Public History Prize 2012

The photo shows one of the prize winners,  Sarah Gregory, with judge Bruce Pennay at the 2013 History in July in Sydney.

Laila Ellmoos, PHA NSW President and Bruce Pennay, OAM report on the 2012 public history prize, a prize introduced by the PHA NSW five years ago to recognise and reward the work done by undergraduate history students enrolled at universities in NSW and the ACT whose projects engage with the profession and practice of public history.

This year we received nine entries for the prize. Our judge was PHA NSW member, Dr Bruce Pennay, Adjunct Associate Professor at Charles Sturt University and author of commissioned histories and heritage reports, which often focus on the Albury-Wodonga border district where he lives.

Bruce recommended that two applicants share the Public History Prize for 2012: Sarah Gregory from Macquarie University and Brett Seymour from the University of Sydney. Because there were two winners, Bruce generously waived his judging fee and made a personal donation to augment the prize money.

In his judge’s report, Bruce stated that both applicants were exemplary in their use of original source materials and their contextual interpretation of the past.

Sarah Gregory‚Äôs essay is titled ‚ÄėUnderstanding Shades of Grey: The testimonies of two former Auschwitz-Birkenhau Sonderkommando survivors: the Gobbai brothers‚Äô. She compares and contrasts the testimonies of two brothers who worked as Sonderkommando, or prisoner functionaries, in Auschwitz-Birkenhau. The author draws judiciously on tools well-honed in other analyses of holocaust testimonies and in oral history more generally.

Sarah considers carefully a range of circumstances that bear on the two testimonies to help explain their similarities and differences. She analyses how each brother structured his storytelling and makes a careful inquiry into their story making. The author is sensitive to issues of historical imagination, sympathy and understanding: she has approached thoughtfully the difficult task of dealing with a witness’s feelings of guilt. The essay is a well-constructed and insightful account of two holocaust experiences.

Brett Seymour‚Äôs essay, ‚ÄėRobben Island: Histories, identities and futures‚Äô, is a critical analysis of debates over the meanings and memories being imposed on Robben Island. The author explains how Robben Island has become a museum, national monument and World Heritage site on the basis of its use as a prison for anti-apartheid activists, most notably Nelson Mandela.

Brett examines the problem of how an official, public memorialisation of importance to South African nation-building tends to overwhelm other individual or collective memories of place: the island has a long, multi-layered history. In examining the simple branding of a rhetorical space, the author raises issues about assessing heritage value. Brett provides a thoughtful discussion of what is often the complexity of place-based heritage and the problems that arise for management, presentation and conservation.

Congratulations to the winners, whose essays can be found at


History in July: Sharing Bonegilla Stories

History in July was held on 24 July at History House in Sydney. Emma Dortins reports. About forty PHA NSW members attended. that it was thoroughly enjoyable to catch up with old friends and colleagues, and to meet some of our newer members. We celebrated history with delicious food (from Miss Chu) and wine, and in excellent company.

Our guest speaker for the evening was Bruce Pennay, Associate Professor in History at Charles Sturt University. He told us about his recent work collecting photographs associated with experiences of post-war migrants who stayed at the Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre. This gave us a taste of the amazingly varied images created for the media and by journalists, for official purposes, and by the migrants themselves, many of whom were keen photographers. Pennay drew attention to the limitations of the photographic record in showing the range of migrant experiences ‚Äď the camera inviting a smile, and photographers unlikely to document private moments of doubt, sadness, suffering and disappointment, which feature strongly in migrants‚Äô memories. Nevertheless he has found a number of intriguing images which show moments of contrast with the official image of migration. One pictures two young women hunched over the washing scowling at the camera with mock resignation (what are they thinking?!) – very different from the cheerful women washing clothes in official photographs of the centre. This photograph is featured in his new book Sharing Bonegilla Stories, produced in collaboration with the AlburyLibrary Museum and the Migration Heritage Centre (see for more information on the book

Bruce also pointed us towards a fabulous initiative of the National Archives, digitising photographs and records associated with migration, Destination Australia.

Image: Cover of Sharing Bonegilla Stories

Public Service: the Role of History and Historians in Government

Rosemary Kerr reports on the recent Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference in Wollongong, where members of the Professional Historians Association NSW spoke about their experiences working in the public sector at Commonwealth, state and local levels. The roundtable discussion, chaired by PHA NSW President, Laila Ellmoos, highlighted opportunities and challenges for raising the voice of history and historians in contributing to public policy and discourse.

Francesca Beddie, a former Commonwealth public servant noted that, while historical advisers are employed in the foreign affairs and defence portfolios, in the Australian public service generally, history is often marginalised, under valued or ignored as a discipline. Indeed, the department responsible for heritage does not include ‚Äėhistory‚Äô in its list of desirable qualifications for prospective graduate recruits! Lack of historical understanding and openness to different interpretations of facts can have detrimental consequences for policy making. Poor decisions are often made by politicians and public servants operating in a historical vacuum, resulting in a ‚Äėpresentist‚Äô, issues-driven culture. Some knowledge of a department‚Äôs history, the evolution of policy development and broader historical context could avoid repeating past mistakes and help to smooth policy implementation.

Francesca pointed to some positive initiatives such as the introduction of short training courses in history for graduates in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence to round out those trained in other disciplines. As general manager at the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), where she worked from 2007 to 2012, Francesca had some success in promoting greater historical consciousness. One outcome was the identification and digitisation of landmark policy documents illustrating major waves of reform. This approach had at least some influence on the formulation of policies regarding the Australian apprenticeship system.

