Reflections on the AHA Conference 2014


This year the Australian Historical Association (AHA) Conference was held at the University of Queensland’s campus in Brisbane. The theme of the AHA’s 33rd annual get together, held in the week of 7-11 July, was ‘Conflict in History’. The setting of the conference, in rooms within the sandstone buildings that make up the university’s quadrangle, was conducive to some deep thinking and questioning about the past.  Laila Ellmoos reflects.

One of life’s great challenges is decision making; choosing a session to attend at the AHA is no exception. Unfortunately, the abstract book wasn’t included in the delegate kit. It was only available as a pdf, which assumed ownership of a mobile device, such as an Ipad or a smartphone. This may seem like a minor gripe but it did make it difficult to choose which session to go to as the short synopses in the program had only scant information about each paper. On the plus side, the abstract book is available for download to be perused at any time.

Making a wise choice was also made difficult because there were so many parallel sessions, as is always the case at an AHA conference. Some sessions were cleverly programmed with papers that related to each other and provoked lively discussion; others were not so well curated.

Quite a few papers were cancelled at the last minute. Online discussions after the conference from early career academics suggest this may have been because the registration fees are prohibitive for some. Presumably the high registration fee is also a disincentive for professional historians to attend the AHA conferences regularly.

Nevertheless, this year, for the first time, Professional Historians Australia (PHA) hosted a stream at the AHA Conference, which was very well attended. The day was capped off with the launch of Circa (Issue 4) at Old Parliament House. Unfortunately due to the many papers to choose from, I was only able to attend one session, the Writing History Symposium, where Pauline Curby and others spoke about the type and scope of work they do as professional historians. There was also a very popular PHA Vic session ‘Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History’ on Thursday 10 July.

For me the highlights were the two of the plenary panels: ‘Violence and the Intimate Frontier’ and ‘Big Questions in History: How Can Historians Influence Public Policy?’, about which fellow PHA NSW member Yvonne Perkins has reported in her blog.

I always enjoy the AHA conferences. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet other historians and to learn more about the work of our peers in the small world in which we move. But I do have one final complaint about the timing of the AHA conferences.

For the last few years the conferences have been held in the first week of July. This coincides with NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week. The conferences usually begin with a Welcome to Country and there are plenty of non-Aboriginal people presenting papers on Aboriginal history throughout. But there has never any acknowledgement at any of the AHA conferences I’ve attended that they are held during NAIDOC Week. This is a great oversight.

Perhaps the AHA could build bridges with NAIDOC organisers for its next conference, by aligning and involving itself in NAIDOC Week and associated events. This way the AHA could play an important part not only in reconciliation but also in getting the history community active in supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples to research and write their own histories.

IMAGE: St Lucia Campus, University of Queensland, 1963 (Image: R 115 Finlay Colour Slides, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland)

Meet your president…five minutes with Bruce Baskerville


Bruce is an independent public historian, who works on small contracts (mainly in the heritage field). He is currently working (on his longest-running contract, that is more than 6 months!) with the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, reviewing and writing conservation plans (with an emphasis on history) for public domain spaces around The Rocks.  See He is also a PhD candidate in the Sydney University History Department, researching a cultural history of the crown in Australia.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I have had a life-long fascination with history, probably from family history, growing up with a lot of old people, all storytellers, including a great-grandfather who was the son of a convict, and a boyhood in the Abrolhos Islands surrounded by four centuries of shipwreck relics and stories. Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to work, as a historian, in NSW’s three 1788 towns of Sydney Cove, Kingston (NI) and Parramatta.   Being a historian was the only thing I ever really wanted to be (although I have had many, many other jobs), and it took me a long time to work out how to earn an income from a passion.  I’m still not sure if I’ve got that right but I do manage to pay the rent!

Who is the audience for your history?

For my paid work, whoever has commissioned me.  That usually means some sort of government agency, with the work feeding into either implementing or formulating public policy.  Material that I publish on my blog is for other historians and researchers who may find it useful in their own work.  I think that research hoarded rather than shared is wasted.

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

Heraldry: both as an unwritten form of communication and for the huge aesthetic variety of designs that can be produced from a few simple rules.  For some 800 years heraldry has been a means of conveying information about identity, social status, allegiance, lineage, community and all sorts of other social and political relationships. Most cultures have some comparable system of heritable symbols, so a historian can use heraldry to build bridges between cultures and across times.  The skills involved in ‘reading heraldry’ might seem arcane, but they provide insights into understanding visual clues and records in the past and today.  A historical subject that includes something heraldic always gets an extra tick from me!

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

The future.  I love science fiction, especially writers such as Terry Dowling, Trent Jamieson, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, China Miéville, writers who can evoke ‘future history’ and show the endless potentials for the future.  I’m also a Randolph Stow fan, so another time machine journey would be to have a conversation (or several) with this reclusive bard. A visit to Mervyn Peake’s fantastical Gormenghast would also be brilliant.   I really need a tardis and the regenerative capacity of Dr Who to get anywhere near all the times I want visit!

Why is history important today?

For its capacity to provoke reflection and contemplation, to understand that the present is a just a point in a continuum of past-present-future, that nothing is really preordained or inevitable.  A sense of history, that things change over time and that there are also enduring resonances, helps counter the disempowerment of cynicism; it frees people to act.  History shows us there are always other ways to see things, other questions to ask, that we chose our histories as much as we choose our futures.  History is also important as good story-telling, which is probably at the heart of all cultures and civilizations, helping people to comprehend that they are part of something bigger and more satisfying beyond their own personal desires.  Without historians, communities are inhibited in developing a sense of common purpose and identity.  We help our communities to navigate stormy waters and find safe harbours, to face adversity and grow through renewal.