Histories of the Red Cross


Ian Willis reports

The Australian Red Cross Society is part of one of the world’s most important humanitarian organisations. It has provided relief in times of crisis for 100 years. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement has seven guiding principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. The origins of the movement are located in mid-nineteenth century Europe; now it comprises around 190 national societies, including Australia’s, which was founded in 1914.

This year marked a global first for Australia ‒ it held an inaugural conference, Histories of the Red Cross Movement: Continuity and Change, for historians, archivists, curators and others interested in exploring historical ideas and contexts within the Red Cross Movement. An increasing number of historians has taken an interest in the Red Cross since the International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) societies opened their archives in the 1990s.

At a local level the NSW State Library and Red Cross announced in August the transfer to the library of the records of the NSW division of the Australian Red Cross, while the national society is moving its records to the University of Melbourne Archives. These are part of the ‘Gift to the Nation’ program announced by the Australian Red Cross in its centenary in 2014.

Conference organisers Melanie Oppenheimer of Flinders University (SA) and Neville Wylie from University of Nottingham (UK) spent over two and half years developing the idea from a chance meeting in Singapore in 2014. They felt it was time to hold a conference on international Red Cross history and invited Christine Crossland (Flinders University) and James Crossland (Liverpool John Moores, UK) to join them in realising their idea.

The conference – Histories of the Red Cross Movement: Continuity and Change – was hosted by Flinders University in early September. The conference was additionally sponsored by the Australian Red Cross and The University of Nottingham.

There were 49 papers presented over the three days with more than 90 delegates from Australia and the UK, USA, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, France, Spain, Germany, Norway, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland. An additional meeting of archivists was hosted by Grant Mitchell from the International Federation of Red Cross Archives in Geneva, Switzerland.

The highlight of the conference was the depth and breadth of historical issues raised by presenters in the globalised context of today’s Red Cross movement. These also revealed the similarities that exist across different national societies.

The keynote speakers addressed the theme of humanitarianism and the Red Cross, while other papers ranged across topics from national histories to the origins of the movement, museums, gender, colonialism, tracing services, repatriation, charity, blood transfusion, disasters extending to the international reach of the Red Cross, militarisation, and war and conflict. A film evening was organised with screenings from the archives of the IFRC shown at Adelaide’s Art Deco Capri Movie Theatre.

Humanitarian work involves confronting life and death issues, now and in the past. It is not an area for the faint hearted and can involve ‘shaking hands with the devil’, including dealing with those who commit genocide. The Red Cross movement goes where many fear to tread and many have failed in the past.

The conference convenors are to be commended for organising a ground-breaking event, which might encourage others to engage in this area of research. Humanitarianism is a vexed area where there are no easy answers for the Red Cross movement or others. An historical perspective can shine a light into some dark corners of the world and give a clearer view of issues that would be for the betterment of all of humanity.

[Editorial note: Ian Willis also presented at the conference on the topic of Rest, recovery and rehabilitation: Red Cross convalescent homes in New South Wales from 1915.]

Historians communing: part two


by Laila Ellmoos …

A few weeks ago, I reflected on the 2016 AHA conference. This week my focus is on the Working History conference (#WHpha2016) organised by PHA (Vic) with support from Professional Historians Australia. The conference was held over two full days (19-20 August 2016) at the Graduate School within the Melbourne University campus. It was launched with a generous Welcome to Country from Wurundjeri elder Tony Garvey.

The Working History conference was notable for the variety of presentations. Each of the two days was anchored by keynote speakers: Tim Sherratt (Associate Professor, Digital Heritage, University of Canberra) on telling stories with data and Lisa Murray (City Historian at the City of Sydney) on identifying and developing audiences for public history. Apart from the keynotes, there were sessions made up of long-form papers (20 minutes) and lightening papers (5 minutes), a panel and a digital and poster presentation in the lunch room.

It was a single-stream conference, which was great because there weren’t any difficult choices about which paper to listen to. This ended up being the conference’s strength because participants went on a ‘journey’ together: we all heard the same people speaking and sharing their work, listened to each other’s questions and offered our own. There was no grandstanding from the floor; instead careful suggestions and advice about the methodology and practice of public history. This strong level of engagement generated vigorous discussions in the meal breaks about the work we do as professional historians, namely the methodology of creating and making engaging history for public consumption. One of the highlights for me was the exploration of the ethical dimensions of professional practice.

