Australian Defence Force since World War II. One story that struck me was Yvonne Sillett’s, who joined the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps in 1979 and rose up in the ranks with a top security clearance, only to be dismissed after her sexuality was exposed and after 10 years of service. Stories like these are not uncommon, and did not happen long ago. It’s important to hear these stories and to be aware of the contemporary relevance and how much still needs to change.

Read more on the Dictionary of Sydney, starting with historian and 78er Garry Wotherspoon‘s entry on Mardi Gras and follow the links and subjects to more: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/gay_and_lesbian_mardi_gras

From the editor:

Garry Wotherspoon was a 78er who marched in the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. From 1980 to 1988 he conducted oral histories to record the memories of gay men (and two women) about the underground years of gay culture. These interviews formed the basis of Wotherspooon’s City of the Plain, a history of Sydney’s gay subculture.

The State Library of NSW has released the interviews on its oral history website, Amplify, where you will also find black and white and colour digital images by Sydney photographer Geoff Friend.

 

Image: Mardi Gras in Sydney Australia  3 March 2013, 19:01:24 Source https://www.flickr.com/photos/hasitha_tudugalle/8524007650/

Five minutes with Naomi Malone

 

Naomi Malone is a consulting historian, currently interested in Australian history and in doing oral history. She is also undertaking communications and events work for the PHA (NSW & ACT).

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I love history! The challenge of delving into the past to tell informed stories appeals to me. Further, I enjoy exploring why current issues present as they are today – news, current affairs, political and human interest subjects. From 2000 to 2002, I completed a MA in Public History at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and was awarded an Outstanding Student Award. From 2013 until 2017, at UTS, I undertook a PhD examining the past in relation to deaf education in NSW since WWII. It involved extensive research that included conducting oral history interviews with deaf and hearing-impaired former students about their educational experiences. Deaf education has changed tremendously since the 1960s with the introduction of increasingly sophisticated hearing aids over time and more so with the arrival of the cochlear implant in the mid 1980s. Both technologies aid the teaching of spoken language during the child’s early years, enabling the child to attend regular schools and universities.

Who is the audience for your history?

Everyone! I want to regale and capture all with historical stories. At the moment, I am researching and writing a 50th anniversary book for The Shepherd Centre (founded in 1970) which provides services to give spoken language to deaf and hearing-impaired children. I went there as an infant and now I have come full circle due to returning as their historian.

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

As for a website, I really like the online exhibition about the Australian disability rights campaign at https://made.org/explore/exhibitions/disability-rights-exhibition/. This exhibition is hosted on the website of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka. In the past, I  enjoyed reading Leon Uris’s historical fiction – Trinity, Redemption, Exodus and Haj. Uris’s writing style inspired me to write history. Another book I really like is Irving Stone’s Those Who Love. A Biographical Novel of Abigail and John Adams.

Why is history important today?

History is vitally important because it gives us a basis from which to resolve current issues. Evidence from the past helps us to understand societal change, how the Australian community came to be what it is today and how to best live in the future.

Getting the most out of the State Library of NSW catalogue

 

… by Lisa Murray, Continuing Professional Development officer at the PHA NSW & ACT

Want to get more out of the State Library of NSW’s single search catalogue? Our members certainly do! Seventeen PHA members attended a two-hour workshop convened especially for professional historians on Thursday 22 February at the State Library of New South Wales.

Over the last 12 months or so, the State Library has been upgrading its catalogue so that you can search across all its collections. Data clean-up and migration is still occurring, so at times it can be tricky to find resources in the new one search catalogue. In addition, the catalogue’s functionality is still being improved (indeed another new feature appeared just last week!). In these times of change, professional historians need to update their skills to understand the catalogue’s search features and functionality so that they can efficiently find resources to support their research and businesses.

The workshop was held in the computer training room in the Marie Bashir Reading Room. Members were ably led through a series of exercises by librarians Andy Carr and Bronwyn Leslie. Handouts were provided to all participants explaining search techniques and new catalogue functionality, as well as step-by-step exercises that can be repeated at home to explore how the catalogue works.

The workshop booked out in a flash and many members missed out. Those who attended said they found the workshop useful, and everyone learned a new tip or two to make the most of their searching, as well as a few work-arounds while the catalogue is still being improved. The PHA and the library have agreed to hold a repeat of the workshop on Thursday 22 March. PHA members will shortly receive an invitation to register for this repeat workshop.

But in the meantime, here are a few tips to make the most of the catalogue.