Emma Dortins and Caroline Ford are Cultural Heritage Officers at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), which grew out of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The Office is responsible for cultural heritage within national parks in New South Wales and for Aboriginal heritage across the state. Emma and Caroline are employed as historians but work in a multidisciplinary team that includes anthropologists, archaeologists and cultural geographers. Negotiating different disciplinary approaches is one of the challenges they face in an organisation where scientific research is particularly highly valued. Bureaucratic structures and funding constraints pose other obstacles. Nevertheless, both felt that the skills and knowledge they brought to the organisation enabled them to contribute to the Office’s key role of developing methodologies to best record, preserve and protect the state’s cultural heritage.

Government also produces records that become the historian‚Äôs raw material. Christine Yeats, former manager at State Records NSW, provided perspectives from both sides of the counter in highlighting the symbiotic relationship between archivists and historians. She stressed the importance of mutual understanding and respect for what, at times, are conflicting objectives. While archivists‚Äô responsibility is to protect and preserve the documents, historians want access to them as quickly and easily as possible. Yet both need each other ‚Äď what is the point of preserving archives if no one uses them? Again, historical understanding is key to interpreting the records which are not simply facts, but embody the values and attitudes of the political environment of the day. Hence, greater communication between the two professions is essential and historians have a role to play in ensuring sound archival policies and practices. A major challenge is the proliferation of digital records and how to preserve them.

Local government provides opportunities for closer engagement between historians and the community, although very few municipal councils apart from the City of Sydney employ historians in permanent positions. As Council Historian at North Sydney, Ian Hoskins’ role entails co-ordinating public programs, exhibitions, walking tours, publications, film and interpretive signage as well as providing advice about heritage issues and managing a large archive and art collection in collaboration with the Stanton Library staff. Ian explained that one audience for his work is the local ratepayers and so, this role forms a very powerful bridge for preserving and sharing historical knowledge between professional historians and the general public, and in engaging interest in history more widely.

When the Professional Historians Association NSW was formed almost thirty years ago, most members were working in isolation as consultants. It is testament to the progress of public history that permanent roles for historians in government do exist, though still relatively few. The public sector also provides an important source of employment for consulting historians through commissioned projects and it is to the advantage of all when professional historians are involved in developing briefs and evaluating work.

While the benefits of historical training may seem obvious, we are not always good at communicating our skills to others. Francesca Beddie ¬†quoted Andrews and Burke‚Äôs neat articulation of ‚Äėthe five Cs‚Äô that historians bring to their work: an understanding of how things change over time; the ability to interpret the past in context; an interest in causality ‚Äď not just explaining the facts but also why things happen and why it matters; contingency ‚Äď recognising that nothing happens in a vacuum, but that events are connected to what has gone before; and the realisation that history, like life, is complex ‚Äď not all stories can be simplified. We need to be comfortable with complexity and, through good communication, help others to become more comfortable with it too. Surely these are skills that serve well in any profession and should certainly be at the forefront of public-sector decision-making.

Photo taken by Yvonne Perkins

Who is our audience?

Historians need to become more sophisticated about their audiences. This was the clarion call from the final session of the 2013 Australian Historical Association conference.

City of Sydney historian, Lisa Murray, declared herself a strumpet for history ‚Äď prepared to do whatever it takes to promote history. That ‚Äėwhatever‚Äô includes better segmentation of audiences and clever marshalling of the new media available to get people engaged. It does not mean dumbing down. In the realm of social media it does, however, open the way for new collaborations between expertise and experience.

All the panellists stressed the importance of keeping the professional historian’s voice heard in discussions about the past. Projecting that voice requires a suite of communication skills: in today’s competitive information market it is no longer possible to rely on the book to convey the message.

Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison underlined the need to acknowledge the viewpoint of one‚Äôs audience ‚Äď without compromising the rigour of the profession. He contended this should be easier for historians than for other scholars, given the former‚Äôs devotion to the language of the people and to telling stories, even jokes. Yes, levity is one of the historian‚Äôs tools. Indeed, Davison read out an accolade of which he is particularly proud: a local councillor recently praised his book, Car Wars, as ‚Äėamusing and wise‚Äô.

Davison reminded us that fellow professionals are one of our audiences. Historians need to communicate with planners and politicians, architects and diplomats. They also need to think carefully about how their work will penetrate the world of Google. A good title and abstract for a scholarly article, along with the right keywords, can send ideas on unexpected travels, beyond the intended reader to many more. So, sometimes it is possible to reach more than one audience with one piece of writing, though all panellists cautioned against assuming that a single product can  serve the multiplicity of history’s audiences.

The professional historian, either within the academy or beyond, faces new competitors. Film maker, Sandra Pires, showed us how ordinary people, aided by a digital recorder, are now creating their own histories. Pires acts as an intermediary, tying local stories to those of the professional historian to produce documentaries about big issues that still resonate at the community level.

For many,the personal angle will lead them to history. Nevertheless, the uncertainty that history can cast on the past is not always welcome. Michael Ondaatje, in his elegant speech about the use and abuse of history, warned that the historian’s endless search for new perspectives and their embrace of complexity can be anathema to the broader public. He illustrated his point with references to the Tea Party’s success in invoking history while, in the same breath, dismissing historians whose analyses undermined more comfortable interpretations of the past. Ondaatje appealed to scholars to make contributions beyond the academy. This, he acknowledged, called for more than the individual’s efforts to present history in readable prose: the university system must also better reward those striving for breadth and accessibility rather than just for high journal rankings.


Francesca Beddie, PHA NSW blog editor