Keeping up with the times: gender and heritage


Imogen Dixon-Smith (Master of Museum & Heritage Studies, University of Sydney) explains how her prize-winning essay came to be…

The development of the paper I submitted to the Public History Prize in 2015 started in a university subject I was taking titled ‘The Idea of Heritage’. I was set the task of pursuing a self-directed research project. Instead of the usual parameters and guidance of set questions I was faced only with some suggested topics. One stood out to me: heritage and gender. The night before I was due to present on my direction for the project I hit a problem. There was almost no literature addressing the intersection of these two subject areas. I scrambled all night researching the incorporation of gender studies into the historical discipline in the hope I could suggest models for its application in heritage. Studies had dealt with women in heritage and public history but there seemed to have been no consideration of whether heritage sites, which are a specific mode of presenting and engaging the public with history, were perpetuating or complicating historic notions of gender. Discovering this gap spurred me to write my paper: Keeping up with the times: a study into the capacity of a heritage site to naturalise or complicate understandings of gender.

I wanted to contemplate how the act of walking into a historic house and becoming immersed in a historical context, detached from contemporary life, influences the visitor’s understanding of gender. Does this contextualised environment confront them with notions about gender that prevailed at the time? Or does the interpretive layer of a heritage site complicate out-dated notions of gender by suggesting these are biologically determined?

I used the historic house, Meroogal, as a case study. Robert Thorburn built Meroogal on the outskirts of Nowra in 1886 for his widowed mother and four unmarried sisters. It remained in the family until 1985 when it was acquired by the Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museums). Three of the sisters’ unwed nieces joined the household in the mid-1930s; the house passed into their ownership following the death of their youngest aunt in 1956. Thus, the house was occupied almost exclusively by three generations of single women, aside from a short period following the death of Robert’s first wife in 1888.

As a domestic dwelling Meroogal was a logical choice for considering the construction of gender at heritage sites. What made it a more convincing choice was the fact that the women lived in unique circumstances. Without a man present, the women’s experiences in the house were often inconsistent with the essence of what was considered female. The women lived by meagre means but created elaborate routines to ensure all housework was completed by the afternoon, enabling them to pursue a life of middle-class leisure in the evenings. The house thus allowed the women to support themselves without the help of men and uphold a social status they would not otherwise have been designated. Their embodiment of traditional gendered identities was complex. I wanted to investigate whether Sydney Living Museums had captured the possibility of interpreting the site to reveal gender as a social and cultural construction.freya

I was heartened to find that some of Meroogal’s interpretive approaches did in fact achieve this goal. By subverting the traditional focus of heritage interpretation and including contemporary artistic interventions in the space, the visitor is forced to critically consider the gendered roles and identities presented to them in the house. Although the scope for analysing the ways in which heritage and gender intersect is vast, this paper sought to make a small step towards that project.

Image from Sydney Living Museums: 
Freya Jobbins, Miss H Meroogal, Meroogal Women’s Art Prize 2014

The 1816 Appin Massacre Commemorated 200 years on


…by Stephen Gapps…

The 17th of April 1816 is not a date etched in wider Australian memory nor even that of Sydneysiders concerned about their past. However it is imprinted in the memory of descendants of Dharawal and Gandangarra people who were massacred by a military expedition sent out on the orders of Governor Lachlan Macquarie to ‘punish the hostile natives by clearing the country of them entirely’. The 14 Aboriginal men, women and children as well as an unknown number of others who may have fallen over cliffs to their deaths, were not ‘hostile’ and had no chance to defend themselves as Captain Wallis led his detachment in a surprise night raid on a sleeping encampment, just near Appin not far south of Sydney.

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[Image: students with plaques representing the 14 known massacre victims]

This attack was the last known conflict in the warfare that had taken place across the Cumberland Plain around Sydney since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. The military expeditions and Macquarie’s resolution to ‘chastise these hostile tribes’ ended any resistance in the Sydney region. It also formed a template for future operations as the colony expanded beyond the mountains that had contained white settlement until 1813.