  • The State Library’s website is now more interactive and can accept comments etc. A separate login is needed for this. Don’t be fooled – you need to login to the catalogue (not the website) to order books.
  • The manuscripts, oral history and picture collections have not yet been fully absorbed into the one search catalogue – that’s why you drill down from the blue one search catalogue into the green catalogue for manuscript, oral history and picture collections.
  • You can now search by archival digital – this only searches the manuscript, oral history and picture collections that have digital or digitised images.
  • Applying articles in your search scope identifies individual articles in newspapers, journals and magazines, many of which you can access full-text online through the library’s e-resources – no more searching separate databases!
  • Login to the catalogue to search and collate items by pinning – you can then go back and decide which ones you want to order at the end of your searching.
  • The old card catalogue from the GRL is no long available from the State Library website but is still published online. A google search for SLNSW scanned card catalogue will bring it up: http://www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/eresources/scc/
  • Remember the old card index in the manuscripts area? This has now been added to the manuscripts, oral history and pictures catalogue (green catalogue) – tick Manuscript index to include this in your search.
  • Use the filters on the right-hand side to quickly understand the different formats available and drill down to the results you are interested in.
  • The one search catalogue is now the best way to find small picture file items (rather than the green manuscript, oral history and picture collections catalogue).
  • You can keep up to date with issues and improvements to the catalogue on the state library website: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/updates-catalogue

PHA NSW & ACT Public History Prize: enter now. It’s worth it!

 

… by Francesca Beddie and Minna Muhlen-Schulte, Public History Prize officer, who can be contacted at <prizeofficer.phanswact@nullgmail.com>.

Last year ABC Radio National did a program about art prizes. Are they worth the effort? As the introduction to the discussion answered:

They might prove welcome cash to impoverished artists but they dash the hopes of thousands more, who often spend a great deal of time and money taking part.

Listen here to Archibald Prize curator, Anne Ryan, artist Richard Lewer and arts journalist Fiona Gruber talk about the pros and cons of prize culture.

And if you are a student engaged with public history, also consider the pros and cons of entering the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT ‘s own prize. The winner will receive a certificate and $500. But hurry, entries close this week! The competition is open to undergraduate, graduate diploma and master students in NSW and the ACT whose work engages with the field and practice of professional and public history (both Australian and international). The nomination form can be found here and you can read the essays of past winners here.

What is public history?

The US National Council on Public History defines it as a form of historical practice that is applied to ‘real world issues’ and covers areas such as museum curatorship, oral history, cultural heritage management, history websites, film and television historical documentaries etc.

Why have a prize?

While our prize is not (yet) on the scale of the Royal Historical Society’s in the United Kingdom, we offer it in the same spirit, as explained by Alix Green, one of the jurors of the society’s public history prize:

There is excellent work being done across the country to engage people with the past in innovative and exciting ways, everything from museum exhibitions to historical film and theatre, from community heritage projects to digital resources.  But this work can often be unknown outside the area in which it’s done… [The RHS] set up a prize to bring the kind of recognition to the best of these activities that awards in literature and the arts have achieved.  We hope not only to entice new audiences to history in all its forms, but also to help the field of public history develop by connecting people and celebrating success.

I’ll leave the last word to Nathan Stormont, who won the 2013 PHA NSW & ACT prize:

The Public History Prize is an excellent means of showcasing individual research and a wonderful opportunity for exploring a historical topic that you find personally interesting. Winning the Public History Prize was the perfect capstone to my undergraduate studies, and my prize-winning essay, which examined the human rights movement in Soviet Ukraine, made me a competitive candidate for achieving my dream career. I now live in New York and work for a democracy watchdog that monitors human rights and civil liberties in post-communist Europe and the former Soviet Union.

 

Refashioning history: my uncomfortable embrace of imagination

 

… by Peter Hobbins

One of the great joys in writing history lies in making myself perennially uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more true than when employing that vexed verb ‘imagine’.

I was trained as an empiricist. I have an honours degree in science, earned by killing multitudes of small creatures. It explains why I wrote a book about snakebite and the historical horrors of vivisection. But I also gained an arts degree, majoring in literature. I didn’t study undergraduate history at all. As a result I negotiate an enduring tension between the overweening fidelities of footnoting and the verities that authors render through the pleasures of their prose.

Imagination, however, bothers me. This discomfort emerged in one form as I sought to write animals into my telling of the past. While I signalled their presence, their gestures and even their voices, I balked at imagining history as they may have perceived it. ‘If a lion could speak’, remarked Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘we could not understand him’.

Nevertheless, I believe that the presence and actions of animals did alter the path of the colonial world. Another way that I sought to foreground their agency was by selecting period illustrations to complement my words. Although serving as a form of visual footnoting, as Ludmilla Jordanova elaborates, images also frame unique period perspectives.

