A green Public History Prize winner: Debbie Waddell


… This year’s Public History Prize winner, Debbie Waddell talks about what history means to her.

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

After completing my BA later this year, I hope to undertake Honours, collaborating with a local environmental volunteer organisation to assist them to produce an oral history that both documents and celebrates their successes. However, beyond that, with all my fingers and toes crossed, I absolutely hope to be pursuing a career in the environmental history sector.

Why did you choose to write about the topic of your prize-winning essay?

In 2017, when many NSW councils merged, the Save Tuggerah Lakes (STL) political party ran for election in the newly formed Central Coast Council. Now, I hate to admit to being one of those voters who shows up on polling day with absolutely no inkling of which party to vote for, but sadly, I usually am. However, when I first saw a campaign banner for the STL in the lead up to this election, my curiosity was immediately piqued. Intrigued, I wondered, were the STL’s policies after my own heart? Were they going to help save the Tuggerah Lakes in the manner I believe they deserve to be saved? That is, for humans and non-humans equally. Thus, armed with this question as motivation for my essay, I set about investigating if a permanent channel at The Entrance (one of the STL’s policies) could actually help save the Tuggerah Lakes.

Why is history important today?

For me, I think we often find ourselves, individually and collectively, somewhere, anywhere at a moment in time, making decisions about our future and mistakenly doing so based on the assumption that what we see before us, is just as it always has been. We often fail to recognise that ourselves, our landscape and our society are all a product of countless years of nature and nurture; that is, they are a product of history. However, if we do acknowledge this and arm ourselves with history, I believe we can definitely make better decisions for our future.

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

Gosh, narrow it down to one? That seems almost impossible! As someone who tends to focus on local history, I love the book Blue Gum Flat to Budgewoi: the story of Wyong Shire’s wonderful valleys, lakes and beaches.[1] It is my starting point for all things Wyong and surrounds. However, as I’ve gone through university, for absolute convenience, I just can’t imagine what I would have done without the Trove website. From tracking down which library or archive has a particular source I’m after, to spending countless hours (some productive and others…well…sidetracked) trawling through old newspaper articles, Trove definitely takes the cake.

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

In my suburban front yard I have a magnificent gum tree, one that my grown family of four can barely join hands around and which must be hundreds of years old. The history enthusiast in me often ponders what this tree has experienced, what it has witnessed. Whilst the greenie in me wonders how to care for it. Did koalas once munch on its leaves? Or kangaroos graze beneath it? What other native vegetation grew nearby it? Did it provide a source of food, industry and/or entertainment for its traditional Aboriginal custodians? Did colonial settlers shade under its majestic canopy when they first explored the region? What elements has it thrived on? or, perhaps, even in spite of? Thus, as the current custodian of the tree, if I had a time machine, I would go back to when it was a fledgling sapling and whizzing through time, the historian in me would simply soak up its history, so the greenie in me could learn to provide for its future.

[1] Swancott, Charles. Blue Gum Flat To Budgewoi: The story of Wyong Shire’s wonderful valleys, lakes and beaches. Gosford: Berkelouw Bookdealers, 1963.


Public History Prize winners announced


…by Francesca Beddie

The PHA NSW & ACT established the Public History Prize to encourage the application of historical practice to real-world issues. This year the essays we received were diverse: one considered the heritage significance of graffiti, several looked at gender in the war and interwar years, another discussed Ernest Titterton and two were about environmental matters.

The prize is open to undergraduate, graduate diploma and master students in NSW and the ACT. Not all those students will go on to become professional historians. Their history training will, however, stand them in good stead. Proficiency in understanding complexity, communicating effectively, doing thorough research, thinking broadly and asking good questions can open all sorts of doors. The judges were looking for these attributes as well as a demonstration of how history can help our communities make better decisions.

The winning entry ticked all these boxes. Debbie Waddell from the University of Newcastle began with a question: To flush or not to flush?: Can an artificial channel help save the Tuggerah Lakes?. Her well-written essay used evidence from environmental history to build her case. Debbie showed a tolerance for the fact that the past is different, with different attitudinal benchmarks, so needs to be handed sensitively when being used to inform contemporary public policy. Despite the caricature of dithering public servants, decision makers like to receive soundly based and clear advice. Debbie’s essay delivered this in her conclusion:

The Tuggerah Lakes coastal lagoons are burdened by almost two centuries of anthropocentric sediments and nutrients, in a swirling mass of organic ooze; and it is up to us whether or not they remain this way…in addressing the question, to flush or not to flush? the answer is no, an artificial channel cannot help save the Tuggerah Lakes…

We are living in a world of multi-media. While the historian’s main tool may often still be the written word, increasingly this is being supplemented by the visual and the interactive. Digital histories have the power to make the sources of history much more accessible, especially if they are accompanied by guidance on how to use such archives. This was the premise Chloe Haywood-Anderson’s project, Erko Archives, which the judges highly commended.

