2014 Public History Prize Winner: Nathan Fallon


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/


The PHA (NSW +ACT) celebrates its 30th year and has a pearler in the process


Ian Hoskins reports on History in July

I suspect the dining room of 133 Macquarie Street, ‘History House’, saw rather more oysters than pearls during its years as the premises of the Reform Club hosting the colony’s Alpha Males (politicians, pastoralists and the occasional vice-regal type) – at least before the Club and probably a few of its members succumbed to the Depression of the 1890s.

But on Wednesday night there were pearls a’plenty at the PHA (NSW +ACT) History in July evening which also marked the Association’s 30th ‘Pearl’ Anniversary.

It was a fine evening. The lecture room was full by 6.30o pm to hear Donna Ingram deliver a Welcome to Country on behalf of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and as an Aboriginal woman born on Gadigal land.

The annual Peter Tyler Oration was delivered by Emeritus Professor Alan Atkinson. Alan reflected upon his own career and spoke to some of the themes of his recently published third volume of The Europeans in Australia; in particular the popular imaginings of space which filled the minds of children ‘gazing’ at the newly mass-produced maps that adorned school rooms across the country – maps that placed Australia in the Empire and the world, and localities within an incipient nation. Spatial imagination was giving way to the temporal when Alan began his studies in the 1960s – though I’m sure many of us still remember maps with the pinked in Commonwealth (nee Empire) draped on walls next to blackboards well into that decade.

Now it is the challenge of understanding ‘deep time’ that excites many in the profession. But it is also the case that the historical imagination has broadened far beyond the academy so that thousands are now consumers and producers of history – a point, of course, that many in the audience knew well and endorsed.

It was the perfect segué for the awarding of the Public History Prize to Nathan Fallon (pictured with Lisa Murray, City of Sydney historian). public history prize 01His essay explored the creation of prosthetic memory of the holocaust at the Sydney Jewish Museum. The term was coined in the 1990s by Alison Landsberg and might also be called vicarious memory. As the judge of the essay and a long-time curator, I read the analysis with fascination but must admit to being sceptical about the possibility of any museum successfully recreating the experience of horror on that scale. Nathan did, however, speak convincingly when accepting his award about the effect of the museum upon him – an experience that prompted his enquiry and ultimately the essay. You will be able to download it from the PHA website.

There were six lucky door prize winners of a day/afternoon/evening (?!) out on the harbour on a pearl lugger, courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum and Stephen Gapps, at a time to be announced. They will be joined by another lucky six to be chosen from those who come to the AGM on the 25th August. So make sure you go to that for a chance to sail into history.

Thanks to those who organised the event – in particular Bruce Baskerville, Judith Godden, Carol Liston, Pauline Curby, Stephen Gapps, Birgit Heilmann, Christine Yeats and Nathan Esler. Thank you also to Philippa McGuinness from NewSouth Books who came along with Alan’s latest volume to sell. The box was nearly emptied.

And thanks to everyone who came and made it a great evening.

Peter Tyler Oration


Professional historians who gathered at the annual History in July occasion in Sydney must have been heartened by the thoughtful words uttered in the second Peter Tyler Oration. Alan Atkinson, Emeritus Professor and literary prize winner, traced the origins – and rise and rise – of public history. He did so with rigour and sensitivity, reminding us that historical inquiry is essentially about better understanding the human condition.

The oration was a deft blend of rumination on historical method and the politics of history-making since the 1960s and 1970s. Atkinson sees that period as the birth of public history. It was a time when young historians like himself were rethinking history and looking for new audiences. Local and family history were emerging as part of the discipline, new technologies (like microfilm!) were making resources more accessible, statistics and sociology were becoming historical tools. More generally, people were beginning to talk about how the past impinges on the present and acknowledging that history belongs to everyone.

In those exciting times, Alan Atkinson formulated an approach to history that investigated the still depths of human existence. First, he embarked on an endeavour to depict how people in the nineteenth century understood place and time. He took the town of Camden, scrutinising its statistics to build a picture from below.

Atkinson acknowledges that the best history must do more than paint such a picture; it must merge the partial, messy particulars of life with a view from above. So the observer of a gaol, for example, must walk around the place both with the warden, who has access to all its parts, and with the prisoner, whose space is much more constrained.

In the Commonwealth of Speech, Atkinson moved from place to sound, aiming to capture from the past something as ephemeral as noise. In his oration, he suggested that novelists often find it easier than historians to capture the sensuality and physicality of the past. He also emphasised the need for historians to delve into the intellectual world of oral cultures, which have left no written record thus reinforcing a sense of terra nullius.

Now, as an eminent historian, Atkinson has embraced a new challenge, to examine the role of religion in human affairs. He is doing so to counter the secular, nationalist strand in Australian life that has pushed aside much study of belief. In this age when religion is reasserting its influence on how public institutions operate, it is a subject that deserves the attention of historians, not least public historians whose quest, after all, is to illuminate what it means, in all its aspects, to be human.


Francesca Beddie

AHA 2015: a personal reflection


By Samantha Leah

The 2015 Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference was a combination of fascinating papers, talks and networking. Some delegates grasped the opportunity between sessions to connect and introduce, while others took the time to reflect on the implications of a paper for their own research. Most, like myself, did both.

One thing I found striking. It was, to my amazement, an issue being discussed in the same way at the last AHA conference I attended ― in 2007. The issue is the long-accepted assumption that history is composed of two types: the ‘academic’ and the ‘popular’. As a professional historian working outside the academy who tries to adhere to the academic standards of the discipline, this distinction sits uneasily with how I view my every day work.

