AHA 2017: PHA NSW & ACT member contributions


… by Mark Dunn, Chair, PHA NSW & ACT

This year the 36th Annual Australian Historical Association (AHA) Conference was held in Newcastle. Out of over 300 delegates giving papers, at least 18 PHA NSW & ACT members were present and presenting. This was great to see and represents the largest number in a few years.

This year’s theme was Entangled Histories, the word of the moment for many history streams and one that was readily embraced, in one form or another, by most presenters.  It was particularly pertinent for those of us who are looking at Aboriginal history, environmental history and urban history.

The AHA is a busy conference, set over 3 ½ days in early July, with evening events, book launches and social functions scattered throughout. The nature of the program means there are numerous clashes between sessions so it was heartening to see (and hear from reports) that our members’ papers were all well attended and received. And this is one of the pleasing aspects of the AHA these days: while it is dominated by academic and postgraduate papers, those papers given by public historians are attracting more attention. The ways we public historians present our work to larger, less traditional history audiences is of increasing interest to many academics, particularly those younger or early career researchers who are witnessing shrinking opportunities in the university sector.

The topics covered by our members were many and varied. They included the collaboration with artists and performers to re-imagine and re-present the archives (Lisa Murray); oral histories and tours and collections (Carol Roberts); the rise and fall of Australian heritage seen through oral histories of practitioners (Bronwyn Hanna); environmental history of business (Jodi Frawley ); the environmental eye of surveyors (Terry Kass); Anzacs and the Red Cross (Ian Willis); the women in occupied Germany (Christine de Matos); the impact of anti-German campaigns in South Australia in WWI (Bruce Baskerville); the emotions of family history (Tanya Evans); and the role of the History Council’s around Australia (David Carment).

A number of members were also presenting on their research into Aboriginal history including Jennifer Debenham who has been working with Lyndall Ryan and others at the University of Newcastle to produce an extraordinary map of massacres on Australia’s colonial frontier.  This online, and ongoing, project was launched at the conference and received national media attention.  It can be accessed here.  Stephen Gapps, Michael Bennett and Paul Irish also presented a panel on troopers, Trackers and Personal Connections with Aboriginal people in the Colonial world, which I chaired, making it a full PHA session (see image).

As next year’s AHA is to be hosted by ANU in Canberra, it would be a great opportunity again for our NSW and ACT members to attend and present on the growing field of public history.


2016 Public History Prize


The Public History Prize seeks to encourage historical practice that is applied to real world issues. It invites entries from undergraduate, graduate diploma and master students in NSW and the ACT , which demonstrate excellence in writing or other media, and the ability to interpret the past in a contextual way. The Prize for 2016 was awarded to Alix Biggs. The judges commended her elegant writing style and her use of historical analysis of mosque building to illustrate the creation of an Australian Muslim identity. Highly commended was an essay by Daniel McKay, which examines Stanley Bruce’s belief that constitutional history was not just interesting but essential to contemporary understandings about constitutional practice.

Here Alix reflects on the role of history in her professional and personal life.

What are your plans after university? Are you pursuing a career in the history sector?

After completing my Honours in History at the Australian National University, I’m now working in corporate finance – a big transition but certainly keeping my analytical skills sharp! I don’t see a future career for myself in the historical profession but certainly I think that history will always inform my work and interests. I am hoping to pursue postgraduate studies in migration and public policy, two areas where a keen sense of the past can absolutely help inform critical decision making.

Why did you choose to write about your topic?

E.P. Thompson wrote that ‘we look into the past and inevitably write something about ourselves’. I spent several years living in Muslim-majority countries: three in conservative Saudi Arabia and three in more secular Turkey. Mosques were a common feature of the streetscapes of my childhood, with the call to prayer regularly punctuating my day. While I sought to detach my research from my own political concerns and experience of Islam and the Middle East, it was undoubtedly influenced by a particular and distinct sense of time and place. As Australia grapples with notions of multiculturalism and religious accommodation, my writing acts as my small contribution to current discourse that at times is poisonous and ill-informed.

Why is history important today?

History will never stop being important. Every day our politicians draw on historical imagery, and so often we see parallels between what is being reported in the news and events from the past. I think that in-depth knowledge of history can only be a good thing: its capacity to help us understand complex situations and inform policy-making makes it an integral part of civic virtue and political engagement.

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

I think, in part, my love of history is a product of watching endless BBC historical documentaries as a child (Simon Schama was a standout, as was the series People’s Century), so I have enormous respect for the ability of quality documentaries to make history accessible and engaging to broad audiences. I’m also increasingly fond of personal letters as means to understanding characters from the past. Recent highlights have included the collected letters of Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, two remarkable women travelling and working in the Middle East in the first half of the twentieth century.

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

Until a time machine becomes accessible, I’ve found that travel has proven the most compelling way of experiencing the past. It’s impossible to stand in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and not feel awed by this building that has witnessed fifteen centuries of seismic, world-changing history. My travels (and indeed, any hypothetical time machine!) keep returning me to the Middle East, where so often the past feels incredibly present and pressing. I would, however, love to return to some of my favourite destinations during their ‘golden ages’ – perhaps Safavid Isfahan, Mamluk Cairo and Ottoman Istanbul.

Image: http://mosque-finder.com.au/assets/Uploads/auburn-gallipoli-mosque.jpg

Allegiances beyond Borders: South Australia’s journey from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor


Bruce Baskerville gives a taste of his paper at the recent Australian Historical Association conference in Newcastle. The presentation was based on part of chapter three in his 80,000 word PhD thesis, so giving just a 20-minute talk was a challenge. As one speaker at the conference noted ‘constraint is enabling’, in other words, a field of research needs to be bounded in order to keep it achievable. The actual paper, with illustrations, will be published on Bruce’s HistoryMatrix blog on 17 July 2017, the centenary of the proclamation of the House of Windsor.

 A century ago the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty in Britain became the Windsors.  This was much more than a name change. It capped a series of ‘de-Germanising’ or ‘de-Europeanising’ tactics by George V during the Great War. King George wanted to strategically reposition his dynasty and its future as fundamentally British. The change drew upon, and consciously projected, stories and traditions of a mythologised ancient past of ‘Anglo’ and ‘Celtic’ mixing or fusing to create a new and uniquely ‘Briton’ dynasty with shared genealogical and emotional links to every British community in the world.

South Australia was one of those British communities. The dynastic strategy both mirrored and was interlinked with responses to a vicious anti-German campaign in that state from 1915 to 1918. Between 1.5 and 4 per cent of South Australians shared some degree of German heritage. The campaign to demonise, exclude and contain them was visceral and relentless.  It was also, measured by its own objectives, perhaps the most successful such campaign in the Empire. Like the dynastic name change, the mass ‘toponymic cleansing’ of German place names in South Australia reached its fruition in 1917.

But, like the king, the opponents of South Australia’s anti-Germanists drew upon a mythologised traditionalism of what they called ‘admixture’ in response to anti-German ‘racialism’.  All sides invoked the dynasty and its supposed histories in support of their claims and counter-claims.  Eventually, a re-imagined and newly-traditional royal family emerged, transformed for the cultural needs of modern South Australia. To read more on this transformation, see Bruce’s post on his HistoryMatrix blog.

Bruce Baskerville’s recently completed University of Sydney PhD thesis is titled The Chrysalid Crown: An un-national history of the Crown in Australia 1808-1986, and is accessible online through Sydney University’s library catalogue.

For more on the AHA conference see Yvonne Perkins’ blog: Stumbling Through the Past.