Chloe has created a digital timeline, stored in Google Drive and generated through the open source tool TimeLineJS. The timeline, which starts from the establishment of the school in 1881, organises materials collected in the Erskineville Public School Archive. It is accompanied by a report that will guide future contributors on how to access and maintain the digital archive. Chloe undertook this project as part of Macquarie’s Professional and Community Engagement program in public history.

Tyler Oration: capturing the LGBTQI voice through oral history


… by Francesca Beddie

Dr Shirleene Robinson, Associate Professor, Macquarie University, delivered the 2018 Peter Tyler oration, named in memory of an indefatigable member of the PHA. Dr Robinson paid tribute to Dr Tyler, saying he embedded the best of the profession, with his dedication to doing rigorous history that could engage the wider public.

Dr Robinson’s oration was a compelling argument for the importance of intimate history as a strand in the national story, and for capturing the voices of the marginalised using oral history. Dr Robinson’s research interests include the life of lesbian and gay Australians over the past sixty years, HIV/AIDS histories, the history of childhood and broader LGBTIQ oral histories.

How lesbian and gays find relevance in national history is the underlying question in two Australian Research Council projects Dr Robinson is working on. The first looks at volunteers working during the HIV/AIDS epidemic; the second at gays and lesbians in the military since 1945. In both areas, gay men and lesbians made significant contributions, in spite of conditions in which their sexual preference was stigmatised if not outright criminalised.

Her approach to uncovering these stories is through a collaboration with the actors in these stories. Dr Robinson offers them shared authority through the dialogue created by the oral history interview. She shares drafts with her interviewees and consults them on the way exhibitions are mounted. The oral history interviews reveal more than what is actually said: the repetition of certain words, pauses in the conversation and tone can point to unarticulated preoccupations and emotion. Putting all this together makes it clear that for gay men in particular, the AIDS epidemic was, in the words of one interviewee, ‘our WWI’. From the first death in Australia in 1983 to September 1996, approximately 16,000 people were diagnosed with HIV, 7000 were diagnosed with AIDS and 5100 people died from AIDS-related causes.

As well as sound bi-partisan policy, volunteers from the stigmatised groups were essential to Australia’s success in responding to HIV/AIDs in the 1980s. Recording the history of that volunteer effort makes clear it also offers lessons for the broader volunteer movement, for example the importance of curbing people’s enthusiasm to help so that they do not burn out.

It was not until 1992 that lesbians, gays and bisexual people were able openly to serve in the military. For transgender people it was 2010. Nevertheless, since WWII many served secretly. That service is now being documented using oral history which in turn leads to other sources, for example photographs. Dr Robinson showed a number of photographs of lesbians serving, including a photograph of a women’s softball team, which is undistinguished from other photos from this time until its meaning is explained. Joining sporting teams was one way in which women in the military were able to meet other lesbians.

Inviting people to speak out now reveals the depth of prejudice LGBTIQ people have faced in Australia and is documenting the quiet revolution in attitudes over the last forty years. It reveals the wealth of talent that was lost during the years of prejudice but also shows the restorative potential of history.

Here are some of those sources:

Australian lesbian and gay life stories oral history project, National Library of Australia

The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives is the biggest repository of historical materials about LGBTIQ experience in Australia. The Archives was established in 1978. It is a volunteer, community-based organisation.

Sydney Pride History Group


Image courtesy of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Creating a wartime record


… Ian Willis reports on the First World War Studies 2018 Conference

Deakin University in Melbourne was the venue for a conference that examined the ‘Recording, Narrating and Archiving the First World War’ for the International Society for First World War Studies. This was the first time this interdisciplinary conference has been held outside the northern hemisphere. It brought together historians, archivists, librarians, archaeologists, curators, sociologists, artists, film makers, linguists, philosophers, military specialists, school teachers and those interested in cultural studies.

