Whose story is it? Indigenous practitioners talk about writing and curating history


…by Minna Muhlen-Schulte, who chaired a panel on Indigenous history making at the recent PHA national conference, Marking Time.

PHANSW was proud to present a panel by some of Sydney’s leading Aboriginal curators and cultural strategists – Ronald Briggs (Curator of Research and Discovery at State Library of NSW),  Melissa Jackson (Indigenous Services Unit, State Library of NSW),  Emily McDaniel (freelance curator for Museum of Contemporary Art, Biennale of Sydney and Art Gallery of NSW) and Peter White (Head of Indigenous Strategy and Engagement, Sydney Living Museums). The panel provided a thought-provoking discussion on interpreting Aboriginal history in the public sphere.

Emily McDaniel demonstrated how her project 4000 fish, inspired people to engage with story of Barangaroo as an Eora fisherwoman instead of thinking of the name as an embattled urban development. McDaniel curated four Aboriginal artists’ works including a large scale nowie/nawi bark canoe by Steven Russell, to bring together an interactive installation. Participants were invited to symbolically return to Barangaroo and her fisherwomen, the 4,000 fish excessively hauled by British colonists on one day in 1790. Audience participants scooped harbour water into cast  moulds that after refrigeration created ice fish. People then placed these fish on the fire burning in the canoe. McDaniel talked about temperature, seasons, texture and sculpture as compelling ways for audiences to feel and imagine stories of the past. She also observed that the power of installations like 4000 fish was drawn from their temporality rather than the static way history can be commemorated in bronze, to be walked past and forgotten on a sidewalk. Instead, the 4000 fish ‘put history into people’s hands’. McDaniel touched on the complexities she encountered as Wiradjuri woman telling the stories of Eora people, inviting our profession to understand the nuances of Aboriginal identity within Australia. She spoke from the standpoint of an artist not an historian but argued convincingly for collaborations that help audiences interpret and reflect on history.

Ronald Briggs and Melissa Jackson discussed the State Library of NSW’s Indigenous collection strategy, which now has a focus on Indigenous-created material.  Their approach is to get the community to engage with the collections, including by inviting people to identify Aboriginal people represented in the archives, for example in the library’s collection of Barbara McGrady’s portraits of families at the Koori Rugby League Knockout. Brigg’s spoke enthusiastically about the recent acquisition of  a portrait of a young man at Parramatta named Toulgra (also known as Bull Dog) by Nicolas-Martin Petit, an artist on French explorer Nicolas Baudin’s expedition to Australia. Detailed portraits of named Aboriginal people in Sydney from this time are very rare.

Melissa has a special interest in Aboriginal languages. She talked about The Rediscovering Indigenous Languages project, which  aims to preserve and revitalise some of the oldest languages in the world by digitising Indigenous word lists, language records and other cultural documents, starting with the State Library of New South Wales’ collections.

As chair of the session Peter White asked the panel and the audience to consider the challenges of working as an Aboriginal curator within traditional colonial institutions: ‘it’s an uphill slog in bastions of memory to get an Indigenous world view’, he said. And now that he is finally learning his Gamilaroi language, he is realising too that the language used to interpret the past reflects ways of thinking about that history. Peter invited us to continue the conversation with Aboriginal curators and communities to help us all reach a level of maturity that allows for truth telling and for creating a shared history.

Navigating emotion: one facet of the historian’s job


by Francesca Beddie…

Presenters at the 2018 PHA conference, Marking Time, (Sydney, 30-31 August 2018) embraced its many-faceted topic with insight and sensitivity. They provided us all with much to ponder about the role of public historians in recording the history of people, places and organisations.

One theme to emerge was the delicate task historians must often play in winnowing the emotion and/or myth surrounding historical events to create a more accurate record and offer a better understanding of the past.

Over the last four years commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War One, public historians have had to navigate strong feelings and attachments to the Anzac legend, as well as cater to the requirements of funding bodies and target audiences. Sometimes local lore has triumphed over fact; at others, a yearning for private comfort has overshadowed objectivity. Further, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has issued professional historians with a new challenge: how to record exceptionally difficult truths while also not overwhelming all other aspects of institutional histories nor inflicting more hurt on survivors.

Clever and sometimes novel presentation of the evidence can be effective: it can help to bring the pendulum back towards an appreciation of the need to learn from the past as well as commemorate certain events or people. Also important is for historians to reveal forgotten stories of the past, such as the frontier wars within Australia and the role of Indigenous servicemen, the devastation wreaked by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919 or the prominent role of female artists in creating memorials to the Great War.

Important tools in the historian’s kitbag are their sources. Several papers discussed how a primary source, an object (a convict love token), an original document (a letter from the front, the transcript of a hearing), a map or photograph can inform, affect or indeed change historical interpretation. The conference also heard much about the possibilities new technologies offer to make these sources accessible and the skills and collaborations required to do this effectively.

A couple of papers were salutary warnings about changing fashions and their effect on commemoration. Different attitudes to war have had a profound impact on what and how we remember what was won and lost and which participants we honour and how, with the original intent, for example, of maintaining a democratic approach to all Victoria Cross holders being undermined by private initiatives.

Discussion of the preservation or neglect of certain physical monuments also pointed to the importance of careful consideration about how these are maintained and respected, whether they need to be permanent or not, and what can be achieved with the benefit of new technologies. Take a look, for example, at this innovative presentation of people reading in the Mitchell Library in the 1940s and 1950s.

This post drew, in particular, on the following presentations at the conference, abstracts for which can be found in the conference program:

Keynote by Professor Bruce Scates: see also Australian Journey: The Story of a Nation in 12 Objects, a free web-based video series exploring the nation’s history through captivating objects from the National Museum of Australia.

Deborah Beck, A woman’s place: the depiction and role of women in the Anzac War Memorial, Sydney

Neville Buch, Emotion and reason in local history and war and peace commemoration: a Queensland case study

Roslyn Burge, Callan Park: forgotten memorials

Sue Castrique, One small world: the history of Addison Road Community Centre

Stephen Gapps, Why are there no monuments to the Sydney Wars?

Helen Penrose, Out of darkness, into the light: recording child sexual abuse narratives (the sequel)

Mary Sheehan, A monumental disease: the Royal Exhibition Building and the Spanish flu

Geoff Wharton, Western Cape York Peninsula war memorials: honouring Indigenous service

Bill Wilson, Albert Borella VC MM – brave and (very) well remembered