From Glass-plate to Cyber-space, a retrospective


by Nicole Cama APHA, Australian National Maritime Museum

On 11 September 2013, the Australian National Maritime Museum hosted a series of talks in honour of History Week’s Picture This theme. Organised by myself and my colleagues Penny Hyde and Annalice Creighton, our aim was not just to foster cross-institutional collaboration. It was also to explore a topic that’s been gaining momentum and has, in many ways, transformed the way historians and researchers work. We wanted to delve into the exciting, vibrant world of online cultural collections, and in particular photographs.

First up, Penny and I spoke about how digital communities, specifically the photosharing website Flickr Commons, have led us both through a winding path of historical discoveries. A handful of dedicated users come back to our photostream every day to see our new uploads  and to answer queries or comment on our collection. Sifting through their research and turning them into stories for our blog, quarterly magazine Signals and other publications, has become the most rewarding aspect of our jobs. We call these researchers ‘super sleuths’, they call us ‘super digital outreachers’.

The value these super sleuths add to each historical record shows that cultural institutions must not ignore online communities or just use their skills; rather they need  to invest in them by facilitating a continual, two-way connection that ensures their efforts aren’t in vain. Our super sleuths show that stories can be multi-layered and never-ending as they continue to evolve and take on a life of their own.

Paula Bray, Manager of the Visual and Digitisation Services department at the Powerhouse Museum, spoke about the strategy behind developing online collections. Paula is passionate about making collections available, responsive, shareable and meaningful for the audience. She noted that the focus isn’t really on technology but on content and engagement with the audience. Technology is a tool to help achieve this. She gave examples of the various ways their audience has used the museum’s content and collection to create Google street view “then and now” mashups, augmented reality apps, remixed photographs and so on. The core of Paula’s message was a call for each institution to embrace the idea of audiences as contributors to their collection and as citizen curators/historians.

Bernard de Broglio took the floor to talk about his work as Internet Coordinator at Mosman Library. Bernard demonstrated how they were able to achieve amazing things with the library’s collection and with people’s own personal collections, despite limited resources. He stressed the importance of making collections available on the web so as to cast as wide an audience net as possible and, more importantly, to uncover the many stories lurking in the photographic record. He finished with a personal project, pointing out that “then and now” mashups can be one of the most powerful ways to illustrate the significance of historic photographs.

Mitchell Whitelaw, University of Canberra, offered a different perspective, focussing less on content and strategy, and more on data as ‘rich traces of the world’. Metadata is what enables all this material to be found online. He raised the issue of the sheer size of cultural collections and how users are often faced with the daunting prospect of having to sift through reams of information online. This is where data visualisation can be a useful tool for arranging items in a way that’s digestible and useful – all through the use of metadata. Collections need to be presented in ‘rich, dynamic interfaces’, so that it’s a ‘pleasure and delight’ for users to trawl through them.

Geoff Hinchcliffe, Director of Digital Library Services and CIO at the State Library of New South Wales, gave a talk about the library’s extensive Digital Excellence Program. Here they have been developing their online presence through various social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Trove, historypin and Pinterest. Geoff also recognised the value of crowdsourcing and the notion of citizen curators, with particular reference to one dedicated Trove user who has corrected 2.1million pages in total!

The last speaker, fellow PHA member Dr Lisa Murray, gave a great talk about one of Sydney’s most significant historical projects – the Dictionary of Sydney. As a born-digital history project, its aim was to present a ‘new angle on Sydney’s history’ with innovation, collaboration, connectivity and community at its core. It is a ‘multimedia city biography’ and a multi-layered resource for its users. One of the main reasons why the Dictionary has been able to continually expand is because of growing number of collections being digitised and published online. In this sense, as it doesn’t belong to any one particular institution, the Dictionary is like a focal point for Sydney’s history, a repository for a range of sources. What the Dictionary demonstrates is that a historic photograph is multidimensional and can illustrate many stories simultaneously – which sums up what this series of talks was essentially about.

By empowering our audience to use and contribute to cultural collections, we are allowing a much richer, more complex and exciting understanding of the topic we all love – history.

Nicole has arranged a playlist of the YouTube clips of the talk. Follow this link:

For individual YouTube talks, go to:
Nicole Cama and Penny Hyde
Paula Bray
Bernard de Broglio
Mitchell Whitelaw
Geoff Hinchcliffe
Lisa Murray

The Walking and Talking Historian

Post by Yvonne Perkins

“I thought it was amazing”, enthused Robyn McConkey of North Sydney at the end of a history walk conducted by professional historian, Dr Ian Hoskins.