Around 100 delegates from across the globe listened to and presented a range of papers across three parallel sessions. These ranged from Rowan Light’s analysis of ‘Maori television and the reshaping of New Zealand war memory’ to the ‘gift to the nation’ from the Australian Red Cross and the records recently lodged at the State Library of New South Wales. Invoking the mythology of the ‘ancient Athenian citizen-soldiers’ Sarah Midford re-interpreted the stories of the Dardanelles campaign at Gallipoli, providing a fresh look at an old topic. Julia Riberio discussed French poetry and Alexander Nordlund examined British soldiers’ letters, while Sebastian Willert talked about his inquiries into the archival material of the Deutsch-Türkishe Denkmalschutz-Kommando in 1916.

The transnational character of the memory of the Great War was illustrated by Maria Inés Tato in her work on the social and cultural history of the First World War in Latin America and Argentina in particular. The role of the USA and the memory of the war was dealt with by a number of papers including Kathelene McCarty Smith’s paper on ‘Mobilizing Citizen Archivists’ in North Carolina, while Diane North examined California and the war.

First World War studies show no sign of letting up on yielding new material, new interpretations and new analysis. As one of the seminal events of world history in the 20th century the legacy of war is all around us, in ways we do not always notice. WWI is a living force that still provides a host of challenges for many. Collectively, the papers were a testament to how research in this field continues to give up its dark secrets.

The ever-present legacy of Charles Bean cast a shadow over the papers of the Australian delegates. His Official History of Australia in the War on 1914-1918 is still contested ground and its influence is still felt strongly by those interested in operational military history and the war more generally. Bean has had a key position in the nation-building narrative of the Gallipoli campaign and the development of the Anzac mythology.

The First World War is presented to us today in ways that shape our cultural memory of the past. Storytelling through shared memories and experiences suggests that the wartime narratives of the First World War are an evolving feast. Commemoration and its re-interpretation in the national narrative were analysed by Emma Wensing in her paper on the ‘unauthorised’ Anzac Centenary commemoration. She showed that many Australians remember the First World War in ways that are outside the authorised versions of the war. Vernacular tributes by textile artists, quilters, embroiderers and cake decorators show how they have used their agency in the context of craft to remember a spectrum of emotions. Our understanding of national heritage and collective memory are sometimes challenged by the authenticity of ordinary Australians, who want to validate their own responses to war using alternative commemorative practices.

Similarly, Joanna Leahy’s analysis of wartime knitting demonstrated that while socks were items of material culture, their functionality was only one part of their story. Knitting was part of a ‘larger network of meanings’ which ‘provide a richer view of women’s experiences of war’. Crafts were practised during wartime in a wider cultural context and reflected ‘some of the broader themes of Australian history’. Wartime knitting represented not only women’s patriotic participation in war but ‘also ways in which women mourned and remembered’. It is important to consider the impact today of how these cultural objects are presented by ‘museums, libraries and archives’.

Newspapers from small rural communities provided a different story of the war. Ian Willis explained that the intimate nature of small closed communities produced local newspapers that were riven with parochialism. Across the English-speaking world, local newspapers transformed private intimate knowledge into public information.

The Melbourne Conference of the International Society for First World War Studies provided many challenges and food for thought for researchers and those interested in the continually evolving story of the war.


Dangerous Oral Histories


…by Minna Muhlen Schulte

What are the ethical ramifications of interviewing a former paramilitary or a victim of violence? Can the work of historians contribute to truth and reconciliation or a transitional peace process? What is the role of a historian in documenting trauma and should you share this testimony? What are the personal risks to the historian in listening to traumatic testimonies? These were some of the tough issues tackled by the Dangerous Oral Histories Conference on 28 and 29 June 2018.

Held in Belfast at a time when there are more ‘peace walls’ dividing Protestant and Catholic communities than before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a lot of sessions covered how the memory of sectarian violence continues to ricochet through Northern Ireland today. There was a strong focus on voices drowned out in this conflict: often Nationalist or Unionist paramilitaries have been interviewed at the expense of testimony of women and children who bore the brunt of violence and are absent from many accounts.