More recently, I’ve embraced another imaginative challenge. As the 2016 Merewether Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales, my research subject proved an elusive character. I proposed a project on James Samuel Bray, an amateur naturalist who stalked late nineteenth-century Sydney. What inspired me was the discovery of his illustrations of snakes and their venom in the Mitchell Library collection. Bray’s extant albums are just a fragment of his original oeuvre, complemented by a smattering of diaries, cuttings and correspondence. They allude to, rather than elaborate, the world of Bray’s Museum of Curios, an establishment he fitfully operated from 1884 until 1900.

Unlike many natural history endeavours, what enraptured me about Bray’s artworks was their artlessness. Viewing his sketches, paintings, observations and doodles, it was clear that his ambitions far exceeded Bray’s talents. The works weren’t awful; neither were they elegant. Lacking the poise of the earlier Port Jackson Painter (the unknown artist(s) of the First Fleet) they were markedly inferior to works by Bray’s talented contemporaries such as Harriet and Helena Scott. Yet they conveyed a certain fidelity: a questing to capture the essence of what Bray saw, hoping to communicate it with – well, with whom?

And so it began. To learn more about Bray, his museum and its visitors, I pursued the usual paths. I transcribed his letters in the Mitchell Library and at the Australian Museum, detailing the range and reach of his correspondents. I hunted his hundreds of newspaper articles through Trove, his extended family through Ancestry, his abodes through Sands’s Directories and City of Sydney assessment books, his legacies and bankruptcies through State Archives and Records NSW, his copyright claims at the National Archives of Australia, and his blank plot at Rookwood necropolis. By ‘blank’, I mean exactly that: site 1295 is simply a verdant grass tableau, identifiable only by pacing out appropriate distances between adorned graves in zone C, section H. It proved prescient.

The further I sought Bray, the more he seemed to recede. Initially located at 84 Forbes Street, Woolloomooloo, Bray’s Museum of Curios finally ceased trading at 100 Forbes Street. In a long concatenation of poky Victorian terraces, both buildings have long since been obliterated. Yet the museum’s primary location was at 12 Queen’s Place in Sydney, a terse laneway behind Circular Quay, connecting George and Pitt Streets. It also no longer exists. Rather, it became Dalley Street, where the Canada Buildings that once housed the museum were demolished in 1923. Maps, sketches and photographs survive, but none yet found illustrate Bray’s Museum in situ between 1886 and its abrupt closure in 1892.

Likewise, Bray’s bankruptcy papers detail the contents of each room in his home, but not the seized goods sold at auction from the museum’s stock. The few artefacts Bray hawked or donated to the Australian Museum have been deaccessioned; a hopeful family lead suggesting that a collection of his ‘native curios’ were lodged there in the 1960s also proved fruitless. Glad I’m not a conspiracy theorist …

Even more curiously, given that he was such an entrepreneurial self-promoter, I have yet to locate a confirmed image of James Samuel Bray. His arrest gazettal for desertion in 1876 was accompanied by a physical description, while surviving sibling photographs suggest a sense of his visage. The closest I have come – thanks to Dictionary of Sydney Editor, Linda Brainwood – is what seems to be an 1891 watercolour of a bearded man in a beret, cutting down a redgum to secure a sea-eagle’s nest. Other, uncaptioned sketches in his travel notes may well be Bray’s self-portrait. So may be the awkward hands that manipulate snakes and sundry inventions amongst the plethora of his preserved illustrations.

These absences at the edges of evidence bring me back to imagination. I have deliberately discomfited myself, pasting together such fragments to summon up a projected protagonist. The very nature of the missing evidence means that I’ve had to extend my search by analogy, and through secondary sources, to visualise the façade and cluttered contents of Bray’s Museum of Curios. I can actually feel myself entering his dingy premises, watching Bray uncoil from his stool to greet me, suggesting nothing so much as his venomous serpentine companions. He slides forward, exuding an admixture of hesitant self-confidence and servile unctuousness.

‘No one is asked or pressed to buy’, his museum’s flyer emphasised in italics. This is precisely why I don’t believe it. I’ve read Bray’s beseeching letters, pored over his autographed sketches, perused his proud copyright applications. Bray’s Museum was first and foremost a business, but what he most desperately purveyed was his reputation – a lifelong quest for credibility and posterity. Both ultimately eluded him. Indeed, Bray’s unsavoury side likely led to so many of his traces being quietly but insistently effaced.

The history wars are over.  Now, we should take the lead from Greg Dening and weave ourselves into our history. For my part, I feel I can best serve the elusive memory of James Bray by imaginatively refashioning his world from the erratic remnants that remain.

Peter Hobbins’ article on James Bray can be found in the State Library’s spring 2017 magazine for members.

Image: Cutting down sea eagle’s nest (possible self-portrait of James Bray) SLNSW PXA188