Vale Dr James Semple (Jim) Kerr

by Bruce Baskerville, PHA NSW & ACT Chair.


The death of Jim Kerr on 15 October 2014 has received less attention in the mainstream media than that of Gough Whitlam, but for anyone working in cultural heritage his passing was the passing of a giant.

Jim Kerr will have been known personally to many of our members. He was always ready to give friendly advice and guidance as our heritage practices evolved and developed from the mid-1970s onwards.  Jim was a significant contributor to the development of the Burra Charter, that fundamental statement of heritage philosophy and best practices that first became available in 1979.

Perhaps he is better known to public historians for his guides and publications that provided methods for analysing historic places and gave us opportunities to learn how to read a building or a landscape like a document. In this sense, his works such as Design for Convicts : an account of design for convict establishments in the Australian colonies during the transportation era (1984) and Out of Site, Out of Mind: Australia’s places of confinement 1788-1988 (1988), along with pioneering studies such as his first conservation plan for the Sydney Opera House (1993), each with their lovingly detailed drawings, extended our understanding of the archive far beyond dusty shelving, fading ink and crackling paper.

conservation plan

For me, The Conservation Plan, through its several iterations, has provided an intellectually sound and living basis during over two decades of working as a public historian within the heritage system.  It was a true pleasure to have been able to discuss with Jim, some years ago, his revisions to the 2004 edition, and now of course I feel especially honoured to have spent that time with him, even though it was so brief.  No doubt, many of you will have your own stories to tell.


Jim’s funeral was held at that signature creation by architect Edmund Blacket, St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Newtown on Friday 23 October. Mark Dunn attended on behalf of all PHA NSW & ACT members.

[Image:  A group of ICOMOS members chatting as they look over the Burra mining landscape, during the meeting when the charter was adopted in 1979. Jim Kerr is the tall bearded man, centre left. Photo by Richard Allom. Source: ]

Vale EG (Gough) Whitlam

by Bruce Baskerville, PHA NSW & ACT Chair.

The death of Gough Whitlam on 21 October, Prime Minister between 2 December 1972 and 11 November 1975, has been marked by many obituaries and reminiscences in the media. Fine words have been printed and spoken, far finer than anything I can draw together.   So, I would just like to recall some outstanding achievements of the Whitlam governments that, perhaps more than any other, created a social and cultural environment in which ‘heritage’ came to be valued and a Commonwealth responsibility was emphasized and pursued.   The Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate, chaired by Justice Robert Hope QC (just notice the fortuitous vocabulary of ‘national estate’, ‘justice’ and ‘hope’) was established in December 1972, and resulted eventually in the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975, the first Commonwealth legislation that brought together Aboriginal, natural and cultural (or historic, as it was then called) heritage, and in turn open up opportunities for historians to be involved in defining a continental heritage estate, writing and telling its stories, and contributing a historical understanding to its management.  That had never happened before.  Whitlam’s view that ‘The Australian Government should see itself as the curator and not the liquidator of the national estate’ was as radical then as it is today. 

map of Aust A map of Australia that was unimaginable in 1972:

Historic, Aboriginal and Natural heritage sites listed in the Register of the National Estate by 2000



My space is too short to wax lyrically, but it is important to recite just a very few of the associated achievements of the Whitlam era, which established the Aboriginal Land Rights Royal Commission in 1973, ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1974 (one of the first countries to do so), commenced building the National Gallery in 1974, revitalized the Australia Council for the Arts, and of course, established the Register of the National Estate in 1975, now sadly reduced to a closed database and the evocative term ‘national estate’ almost forgotten.

It was these actions (and I know I’ve only just touched upon a few) that, I think, first created a demand for historians from outside the academy.  I don’t think that was an original intention, but the terms of reference for the Inquiry included how National Trusts and other conservation groups “could be supported by public funds”.  The consequent creation of independent professional and public historians who would become an integral part of (in its broadest senses) cultural public policy and management across Australia is, nevertheless, a real outcome and I think the establishment of the first associations for professional historians in Adelaide and Sydney in the mid-1980s needs to be understood in this context.

A more detailed obituary by Guy Betts will be posted on Guy Fawkes Day, also the day of the public memorial service for Mr Whitlam in Sydney.

Threats to Libraries

PHA member and librarian, Diana Wyndham, alerts us to the continuing threats to libraries, recalling that protests helped to reduce the cutbacks which were initially planned for Sydney’s Mitchell Library and which now threaten the staff and books at Sydney University’s Fisher Library. David Malouf and Bob Ellis spoke at a rally in front of Fisher on 13 August and said how much their work depends on books and libraries. Malouf said no one would dream of removing every second note by Mozart or cut off pieces out of art works.

This threat is not just to one library, one university or one country, as Michael Wilding, emeritus professor of English and Australian literature at the University of Sydney, has eloquently and depressingly expressed. Unfortunately, the current books-averse decisions will stop the gains made by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and instead there will only be data-free research.  There is little difference between dumping, storing or burning books – books are destroyed or become inaccessible.  This is not new as Nicholson Baker made clear in Double Fold, since the 1950s, many of the world’s major libraries have shed hard copies of newspapers.  Ray Bradbury depicts the nightmare of a book-free world in Fahrenheit 451.

Online is not for ever, sometimes for less than a decade. It is possible to read the thousand-year-old Domesday Book but the BBC’s 1986 computer-based, multimedia Domesday Project, which cost £2.5 million, was unreadable by 2002.  Our digital heritage needs to be saved but we also need to save hard copies of the books, newspapers, journals and archives which libraries are so busy digitising.  Let’s not throw out the book babies or the digital bathwater.

