Five minutes with … Pauline Curby

This post brings you something new on the PHA NSW blog. It is the first in a series of profiles of our members, inspired by a column in the UK online magazine, the History Vault. Thanks to Stephen Gapps for the suggestion and Pauline Curby  (on the right) for being our guinea pig.

What is your current position or area of historical interest?

I do freelance consultant work. Since I received a NSW History Fellowship in 2010 I’ve become particulalry interested in the history of capital punishment in 20th century Australia. The project was ‘Changing attitudes to capital punishment in NSW, 1910-1939’ and has resulted in several articles: ‘Grave Source of Dissension: Murder, Capital punishment and the NSW Labor Party, 1910-1912’, was published in Circa, the Journal of Professional Historians, Issue 3, 2012. In press are: ‘A frightful deed, Capital punishment and a triple child murder, 1924’ to be published in Circa, the Journal of Professional Historians, Issue 4, 2014 in July and ‘A Dread Decision: the Execution of Edwin Hickey, 1936’ in Labour History in November 2014.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I’ve always loved history but had no idea that there was a public history career path. I remember seeing an advertisement for the MA Public History course at University Technology Sydney in the  Royal Australian Historical Society magazine History early in 1990. I rang the contact person who happened to be Heather Goodall and asked if the course could be done part-time as I had ‘other commitments’. Heather guessed the ‘commitments’ were three fairly young children and still encouraged me to enrol. I managed the course as well as teaching part time and graduated in 1993. The rest is history!

Who is the audience for your history?

I write for a general non-academic audience.

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

There are so many but I think All Quiet on the Western Front would have to be up there. [Ed. The novel published in 1928 by German WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque was adapted in 1930 as an Oscar-winning film. Remarque tells the reader: ‘This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.’]

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

I’d stay right where I am because, in any other period of history I can think of, women did not get a very good deal.

Why is history important today?

I guess it’s inevitable that we keep repeating the mistakes of the past but the results might not be so drastic if there was more awareness of our history.

Saving whales

by Nicole Cama, Digital Curator, Australian National Maritime Museum.

I always find the amalgamation of past and current events to be a challenging task as a historian. Last week I was a guest speaker for the Dictionary of Sydney’s weekly history segment on Breakfast at 2SER radio. The International Court of Justice had, only the day before, announced its ruling against Japanese ‘scientific’ whaling in the Antarctic. Australia salivated and proclamations of victory were posted all over social media. I thought it was the perfect moment to join the conversation and highlight the important place history has in this contemporary issue.

Whaling formed an integral part of the Australian economy from the early 1800s. Sydney was the main whaling port of Australia and at least a third of the convict transports and store ships sent to the new colony before 1800 were British whaling vessels. By 1850, the commodities exported through this industry amounted to £4.2 million and between 1825 and 1879, Sydney alone had a fleet that produced whale oil and baleen (whalebone) valued at £2.6 million.

As Michelle Linder, curator of the ‘Amazing Whales’ exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum has explained, efforts to protect the species have only really emerged in recent decades. Although the industry had declined toward the later part of the 19th century, attitudes toward wholesale slaughter of whales took some time to change and it was not until 1979 that whaling was completely banned in Australia.

Historians seek to offer historical interpretation with a perspective on how it relates to a current issue. It’s a delicate balance, which can often carry the potential to ruffle a few feathers, especially on a sensitive issue like whaling.

As we’ve seen recently, in a debate about the tensions surrounding academic, public and family history, now more than ever historians are being called upon to engage with the contemporary preoccupations of a large variety of audiences. Let’s not forget though that relating history to the present does not just allow us to look at current events through a new lens, it offers our audiences the chance to connect with the past.

What are your thoughts about the relevance of history to contemporary debates? What are the challenges?

See the Dictionary of Sydney’s full article on Sydney’s whaling past written by Mark Howard.

Tune in to Lisa Murray on 2SER radio speaking for the Dictionary of Sydney each Wednesday!


South Sea Whalers boiling blubber c 1876
by Oswald Brierly, from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales [a128893 / DG 366] (Dixson Galleries)