Recovering Landscapes

 

… by Sue Castrique, author of One Small World: The History of the Addison Road Community Centre.

Some PHA members may recognise the photographs that make up this panorama. They were once identified as being in Kensington; the tall building thought to be the Old Tote Theatre. They are, however, the Addison Road army depot in Marrickville. The two-storey building was the 14th Field Brigade office. The polo was a match final, played in September 1934 with the Ashton brothers, international stars, who drew a huge crowd, as well as Sam Hood, the photographer.

In the peace after WW1, strong ties had developed between Marrickville and the army. The depot helped repair men damaged by war, gave jobs and meaning to unemployed ex-servicemen, and became a social hub in the community. Whether it was polo, trick riding or gymkhanas, there was always something going on at the depot and it was very often free. The 14th Field Brigade building, known as the most beautiful building on site, regularly hosted Saturday night dances, as well as the end-of-season polo ball for the 1934 match.

In 1976, soon after the depot became the Addison Road Community Centre, the 14th Field Brigade building burnt down. With its loss, the memory of it went too. It is now the site of The Bower, a reuse and repair centre. The building on the left of the photo remains and is now home to Reverse Garbage.

It’s hard to believe looking at the Hood photographs that horses pounded at full gallop over what is now a crowded car park. Yet the landscape of these 1934 photographs had already been altered. A freshwater creek ran through the site, one of several that flowed through the kangaroo grounds and fed Gumbramorra swamp. Cooks River was tidal and salty, so these creeks were an important source of freshwater, both for the Cadigal people and Europeans. When the army arrived in 1913 the creek was channelled into pipes underground. This didn’t entirely control the flooding, which still occurs and tends to follow the old creek bed.

That the site has survived as open space in the inner west is remarkable. Since 1852, it had been kept intact as a family market garden, even as housing encroached. Acquired by the army, they defended their presence in the suburbs and refused to move despite intense political pressure after WW2 to give the site up for housing. When they finally left in 1975, the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD) intervened, mediating a fierce contest from local government and the local federal member, Fred Daly, who expected housing on the site. Instead, with DURD’s backing, local migrant groups created a community centre. The distinctive layout of huts and open space was valued by migrant communities. It suited multiple groups with multiple purposes, and the old unrenovated army huts were affordable. The Centre became an important multicultural experiment, used for festivals, performances and migrant welfare: a refuge in an English-speaking world.

If there’s a lesson in why this patch of open space has survived, it’s that a community needs not only housing but also a gathering place. The Addison Road Community Centre is now probably best known for its markets. It also provides space to a variety of community groups and is well-loved in the inner west. It has become a compass point in the landscape, a key to local identity now, just as it was to very different communities in the 1970s and 1930s.

Today, as Marrickville disappears into council mergers, and landmarks vanish beneath the WestConnex motorway and high-rise housing it underlines for me, more than ever, that we need local history.

Sue Castrique’s One Small World: The History of the Addison Road Community Centre, is available from Gleebooks, or online at: www.arcco.org.au/programs/the-living-museum/one-small-world-by-sue-castrique 

Deep time and public history

 

…by Stephen Gapps

Recently there have been calls for historians to consider ways of writing ‘deep time’ into Australian history. These include pleas to write more interdisciplinary history, especially to work with archaeologists dealing with the long Australian human past prior to colonisation. We now have a Deep History Research Centre that ‘aims to transform the scale and scope of history’ by including ‘Australia’s epic Indigenous narratives’ alongside ‘relevant new scientific evidence’. Transdisciplinary techniques for researching deep time are promoted as creating ways for broader audiences to ‘imaginatively grasp the past’. Indeed, the transformation of the ‘scale and scope of history’ has become a hot topic – it will headline the next AHA conference.

This all looks like a push towards what is considered a new frontier in writing history. Certainly, calls for ‘deepening histories of place’ are important in changing the way Aboriginal history has historically been positioned as a precursor to the main event.

Yet as a professional historian and museum curator who has written many histories of place, developed exhibitions that include ‘deep history’, and worked with archaeologists and others for many years, I find these calls for historians to work collaboratively and transform the scale of history a little odd.

Certainly, we do still need history in the public sphere that further develops the idea that Australian history began when humans, not tall ships, arrived. But this work is not new. To me it seems as if historians are being urged to broaden their brief when many already have. When I asked around the traps about this, several archaeologists and other historians who have worked in heritage and museums agreed: we have been doing these things for years.

In heritage work in NSW it has long been an expectation that historians and archaeologists work together. Granted, sometimes a site study might not be well enough funded to ensure an historian is on the team, in which case archaeologists end up writing the history component. But in the main, heritage studies are required as a minimum to include an archaeological assessment, any available pre-contact history, consultation with Indigenous communities and stakeholders, environmental history and the inclusion of post-contact Aboriginal history. Often, they go well beyond this.

Professional historians who write histories of place have also turned to archaeologists for years now. If I think of many of my own reports and histories they have been heavily reliant on the work of archaeology, anthropology and other sciences – particularly environmental. We have been quietly working away at including deep time and investigating, as the ‘Deepening Histories of Place’ project urges, ‘the social and environmental links that create historical “highways” of understanding, including song-lines, tracks, exploration, trade, pastoral and tourism routes’. While not every non-academic historian has been doing this, for most the ‘deepening of histories of place’ has become part of the way we work. Generally, the first and most important people we talk to about the history of a place are the descendants of the first people who lived there.

It is similar in museums. At the same time as they have been under pressure to popularise history, many have managed to readjust the burdensome weight of over-representations of post-1770 history in permanent displays, often to a remarkable degree. They have also focused on staging temporary exhibitions that incorporate all that is being called for in the current AHA request to the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) sector to think about the ‘scale of history’. The recent Songlines and Gapu exhibitions spring to mind.

While professional historians are among the leaders in many areas of history in practice, we are not well known. Perhaps one of the problems is that we curators, historians and archaeologists don’t get out enough. Much of our work ends up in what is called ‘grey literature’ – as reports for local government, National Parks or heritage bodies. This work often ticks certain boxes and then gets filed or is tucked away in some museum exhibition concept document that never sees the light of day. And even if we do disseminate our work more widely, it is often under the label ‘local’ or ‘community’ history.

Another issue is the poor understanding in Australia of ‘public history’, especially of the disparate practices of doing history for (and with) public. Terms like ‘public history’  and ‘applied history’ have to be spelt out to people, making it clear that these are practices undertaken beyond academia.

The increasingly older dates for the beginning of human history in Australia are, as Russell, Griffiths and Roberts recently noted, ‘aside from being “a long time ago”, … hard to grasp imaginatively’. And while public historians have in fact been striving to present deepening histories of place to the broader community through their work in heritage, in museums and education, we still have more work to do to raise awareness of these efforts. I hope that professional historians, archaeologists, museum curators and others will contribute to the AHA conference in 2018 and showcase some of the transdisciplinary work that has been quietly bubbling away, transforming the scale and scope of history.

Image: Petroglyph, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park (Wikipedia)