The Public History Prize was established in 2008 to encourage students enrolled in undergraduate history courses to research, write and present accessible and engaging histories, and to consider a career as a professional historian operating in the public history field.
The 2014 Public History Prize was awarded to Nathan Fallon (centre), for his essay: Transmitting the memory of the Holocaust to the Australian Public: the cultivation of prosthetic memory in the Sydney Jewish Museum. Nathan undertook this project as part of his Bachelor of Arts at Macquarie University within the Modern History Department.
We (Birgit Heilmann, the PHA NSW & ACT public history prize officer and Ian Hoskins, this year’s judge) were curious and wanted to know more about Nathan and his project, so did a Q&A with him.
What are your plans now you have finished your Bachelor’s degree? Are you thinking of pursuing a career in the history sector?
As a lover of history, design and politics I’ve long been an avid student of history. This essay is truly the culmination of those interests. Since finishing my Bachelor of Arts at Macquarie University, I’ve decided to undertake a Master of Teaching at the University of Western Sydney. This has been the plan since half way through my undergraduate degree. Teaching is a great way for me to practise history every day and share my passion with younger minds. I’ve always seen teaching as a hugely rewarding and valuable profession. For me it is important that everyone receive the best education possible. I want to see schools teach rigorous historical inquiry that encourages and develops critical thought. I see my future as playing a role in that.
Your winning essay was written as an assessment within the second semester unit, Making History: Capstone Unit, where students are asked to design their own research projects and questions. Why did you choose to write about the Sydney Jewish Museum and the way it transmits the holocaust memory to the public?
The decision to investigate the interplay between the Sydney Jewish Museum’s design, curation and experience, and its transmission of holocaust memory, was the culmination of a number of ideas and thoughts I had pondered throughout my undergraduate studies about the way design and space interacted with history and memory. I have always had a keen interest in design history, having even begun a degree in Architecture prior to my studies at Macquarie University. When I moved to studying history, I did not neglect to involve this interest wherever I could, tracing themes of history and design through a number of my research essays. This included one piece discussing the inconsistent aesthetic of the Italian Fascist state architectural program as an embodiment of the pluralities in Benito Mussolini’s political ideology. It was during the research for this piece that the idea of investigating museum spaces and memory really began. So I decided to revisit Alison Landsberg’s prosthetic memory paradigm. She has written about the production of public holocaust memory at the United States’ Holocaust Memorial Museum. I found her ideas fascinating and wondered if the paradigm could be applied to the experience of the Sydney Jewish Museum, a place that had moved me when I visited as a school student. As it turned out my supervisor, Dr Hsu-Ming Teo, was researching the Melbourne Holocaust Museum, so with her guidance my project grew from there.
Why is history important today?
If you had asked me this question at the beginning of my undergraduate studies I would have probably given a spiel about the age-old adage that ‘those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it’. Now I think my answer would be more nuanced and perhaps less naïve. Having taken a particular interest in history and memory during my studies, I have come to see that there are many ways to remember one’s past, and many ‘histories’ upon which to justify action. So history, being malleable and interpretive, provides no special protection against humanity’s pitfalls.
Instead I think studying history provides something more valuable. It teaches us to think broadly and critically, which inevitably leads to the question ‘why?’ For me the question of ‘why’ is fundamental to improving and strengthening the cohesion of our diverse social fabric and more broadly the continuous development of humanity. I think history holds a lot of answers to contemporary problems. We just need to start the search, keep asking questions and be open to the answers we find.
What’s your next history-related project?
To become a high-school history teacher. So in a way I am the project! Having fallen in love with the study of modern history in my undergraduate studies I wanted to find a way to practise it every day and share my passion with others ― I think teaching is a great way to do that. Whilst this is the short-term project, there is a long-term goal: I would like, one day, to be involved in developing the national history curriculum. I think there is room for improvement in the curriculum believe the people to change it are those with a passion for rigorous historical inquiry, not politicians pushing nationalist agendas.
What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?
I have many favourite historical sources, books, and films. It depends on what topic I’m considering, but I do have to say that for a good laugh, you can’t go past the Francois Rabelais Renaissance satire, Gargantua and Pantagruel.
If you had a time machine, where would you go, and why?
If I had a time machine I would travel to Ancient Thebes and ask Akhenaten why he so drastically modified Egyptian polytheism to form a new henotheistic state religion. I’ve always wondered if Freud was on the right track in making a link between Atenism and early Judaism…
Read Nathan’s blog post about his project.
Interested in entering the 2015 Public History Prize? You will find more information here: http://www.phansw.org.au/pha-nsw-public-history-prize/