Five Minutes With…Rebecca Gross

 

Rebecca is a historian of design. She works as a freelance writer specialising in architecture, design and history, preferably writing about all three together.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I previously worked in marketing. After 12 years I needed a change. I didn’t know what that change looked like but I knew it involved New York and going back to university. I had really enjoyed art history at high school, particularly the history of architecture as it introduced me to a new way of looking at and understanding the world. I searched university programs in New York and applied for a Masters in the History of Design and Decorative Arts at Parsons School of Design.

I wasn’t necessarily pursuing a career in history at that stage; rather I was just interested to learn more about design history. I expected it to be about materials, styles, techniques, etc., and was pleasantly surprised that in fact we studied cultural history through the lens of design and architecture.

Who is the audience for your history?

My audience is predominantly readers interested in design, architecture and/or cultural history. However as I aim to write in an accessible and informative style I hope my audience is quite broad. My work always comes back to the way we live and why – the buildings we are surrounded by, the objects we live with and the images we see – and I believe my audience can usually relate to some aspect of my work.

I currently work full time as a freelance writer and researcher specialising in architecture and design (my portfolio is here). I write for magazines, websites, museums and publishers. I am mostly commissioned to write about contemporary projects but I love the opportunity to write about historical projects, and I’ll often include history in my contemporary work as I find it provides the context.

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

Magazines, particularly from 1900–1960, are my favourite historical source. There is so much content within one magazine about everyday life, events, fashion and attitudes. The cover, photographs, illustrations, articles, writing, advertisements, letters to the editor are all a goldmine for my area of history. I also like to focus my research solely on one magazine publication, for example Holiday magazine, which I presented about at a popular culture conference in Atlantic City.

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

I would go back to 1950s America and take a road trip across the States. Much of my Master’s research was about the postwar travel culture of America – the cars and highways, national parks (which my masters thesis is about), motels and diners, and signage and postcards – and how these spaces, structures and images were an expression of American ideology and national identity.

Why is history important today?

We don’t live in a bubble. Everything about the way we live is the direct result of history. If we can understand the past then we have a better understanding of today and what’s to come in the future.

Embracing ghosts? Local history, shared heritage and ‘dark tourism’

 

by Peter Hobbins…

“Where are the bodies buried?” For historians, who are not prone to excavation – or to desecrating graves – this seems an inappropriate question. Yet it’s one of the most common queries raised during the many public tours and talks that I’ve given on Sydney’s former Quarantine Station at North Head, near Manly.

On the one hand, this is no surprise. While many Sydney residents remain unaware of the sprawling complex and its 150-year operational history, those who’ve visited North Head often admit to having taken a ghost tour. Indeed, these nocturnal excursions continue to outsell dedicated history walks by a considerable margin. And, to be fair, nearly 600 individuals died during their detention at North Head between 1835 and 1984.

On the other hand, the Quarantine Station was far from a death camp. Indeed, now that it’s marketed as a boutique hotel and conference venue, a surprising number of guests view the site as merely a generic heritage property – albeit one boasting spectacular harbour views. As one tourist asked me during our archaeological fieldwork at the site, “What is quarantine?”.

So why the popularity of ghost tours, and what interpretive insights might they offer for historians and heritage professionals?

Tourism studies and cultural geography both sustain a substantial literature on ‘dark tourism’ or ‘thanatourism’. There’s clearly a market for localities with a tragic, deadly, forlorn or sacrificial past. Various typologies have been proposed, grading sites such as the Quarantine Station on a blackening spectrum that almost unanimously ends at Auschwitz.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone visits former battlegrounds, massacre locations or sites of incarceration simply to learn about the past. Some seek a morbid frisson – or a glimpse of ghosts; others come questing for authenticity. They arrive wanting to be moved.

This is why geographers in particular have embraced the protean term ‘affect’, by which they mean not so much identifiable emotions such as fear or sadness, but the intangible, visceral or even communal sensations that purportedly exist in a locality. While these moods, rhythms and butterflies in the stomach may be joyous or profound, dark tourists are most frequently driven by a yearning for pathos – even if the package-tour result often comes closer to bathos.