A group of about thirty walkers had gathered three hours earlier outside Shore School in North Sydney for the walking tour, ‘Following Photography’ Footsteps’. The school is on the site of Holtermann’s Tower built in 1874 by Bernhardt Holtermann for the purpose of taking photographs.  The walkers were keen to learn more about Holtermann and the Harbour Bridge photographer, Frank Cash, and their connections to the local area.  As the historian for North Sydney Council, Hoskins has done much research into the history of the North Sydney which he shared during the walk.

I joined the tour to hear some history, breathe in the fresh air and get some exercise after a busy round of indoor sit-down (and stand-up) events during the week.  It has been History Week and this walking tour was one of the events.

One of the walkers, Merv Leonard, joins many history walks, including others conducted by Ian Hoskins. Merv likes how Hoskins can answer questions authoritatively.  “He doesn’t say, ‘I’m not sure’”.

Jenny Chambers from Brisbane also appreciated the depth of historical knowledge held by Dr Hoskins.  “It’s not easy telling statistics off the cuff.”

Every community has members who are passionate and very knowledgeable about their local history.  Trish Wilkins from Lavender Bay is one.  She has lived in the area for thirty-nine years. Trish became so interested in its history she went to Mitchell Library to search for pictures to see what the landscape used to look like. This was about twenty years ago.

“What I love about this area is that a lot of these [historic] layers are exposed”, Trish said, regaling me with interesting historical facts about the area.  This is exactly what a historical walking tour can do, unlock the layers and give meaning to them.

A walking tour is a sensory experience. Walkers can see the dimensions of buildings, they can hear the historian’s commentary, which gives them a greater understanding of the context in which they were built, and they feel the topography through their feet and legs.  No book or photo can convey this quite as well.

A historical walking tour is interactive.  While the historian is responsible for the narrative, participants ask questions, make comments and share their knowledge too.  Here is a chance for the public to contribute as well as receive historical information.  Walking tours also give historians a chance to develop a personal connection with members of the public passionate about history.

Historians who conduct history walks not only need a deep knowledge about the area, they are also responsible for the health and safety of participants.  At the start of the tour Hoskins explained that both he and his colleague had first aid qualifications and that they had cabcharge vouchers for anyone who may find that they could not walk any further.  He finished the safety note by requesting that all walkers obey traffic lights.

Ian Hoskins talking while walking backwards.
Ian Hoskins talking while walking backwards. Photo by Yvonne Perkins

Some form of amplification for the tour guide is necessary, particularly when there’s a large group.  Hoskins wore a small microphone and amplification unit, which works better when he faces his audience, so he has become adept at talking while walking backwards.

This three-hour walking tour cost $10 which included coffee/tea and biscuits at the conclusion of the walk at Sydney Observatory.  Merv Leonard supported this price.  He had seen some historical walking tours advertised for $30 per participant, which he thought was much too expensive.

By the end of the tour some participants were keen to do more history walks.  One suggested  it would be good to have one website which lists a schedule of all the history walks conducted in Sydney.

History and gentle exercise is a great combination.  Ian Hoskins made it look easy but the historian who conducts a history walk is kept on their toes not only due to the physical activity, but also by having to look after participant safety and respond to questions and comments.  The walkers on Hoskins’ tour  appreciated being able to learn from his expertise through such a pleasant activity.  It was a good example of public history at work.

History Week 2013: Picture This

During  History Week in NSW PHA NSW members will be presenting a range of talks, exhibitions and workshops to explore the theme ‘picture this’. Laila Ellmoos has compiled a list of events to keep you busy over the next week.

Zoe Pollock, PHA NSW member and Executive Director at the History Council of NSW, has put together a fantastic program of events, including the Artist’s Ball and Yellow House pop-up gallery at David Jones Elizabeth Street Store.

Paul Convy, Australian Lebanese in the Picture

Paul Convy from the Australian Lebanese Society has curated an online exhibition of images that show the history of Lebanese settlement in Australia. The photographs featured include images relating to the immigration experience, family and social life, military service and business.

Patricia Curthoys, The Ardlethan Cot

Patricia Curthoys travels to Glen Innes as part of the History Council and RAHS Speaker Connect program to deliver a talk on one aspect of the Benevolent Society’s fundraising by exploring the story behind the Ardlethan cot, endowed by the Ardlethan branch of the Benevolent Society from 1917 to 1933.  Her talk took place on Saturday 7 September 2013. If you didn’t make it, Patricia’s talk will be available online later in the year.

Bruce Pennay, The Albury-Wodonga National Growth Centre Project

Another regional event for History Week 2013 will be a talk by Dr Bruce Pennay on the  Albury-Wodonga National Growth Centre Project, a big, bold, brave attempt to attract city people to a regional centre. The talk will be held at Albury Library Museum, 553 Kiewa Street Street, Albury on Sunday, 8 September 2013, 2-3pm.

