Blainey on history making


by Francesca Beddie, blog editor…

In his discussion of historians and their craft, Tom Griffiths (The Art of Time Travel, 2016) describes Geoffrey Blainey* as magpie. It is a metaphor Blainey has also used for his research. Griffiths explains:

Blainey prods the earth inquisitively, feeds quirkily…he scavenges bright details and oddments that catch his eye. His voice is rich, his song mellifluous! He flies about the terrain and perceives broad patterns below…he doesn’t concede ground and can launch surprising attacks, especially in defence of his nest.

Asked by Michelle Rayner in an interview conducted at the Professional Historians’ conference in Melbourne on 19 August 2016, Blainey agreed the comparison was apt. The great thing about being a professional historian, he explained, was that you are pushed into territory you don’t know (great unless the push turns into a disaster!). In his case, somewhat to his own surprise, he had even written a history of the world (A Short History of the World, 2000).

In a talk which displayed humility and a wry charm, Blainey discussed his own history making and the importance of history for Australia.

After graduating from the University of Melbourne, Blainey’s first professional assignment was a commission to write the history of the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company in Queenstown, Tasmania. There he collected material inter alia by experiencing the mines and by doing interviews with ordinary people, people who didn’t like him taking notes while they talked. Blainey learned just to listen. Listening helped train his own memory. It also struck him, later when interviewing more educated people, that those with limited education have much better recall. They do not rely on books to retrieve the facts nor did they feel tempted to alter their recollections of the past.

Blainey experienced the ups and downs of the freelancer. Once The Peaks of Lyell (1954) was finished, he was without a job, so he went prospecting in Tasmania and also spent weeks in the library.

Griffiths describes Blainey as a ‘public historian before his time’. Even after he gained academic posts, he undertook other commissions. Blainey stressed during the interview that it was much easier to insist on writing without management interference when a company approached him with a proposal, rather than when he, the historian, instigated an idea.

Despite there being so much good history being published today, Blainey thinks that history as a discipline should be more confident. It needs to assert itself into debates in other fields. Scientists, he argues, should take more notice of historical trends before declaring absolutes.  After all, history is the reservoir of human experience. It deserves greater attention. Asked if this might be achieved by having the position of a chief historian – to mirror that of the chief scientist – Blainey was doubtful. The breadth of the discipline was the problem. He was more inclined to the idea of establishing a chair in public history that could stimulate up and coming historians, whether young or old, and help them to appreciate history’s role in understanding the shape of Australian life.

*Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey AC is a prominent Australian academic, public historian, author and teacher.

Photo by F. Beddie: Geoffrey Blainey in conversation with Michelle Rayner

Historians communing: part one


In the next two blog posts, Laila Ellmoos reflects on two conferences held in Victoria in 2016: the Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference in Ballarat and the Working History conference in Melbourne, organised by the Professional Historians Association (Victoria) (PHA Vic).

This year the annual conference of the AHA was held in the Victorian regional centre of Ballarat. The conference, which ran for five days from 4 to 8 July 2016, was hosted by Federation University (aka FedUni), Australia’s newest tertiary institution. One of the highlights of the conference was its location in this evocative heritage townscape.

The FedUni campus is spread out across Ballarat, occupying an array of historic buildings, some originally used for industrial education relating to the mining industry such as the former School of Mines. The ‘hub’ of the conference was the wonderful Ballarat Mechanics Institute on Sturt Street. The recently restored Minerva Space within the institute building was the location for the keynotes and plenaries, while the regular breaks between sessions – morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea – were held in the Humffray Room. (John Humffray was the Institute’s first president.)

Most of the conference was held in two venues on the campus: the former School of Mines and the Camp Street building. They were separated by an energetic 10 minute walk along Lydiard Street, a bit of a challenge in the cold and rain. The distance between venues also made it hard to move between papers, a practical necessity when there were usually between 10 and 12 parallel sessions.

Although the conference theme ‘From Boom to Bust’ was very fitting with the location of this historic gold mining town, only a few of the papers directly related to the theme. But this wasn’t too much of an issue, as the conference was notable for the number of practitioners – public historians, archaeologists, novelists – who presented papers, particularly on local projects relating to the gold fields and the heritage townscape of Ballarat.

Overall the conference was very well run, the conference papers presented were informative, and the venue was great. The conference organisers were friendly and helpful: any technical difficulties were resolved painlessly and there were always people to direct latecomers to the right rooms.

The highlights for me included papers with a methodological bent: the keynote on the first day delivered by Adam Wilkinson, Director of Edinburgh World Heritage, and a panel presentation on ‘Exhibiting the Great War’ that focussed on how curators and history academics have worked together to curate an exhibition at Museum Victoria, World War 1: Love & Sorrow, and create a book on the war on the home front in New Zealand, Holding on to Home.

Also noticeable was the strong environmental stream throughout the conference, which was very well attended. More here from Yvonne Perkins on the Twitter stream from the AHA conference:

In contrast to the AHA’s sprawling conference was the Working History conference, organised by PHA Vic held in Melbourne on 19-20 August 2016. But more on that next week.

Image: Engraving by Campbell, Oswald Rose Campbell showing students in the in the Metallurgical Laboratory at the Ballarat School of Mines in 1873.   (State Library of Victoria, IAN15/07/73/SUPP/121