The Appin Massacre should be a prominent part of Sydney’s history and remembrance. In the last decade it has begun to be. What began as a few Dharawal descendants visiting the massacre site and scattering flowers every year, grew in recent years to be a focus of the Winga Myamly reconciliation group. A plaque was placed at the Cataract Dam, near the massacre site and a growing group of descendants, local Aboriginal people and their supporters has attended the annual commemoration at the dam picnic area since 2000.

This year, the 200th anniversary of the massacre, the ABC reported that around 1000 people attended. For the first time, the anniversary drew significant media attention on radio and television as well as in the press. Indigenous artists responded to the events in an exhibition at Campbelltown Regional Gallery.

appin 3Prominent in speeches during the ceremony was a call for a broader remembrance of Indigenous dead in the warfare that occurred across Australia from 1788 right into the early 20th century. Calls were specifically made for a national memorial, separate to any other.

The complex histories of the massacre of and resistance by Indigenous Australians are gaining traction in broader remembrance. The politics of their representation in Australian history have a long way to run.

[Image: Fran Bodkin gave a talk in Dharawal language]



Stephen Gapps is writing a military history of the Sydney region 1788 to 1816.

Images by Stephen Gapps


History in Hidden Harmony


Ian Willis visits an artists’ retreat…

What has history got to do with an artists’ retreat you might ask? Quite a bit as it turns out. I was recently invited to address such a gathering at Varroville in New South Wales; it was quite an enlightening and stimulating occasion.

The three-day 2016 Artists’ Retreat was titled Hidden Harmony. It was facilitated by artist, musician and teacher John Charadia and held at the Mt Carmel Retreat Centre. The art workshops were led by artist and teacher Amanda McPaul-Browne.

John invited me after seeing my book, Pictorial History Camden & District (Kingsclear), in local retail outlets.  He asked me to talk about the importance of history and heritage in the Macarthur Region.

My presentation to the gathered art students prompted early questions. The discussion quickly turned to the role of the historian as a storyteller.

While art and history have had a long connection, it is still instructive to see the cross-over between the historical writing process and teaching the art of drawing.

As budding artists were taught to build details of complex subjects by starting with simple pencil lines, so historians build stories on complex subjects by starting with simple types of evidence drawn from their research. Similarly the historian builds the story by ‘drawing’ the principal elements from the beginning.

A pencil drawing has fine detail, supported by lots of dark and light shading to highlight the finer points of the subject. The historian builds the layers of the story as does the artist, highlighting a piece of the subject here or there. Both student artists and historians must learn to be careful with their work.

The art students were given step-by-step guidelines on how to draw a complex subject. Their instructions stated:

A line drawing can be as complex as you like to make it, but sometimes, if carried too far, it loses the spirit of the subject.

And so it is when writing a story about the past. The art instructor could have been giving a lesson in storytelling. Use ‘tone’ and ‘light and shade with bold, positive lines’. ‘Try to get the correct contrast of dark and light as you work’.

On reflection it seems so obvious: both historians and artists see the layers of meaning that make up a complex picture. The context and perspective add shades of colour and movement to the subject.  Budding students were encouraged to see these aspects of their art—part of the hidden harmony of the discipline of drawing based on stories.

Through the ages stories have been part of the human condition. Storytelling is a powerful medium for relating personal feelings, experiences and memories. Stories can have a healing effect, which helps individuals deal with trauma and grief.

I would encourage other historians to think laterally about the implications of our discipline. I have learnt much in recent months about the potential for stories about my local area to touch many hearts. It is thrilling to witness the effect that you work has on people in their daily lives. You touch their souls in ways that you would not even think about, including at an artist’s retreat.


[Image: fragment from Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest known drawing, the Arno Valley (1473), Uffizi]