Graham Shirley, Bert Ive and the History of Film Australia

Graham Shirley will be talking about the career of the Commonwealth’s first long-term cinematographer, Bert Ive, as well as the history of the organisation behind him, the federal body eventually known as Film Australia, which celebrates its centenary in 2013. The talk will be held at Marrickville Library, corner Marrickville and Petersham Roads, Marrickville on Tuesday, 10 September 2013 from 11am-12pm.

Nicole Cama & Lisa Murray, From glassplate to cyberspace

Nicole Cama and Lisa Murray join a lively panel discussion at the National Martime Museum to explore how cultural institutions are using digital community platforms to share their photographic collections and unlock social and family histories. The symposium will be held on Wednesday, 11 September 2013, 6-8pm.

Bridget Griffin-Foley, Lisa Murray & Yvonne Perkins, Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and the Media

Dr Bridget Griffin-Foley officially launches a two day symposium on history and the media at the State Library of NSW on 10-11 September 2013. PHA NSW members Lisa Murray and Yvonne Perkins will be speaking in a panel on social and digital media on Wednesday 10 September 2013, 10.30-11.45am.

Laila Ellmoos, Adam Forrest Grant: a life in photography

Laila Ellmoos will be giving a lunch time talk at Customs House Library on Wednesday 11 September 2013 on the photography of Adam Forrest Grant.

Ian Hoskins, Following photography’s footsteps On Friday, 13 September 2013, North Sydney Council Historian Ian Hoskins leads an informative walk beginning in Lavender Bay at the site of Holtermanns Tower now owned by the Shore School, where some of the most significant panoramas of Sydney Harbour were taken between the 1870s and 1900. The tour will continue across Sydney Harbour Bridge to Observatory Hill and Sydney Observatory where morning tea will be served on the verandah with views back to the Holtermann site. The three hour tour starts at 9.30am on the corner of Blue and William streets in North Sydney.

Margo Beasley, Laila Ellmoos and Lisa Murray, Sydney Town Hall Open Day

The City’s Civic Collection contains a rich collection of portraits of former mayors and lord mayors. The open day on Saturday 14th September will be a unique opportunity to explore the ‘corridors of power’ at Sydney Town Hall. Join the City’s Curator and the History Unit (Laila Ellmoos, Margo Beasley & Lisa Murray) to view portraits from the collection. Floor talks will be held hourly from 12.30pm to 3.30pm. Join the City of Sydney History unit or a unique opportunity

See the full program of events in History Week 2013 here.



The City of Sydney Council’s ever-expanding oral history collection has recently gone online. A new website: showcases some the City’s many oral history interviews and makes them readily available to the dedicated researcher and casual browser alike.

The City’s History Unit has been conducting interviews since the 1980s as a part of a vigorous program of publication, research, websites and exhibitions. The creation of a permanent oral historian position three years ago signalled the City’s commitment to oral history as a stand-alone and ongoing project that makes a rich resource available to the general public whilst simultaneously enhancing other areas of the unit’s work.  Web delivery has replaced older library-based services, and now makes the collection available to all who have internet access.

The structure of the website follows dedicated collecting themes that allow for genuine historical enquiry whilst broadly aligning with the City of Sydney’s strategic vision (Sustainable Sydney 2030). Themes are: ‘Shared Terrain’ (urban ecology); ‘Open All Hours’ (work, commerce and industry); ‘Our City’ (precincts and special projects); ’Shelter’ (housing and associated issues), ‘Belief’ (secular and religious belief systems) and ‘Art and Culture’ (public art, arts practitioners, cinema, theatre, community-based cultural activities).

Digitisation of equipment and recording outputs has rendered recent interviews in targeted oral history projects of good sound quality. Older interviews, some conducted more than twenty years ago in informal circumstances for varying research purposes, are less polished.   The History Unit’s philosophy is that all interviews, of whatever sound or dialogue quality, are primary historical sources; their usefulness will be determined by the people who access them. We make no judgements as to what constitutes a ‘good’ interview worthy of web delivery and restrict access only if the interview is inaudible, or for reasons such as privacy, legality or similar.

In general, each interview is presented in two formats: as an edited extract in both audio and text versions; and as the complete interview also as both audio and full transcription.  This allows the website to be browsed quickly by the casual user interested in accessing brief ‘stories’ about the City’s local government area;  but it also means that the dedicated researcher willing to spend some time can access the complete historical document.  Availability of both audio and text formats also conforms to the City’s commitment to web accessibility for both the hearing and vision impaired.  The website currently showcases around 60 interviews but there are more than 400 in the wings, and the collection of interviews continues.  will ultimately be a very large oral history site.  will be launched officially at the end of October 2013 but in the meantime we encourage anyone to jump online and check it out.  The website is still in its early stages so constructive feedback is very welcome.

Dr Margo Beasley, Oral Historian, City of Sydney

Tel: 92567540;