Libraries are like canaries in coal mines; if they are endangered the whole community suffers: young and old, business and leisure, education and health. I deplore the cuts to staff and services at Sydney University’s Fisher Library and the threats faced by other libraries. All levels of government must increase library funding. Democracy depends on strong, free, fully-functioning libraries staffed by qualified librarians.

Sydney Beaches: A History


It’s spring! Time to dust off our togs, thongs, hats and all the things that make us comfortable at the beach.

This year, beach-going historians will have the perfect reading material. PHA (NSW) member Caroline Ford’s new book has just come out – Sydney Beaches: A History. Caroline offers her reader a fascinating analysis of the way Sydney’s beaches came to be as they are: how they came to be public land treasured by bathers and surfers, but not places to set up a shack; how they came to be clean enough to swim in again after decades of pollution by sewage and refuse (and how the keenest continued to bathe amongst the floating garbage); and how beach erosion has shaped the Sydney coastline.

The book embodies the findings of Caroline‘s many years of highly skilled, persistent and perspicacious research in NSW State Records holdings and local collections. Its story of the beaches is utterly intertwined with the stories of Sydneysiders. It makes a highly entertaining read and is replete with stunning images of beach athletes, activists and the general public getting in and out of their swimwear.

Minister for Environment and Heritage, Rob Stokes will be launching the book on Thursday 23 October at 6 for 6:30pm at Ariel Books – come along (42 Oxford St, Paddington) and have your copy signed!  RSVP to

Post by Emma Dortins

Image: South Steyne Surf Life Saving Club members surfing in 1928

Fixed or Flexible?

Bruce Baskerville, PHA NSW & ACT Chair, posts some ideas about pathways between Professional, Associate and Graduate membership of the association.

I flagged the question of pathways between different levels of membership in the PHA NSW/ACT in my annual report. Now, I would like to encourage more discussion among members to assist the committee in its deliberations on this issue. I hope readers will forgive the rather lengthy exposition that follows, which was first published in Members Circular No 16, 25 August 2014.

Currently, we have three membership categories of Professional, Associate and Graduate. These categories are linked to varying annual subscription levels, and are informally associated with the levels of fees set out in the Australian Council of Professional Historians  schedule of fees.

There is some movement between the categories, mainly with associates ‘upgrading’ to the professional level, usually as their experience and qualifications grow so that they meet the criteria for the professional category. But we need to give consideration to other types of change, such as:

  • members who enter at the associate level and never change their status even when qualified to do so
  • members in the professional category who retire, and no longer make a living as a historian but wish to stay involved with the PHA
  • members in any category who may temporarily withdraw from actively working as a historian but who may return to actively working after some time (which may be several years)
  • members who move overseas and who may not then be actively working in Australia, but may do so at some time in the future.

The 2013 membership survey indicated that 80 per cent of respondents were in the professional category, 12 per cent associate and 7 per cent graduate. Since joining, 18.5 per cent had ‘upgraded’ their membership category and 21 per cent had not. The remaining 60 per cent felt the question was not applicable to them.

The responses to a ‘why not’ question by the 21 per cent who had not ‘upgraded’ are illuminating. Twenty-six per cent said it was ‘not necessary/no incentive/form too hard’; 13 per cent said their circumstances had not changed; 20 per cent did not have the qualification/eligibility to do so; 6.5 per cent had tried and been rejected and another 6.5 per cent did not know they could ‘upgrade’.  One member was in the process of ‘upgrading’.  Two members said the ‘boys club mentality’ of the PHA deters them/they don’t have ‘friends in the club’, and another felt the question was ‘superfluous’.  Three members specifically stated that the higher membership subscription was a deterrent to ‘upgrading’.

Similar questions have arisen in past years and were again aired during the 2014/15 renewal of subscriptions. This points to the complexity of how best to categorise our membership and the need to consider questions like the following:

  •  is it a desirable or necessary objective that all members should eventually reach the professional category?
    • Should there be any time limit on how long a member remains in a graduate or associate category?
  • should there be a ‘retired’ or ‘emeritus’ membership category?
    • And do historians (especially those working freelance) ever really permanently retire or do they move between periods of greater and lesser work activity depending on their circumstances and needs at any given time? Our objectives now refer to a “life-long career as a historian”, which suggests more than a simple trajectory from graduate to stable and permanent employment to retirement, followed by a few years reminiscing on the verandah as the sun slowly sets.
  • do the lower annual subscription rates for graduate and associate categories discourage members from ‘‘upgrading’’ to the professional category, or conversely encourage members to ‘downgrade’ from the professional to associate category?
    • Is this a problem: the survey indicates only three people out of 232 respondents thought so?
    • Should there be a more flexible approach to the categories that allow a member to move between them depending on their working status at any time? For example, a member might move from professional to associate for some years while parenting, then back to professional while actively working, then back to associate while working overseas for several years, or perhaps to deal with prolonged health issues, then back to professional upon return or recovery, then back to associate once retired – or semi-retired, possibly moving back to professional if needed at various times.
  • should we talk about ‘upgrades’ and ‘downgrades’, or simply ‘changes’, in moving between membership categories?
  • should there be a direct link between continuing professional development and changing membership categories?
  • should voluntary or community work, such as being a member of the PHA committee or a PHA representative on an external body, be acknowledged in any way in defining membership categories or eligibility?
  • what role or value do the different categories have for members in their own ‘branding’ or presentation of themselves to potential clients or employers and to the broader public as professional historians?
  • is the process of ‘‘upgrading’’ too difficult or unclear?

I don’t think there is a correct answer to any of these questions, at least not yet. But with our profession, even our vocation, evolving in parallel with the changing nature of work, we need to pay attention to these matters and work out what’s best for our association. Your committee members are keen to hear members’ perspectives, so please don’t be shy to air your views either here on the blog or by contacting us direct at .