My own fieldwork at North Head has filled me with wonder not only at its layers of institutional history and (re-)built heritage, but also its ever-changing affects, from a cloying claustrophobia to an exuberant freedom. These visceralities, moreover, are reflected in the diverse historical experiences of quarantine that emerge from diaries, letters, rock carvings and – yes – the headstones that remain from the Quarantine Station’s three burial grounds.

Cemeteries undeniably attract a devoted following of ‘taphophiles’, yet as Lisa Murray has affirmed, few conform to the black-clad, lily-toting goth stereotype. From picnickers to ramblers, genealogists to mourners, burial places foster curiosity, contemplation and communion.

The urge to understand is something I’ve recognised in public responses to the Quarantine Station’s variegated past. As with ghost tours, empathetic identification with infirmity, illness or mortality is often enhanced by the immediacy of being in place – especially a burial place.

Beginning with where the bodies lie may seem a base ploy but it sparks a genuine engagement, a leaning forward to understand more about the lives that preceded these deaths. It can open questions about the changing cultural landscape, the institutions that shaped its shifting meanings, and the affective diversity of history conveyed to us by those who survived.

Peter Hobbins’ history of Sydney’s North Head Quarantine Station, Stories from the Sandstone (2016), was co-authored with archaeologists Ursula K Frederick and Anne Clarke.

Image: The overgrown headstone of Joseph Ambler (d.1854), lying lost and forgotten in the Quarantine Station’s Second Burial Ground, photographed by Peter Hobbins.

 

Five minutes with Naomi Parry

 

… a freelance historian, heritage consultant and editor who loves working on community histories.

Naomi’s current area of interest is the life and milieu of Musquito, who was exiled from NSW in 1805 and hanged in Tasmania as a bushranger in 1825.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
I grew up in a socially and economically depressed part of Tasmania but managed to get to the University of Tasmania where I learned about story-telling and sources from Rod Thomson’s stunning lectures on barbarian Europe. I only really began doing Australian history when I worked for a town planning firm in Sydney, doing conservation management plans and archival research.

After a spell with the Historic Houses Trust I went to Macquarie University, where I sat at the feet of the magical and inspiring late Jill Roe. By that stage I had begun to see Australian history as much more than just conservation and recording – it could be a vehicle for social change. My PhD followed. By comparing the lives of black and white kids in welfare, it addressed the Howard government’s insistence that the treatment of the stolen generations was in accordance with the welfare standards of the time.

While I love teaching, I didn’t want to be an academic; I wanted to talk to every day people about history and to work for social change. I did some policy work then ran Eskbank House and Museum for Lithgow City Council before Shurlee Swain coaxed me to work on the Find & Connect web resource, which was about making a real difference to the lives of people who grew up in children’s institutions by helping them find their records.

Who is the audience for your history?

I like to talk about history with people, so my work is always pitched at a general audience. I work very hard on my writing – it takes real skill to write in a way that makes deep research and rich content accessible. I have just finished two years writing New South Wales and the Great War with Brad Manera, Stephen Garton, and Will Davies. The challenge of that project was to distil the fine work of contemporary military and academic historians into a form that could be understood by secondary students and the general public. We had wonderful visual sources, but we weighed up every word.

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

My favourite sources are, without doubt, the state records of NSW and Tasmania’s incredible and virtually untapped government records – I am fascinated by the culture and practices of public administration. Books and films? Too many good ones but I like good stories. My favourite websites are, of course, www.dictionaryofsydney.org and findandconnect.gov.au, both of which I am proud to have contributed to.

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

I am probably unusual for a historian in that I don’t want to go back in time, because I like this country and travelling in the present. My next trip is Iceland – its ancient parliamentary democracy is quite inspiring, given the times we live in.

Why is history important today?

It’s hard to answer this without sounding glib, and I cannot stand ‘popular histories’ that dramatise the past (or ‘historical fiction’ that falsifies it) but I do see history as stories that help us understand the past and the present. Studying 19th century mining communities, for instance, teaches us the value of workplace safety campaigns and the labour movement. Women who fought for social change should inspire us, while those who lived and died in the Great War and World War II should remind us to uphold the treaties and international agreements that have brought a measure of peace to the world over the last 100 years.