The Conference did not shy away from taboo subjects in survivor testimony. It brought attention to the pride and excitement many people felt in participating in conflict at a formative time in their youth; to the ‘hierarchies’ of suffering in Holocaust survivors such as children or members of the Kindertransport rescue who felt they ‘were lesser’ and had to defer to adult survivors of concentration camps when it came to discussions of what defines a holocaust survivor; to the ways in which paramilitary violence was brought into the home and inflicted on their own families; and to how overzealous university ethics committees can in fact prevent interviews with minority groups silencing their voice in research.

Forgotten stories was also a key theme picked up by PHA members such as Anisa Puri who highlighted the crucial contribution that volunteers played in the response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s in Australia. Anisa investigated the ethics and challenges of recording oral history interviews that prompt the retelling of traumatic experiences and risk re-traumatisation. PHA Vic members Professor Alistair Thomson and Nikki Henningham looked respectively at testimonies of family and sexual violence in Australia and the shifting representations of these narratives in recent decades.

The way in which oral history can be used to help understand our urban fabric and what we push to the fringe of our city was poignantly explored by Leyla Vural. She talked about the history of Hart Island in New York. The island has an eerie past used variously as a tuberculosis sanatorium, a Union Civil War Camp, a women’s insane asylum, and a boys’ reformatory. Today it is a potter’s field with over one million people, mostly homeless buried in mass, unmarked graves by inmates held in the city’s largest gaol. Leyla presented interviews with the inmates, homeless people and activists for the homeless who have fought for access to the island to mourn their friends. For Leyla the island represents a heterotopia, a space separate from society but one which acts as a mirror revealing how a city treats its disenfranchised, dead and poor citizens. Or as one inmate succinctly described a space– ‘where nobodies bury nobodies’.

The Dangerous Oral Histories conference was hosted by the Oral History Society more information and links to journal articles can be found on the website.


Image: Women banging out the news of the death of one of the Hunger Strikers, Thomas McElwee, with bin lids in a Nationalist neighbourhood of Belfast, c.1981 (Source: Unifax-UPI as reproduced by the Ulster Museum).

PHA NSW/ACT at the Australian Historical Association Conference

Historians from all over Australia and beyond are in Canberra this week for the annual Australian Historical Association conference. Hosted by the Australian National University, the theme of this year’s conference is ‘the scale of history’.

This year organisers had to close conference registrations nearly two weeks before the start of the conference. With over 350 presenters and up to 15 concurrent sessions, this conference is an intense festival of history. You can download the conference program and abstracts from the conference website.

This will be the 7th year that the conference will be tweeted. This is an enjoyable way to get involved in the conference from wherever you may be in the world. Just follow the conference hashtag, #OzHA2018 on Twitter. Look out for the blog posts of conference participants too.

Professional Historians contribute to the conference each year. We have found nine members of PHA NSW in the program who are presenting papers:

Tuesday 11:00 – 12:30

  • Carol Liston is a co-presenter of a paper titled, ‘Colonial surgeon Patrick Hill (1794-1852): Unsung pioneer of Australian mental health care’. Arndt Tutorial Room 4

Tuesday 3:30 – 5:00

  • Adele Nye, ‘Teaching history in Australian universities: Multiple dimensions of a rich discipline’. Arndt Tutorial Room 1
  • Ian Willis, ‘A local cultural icon challenges the forces of neo-liberalism on Sydney’s fringe’. CBE Tutorial Room 6
  • Terry Kass, ‘False testimony: R H Mathews, surveyor and ethnographer’. CBE Tutorial Room 3

Wednesday 11:00 – 12:30

  • Joy McCann, ‘Writing the life story of the Southern Ocean’. CBE Tutorial Room 6
  • Laila Ellmoos, ‘Interesting, humorous, thrilling’: The Great Strike of 1917 on film’. CBE Tutorial Room 3

Wednesday 1:30 – 3:00

  • Catherine Bishop, ‘Local business, global phenomenon: Putting Sydney’s businesswomen in an international context’. CBE Lecture Theatre 2

Thursday 3:30 – 5:00

  • Robin McLachlan, ‘Australasian miners response to Klondike Goldfield regulations, bureaucracy and corruption, 1897-99’. Arndt Tutorial Room 2

Friday 11 – 12:30

  • Kate Bagnall, ‘Chinese Australian families and the legacies of colonial naturalisation’. CBE Lecture Theatre 2

It is difficult in such a big conference to hear all the papers you want, but if you have a chance, drop in and hear what your fellow professional historians are doing, or follow the conference on Twitter at #OzHA2018.