I have spent enough hours tramping around heritage sites, conversing with librarians, heritage managers, architects, engineers and other consumers of history, to know that the division of history into these two camps is not something that the public often recognises. When I submit a tender for a project or run a community workshop, no one ever asks ‘what type of historian are you’. I have a degree (or three) and a business card. I also have experience. From my clients’ perspective, I am a historian. However, my work is located outside an academic institution. That this demarcation still exists was clear throughout the conference.

Is the old distinction between ‘real’ history and ‘amateur’ or ‘popular’ history still relevant? I would argue that my history and work in heritage is no less real than that which focuses on complex theoretical concepts and interpretations. I enjoy a good post-modernist deconstruction as much as the next person, but surely both approaches sit comfortably within the category of ‘real’. My work shapes spaces and places. My history leads to physical conservation or demolition. My history is tangible, real. Also, (most days) I love my job. I seek to be professional even though my career aspirations do not lean toward the academic path. So on what side of the line do I stand?

The conference gave me much cause for reflection. Has history evolved? With historians who are working both in and out of universities writing books and articles that are enjoyed by the public, is the distinction between the two still relevant? Is it time to think of new categories, such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’? How would we assess quality?

Long may we who interrogate the past seek to share, question, and support our colleagues, whether we are at the head of a classroom, pouring over documents in the archives, or walking transport routes in our steel-capped boots. This collegial aspect did appear at the conference; it was something I found warmly familiar.

Perhaps while we are discussing these ideas about who writes what types of history, the line is shifting beneath our feet without us being fully aware of it.





2015 Australian Historical Association conference overview


Ian Willis reports on the conference…

The annual Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference has wound up for another year. This year it was held at the University of Sydney, with over 400 delegates attending from Australia, New Zealand, USA, UK, and South Africa. The classic architecture around the Quadrangle guided the sensibilities of delegates and presenters at the keynotes and in the 260-or-so presentations.

The organising committee, chaired by Kirsten McKenzie with members coming from the University of Sydney, University of Technology, Australian Catholic University, Macquarie University and University of New South Wales, did a great job. They successfully fed delegates, answered all sorts of quirky questions and ensured that everything went like clockwork.

The theme of the 2015 conference was ‘Foundational Histories’. The program’s introduction explained this phrase:

History abounds with metaphors of foundation: the foundations of knowledge or the discipline, as well as the foundational narratives of nations. These metaphorical foundations do not stand on solid rock, but can be unsettled, shifted and shaken.

The two notable keynote speakers were Ann Curthoys and Peter Mandler from Cambridge University in the UK. Curthoys spoke about how the foundations of Australian political institutions and political culture in the mid-nineteenth century were shaped by the fraught relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Mandler talked about the place of the humanities in higher education.

The PHA members who presented papers fielded plenty of inquiring questions, an indication of considerable interest.

Topics covered across the program included  the First World War, ANZAC, convicts, migration, Indigenous issues, place, space, religions and gender issues, and biography. On some days there were eleven sessions running concurrently, which meant that delegates were spoilt for choice but had to contend with competing interests. Some delegates were able to flit between sessions and catch a snatch of other sessions, while the popularity of some sessions challenged the capacity of some rooms.

Overall the conference was both challenging and invigorating.

Diary date: the AHA 2016: From Boom to Bust conference will be held in Ballarat from Tuesday 5 July to Friday 8 July with goldfields site visits and other ancillary events.

Scratching Sydney’s Surface: History on the radio


Mark Dunn explains…

For some time now, Laila Ellmoos and I have been talking up Sydney’s history on the radio.  In fact we started doing this in June 2008 on Fbi 94.5 fm.  It will be seven years this week since we first went on air, taking over the segment Scratching Sydney’s Surface when the previous presenter found it all a bit much.

Every Friday at 8.15am, either Laila or I (we alternate) have a 15 minute chat with the host about an aspect, a person, a building, an event, an issue, a structure, an idea or a theory concerning Sydney’s history: 259 different topics so far.  The station is a community station aimed at a youth market, (typically 18-30 year olds, although the ages bleed out on both sides of that bracket), so the history is targeted at an audience who have not had a great deal of exposure to the intricacies and complexities of Sydney’s past.

That’s why we present the segment as a conversation with the host rather than a 15-minute lecture.  While we have some structure of how we will go in our own minds, it is often the questions from the host that direct the overall piece.  Keeping the story flowing and keeping it easy to follow are the keys to success in this format.  These are skills that we have learnt; they are vital to public historians more generally.  The ability to take complex ideas and explain them back to an audience without the knowledge you have is fundamental to making the whole thing work.

The segment is linked to a blog that we update each week after the show.  The blog allows us to explore the topic in a little more depth, provide links to our sources, to include photos and images, and to respond to listeners or followers who have questions or comments afterwards.  To date we have uploaded 236 posts to this site, with an average of about 1500 views per week.

It is an interesting challenge to present something new on Sydney every week.  Both Laila and I have worked on many hundreds of sites and projects about Sydney in our roles as public historians in heritage and public service.  However, as we all know, not all that we do is as interesting in the retelling as it first appears.  The segment allows us to repackage some of the sites we now take for granted through our work and present them to an audience who often know very little, if anything, about it.

A recent example was the story of Sydney’s ghost railway tunnels at St James and Central.  Listeners were fascinated that an unseen cityscape exists beneath their feet and places that they trudged past each day.  An earlier post on the gangster Chow Hayes still generates the most comments, with well over 150 so far, mainly from people who were related to him or his victims.  The comments section has become a de-facto family history network for Sydney’s criminally related!

Radio is a great medium to present history on.  It is freely available, widely disseminated and accessible in more formats, allowing us to get into the heads of a huge audience every week.

Tune in and log on here https://scratchingsydneyssurface.wordpress.com/