On the close of the first day, we were treated to an ‘in conversation’ with Michelle Rayner and Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey, who arguably led the way for professional historians in Australia through writing commissioned histories for a range of large mining companies from the 1950s (although as it turns out, he was not well renumerated for these works). He was a charming speaker – funny and sometimes provocative and always directly engaged with his audience. (See Francesca Beddie’s post on what he said.)

Throughout the conference, delegates were invited to write ‘provocations’ (suggestions or issues for discussion) on post-it notes stuck up on a white board outside the main room. In the final session of the last day, the chairs in the main room were rearranged so that conference participants could face each other (literally and figuratively) to partake in the ‘Provocation’ session: ‘Where to for PHA? Have we done enough?’

Over the final hour, we discussed a range of issues about how we, as professional historians organised through a professional body, can engage with our profession as well as broader social issues including collaboration with our peers in allied professions, ethical practice, our role in providing advocacy for the history sector, and our participation in social policy. For the Professional Historians Association, there is much food for thought about the future of our organisation, in terms of its structure as a federated body, succession planning, increasing the cultural diversity of the membership, reaching out to rural and regional members, standardised membership fees, and recognition of volunteer time of executive members of the state bodies. There was also discussion about the viability of training for public historians, as well how we can promote the profession and our work through the media.

These were timely reflections in the 25th year of PHA (Vic), but also for the entire membership of Professional Historians Australia. I look forward to future discussions. All in all, with members attending from across Australia, the Working History conference was a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with our interstate colleagues.


Image: Delegates at the Working History Conference in Melbourne, August 2016.

Introducing Rowan Day


What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I have always had a love of history, for as long as I can remember. When I was a child I was so enraptured by stories of early explorers that I used to walk around the farm pretending I was  Ludwig Leichhardt or Burke and Wills (on the days I wasn’t King Arthur). I had some great lecturers at university who inspired me to continue studying history. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do a PhD at the University of Western Sydney, with two supervisors I can’t thank enough – Carol Liston and Drew Cottle. I still pester them with questions on a weekly basis, long after I graduated.

Who is the audience for your history?

I am currently tutoring at Western Sydney University, as well as doing historical research for OCP Architects. There are too many fine historians at UWS to mention; every time I have a chat with a colleague I learn something I didn’t know. I’d have to say, though, the best audience for my history are the people of Tottenham. The book, Murder in Tottenham, that emerged from my PhD thesis (which I was lucky enough to have published by Anchor Books Australia) focuses on the history of that town in western NSW, where I grew up. It has a wonderfully passionate local historical society.

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

Well, in a research sense, Trove! I have a serious book-buying problem that needs attention, so I could go on all day about which books I love. In a general sense I love works of history that have a good yarn. It is sad when young people are turned off history by books or media that take all the excitement out of history. Nicolas Rothwell is someone who has often fired my imagination on outback and northern Australia – with Wings of the Kite Hawk, for instance.

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

I think I would be perpetually travelling; I don’t know that I could settle on one place. I would certainly check if Lasseter was telling fibs about the gold. I’d have a beer with a few bushrangers and with Duncan (the young police constable whose assassination is the subject of my book) probably head off to Europe to do some pillaging with Vikings, then a cup of tea with Goethe, then back to Australia to spot some megafauna. I think I would spend most of my time west of the Great Dividing Range in what Henry Lawson called the roaring days. Having grown up with tales of drovers, I think I’d be happy to live in the long paddock.

Why is history important today?

When we see ourselves in the broad sweep of human history, we realise how insignificant most of our complaints are. We also realise how far we have come in so many areas (and how far backwards we have gone in others!) We see examples to emulate and we see what failures to avoid. I’m coming dangerously close to a cliché about being doomed to repeat history so I might leave it there.

Photo from left to right: Liz Rushen, Rowan Day and Perry Macintyre at the launch of Murder in Tottenham: Australia’s first political assassination, Trades Hall, October 2015