Challenging histories

…by Francesca Beddie

Whatever comes the way of the professional historian it’s important to stick to your principles. This was a recurring message during a forum, Challenging Histories, organised by PHA Victoria and Tasmania and held on 27 July at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart.

The event was made particularly special by Julie Gough, the renowned Tasmanian artist who showed conference goers through her exhibition, Tense Past, after having introduced the forum with a welcome to country and staying to listen to all the presentations.

I found myself kicking off the proceedings with a pared-back presentation I’d made in New Zealand about the need for multicultural histories to enter the official narrative. I encouraged professional historians to use their links to communities to make more visible the diversity of Australian histories being uncovered. I cited as an example the Chinese Anzacs project, which has identified 213 Chinese-Australian serviceman who served in WWI, and aimed to encourage Chinese Australians to discuss the stories of their forbears.

For Rebecca Carland (PHA Vic and Tas) the job of bringing to light a 1929 collection of photographs, cultural objects and detailed notes on the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego has required confronting political, institutional and environmental challenges to restore their heritage to an isolated and marginalised community. (If you are in Melbourne on 21 August, you can hear more about this important initiative:

In the case Helen Munt (PHA WA) discussed, the challenge was to disentangle the facts from long-held community beliefs in Albany. This entailed a painstaking examination not only of written records but also maps and paintings. Having established where Major Lockyer actually raised the Union Jack on January 1827, thus claiming Albany for Britain, the next challenge will be to design a bicentenary that recognises the full import of the arrival of the colonists in Western Australia.

Michelle Richmond, PHA (NSW & ACT) showed us what meticulous work was required to undertake a heritage assessment on the first official Aboriginal land grant in Australia. She took us to the original Blacktown settlement on the Richmond Road, revealing the language used to describe Aboriginal people in the documents (blacks, hence Blacktown; natives) and the ways in which Governor Macquarie and others attempted to educate and ‘civilise’ Aboriginal children. Another Michelle, Michelle Blake who loves land title searches (and has recently moved from Hobart to Sydney), also addressed the challenges of archival work when a subject lived outside the date range of available sources.

Historians must stand up to the marketers. Helen Penrose, PHA (Vic & Tas) discussed the ways in which this can be done: by establishing the historian’s remit and sticking to it; making clear the differences of a historical account and promotional document; sometimes through negotiation; and in the worst of cases by walking away.   

Alan Davis, PHA (NT), gave an account of the life of a reference librarian in the Northern Territory, having to respond to vaguely posed queries about the Territory’s history, which remains scantly documented. He pointed to the resources that were available: the NT Dictionary of Biography and now reliable access to online sources, saying these had improved the chances of being able to uncover answers to visitors’ questions. Lucy Bracey, PHA (Vic & Tas), also talked about how technology is changing the way historians who do not live in cities can operate, for example by using better scanning apps such as Camscanner when they are in the archives and communicating with colleagues and clients with ever-improving video conferencing tools like Zoom.

The last speaker, Sue Graham-Taylor PHA (WA), offered thoughtful and funny reflections on her career (see her profile in Historia). When the audience was not laughing hard at her anecdotes, they were getting very useful advice about the importance of both connecting with community as well as incorporating historical perspectives into policymaking, being principled and tactful; keeping a sense of humour; and sometimes saying enough is enough.

Then came the tour de force. Julie Gough’s Tense Past is a masterpiece of combining the historical record (or lack thereof) and artefacts with exquisite artistic practice to revive the voices and culture of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and to make us mourn all the missing children. 

With many thanks to Jill Barnard for all the work involved in organising the event.

Caption: Julie Gough at the start of our tour

Local Communities, Global Networks, AHA 2019 Conference, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba

by Patricia Curthoys…

Your experience of large, multi-stream conferences can only ever be partial and peculiar to you. What follows was my experience of the 2019 AHA Conference, which  began with the Green Stream (Australian and New Zealand Environment History Network) Keynote, #CoalMustFall: Revisiting Newcastle’s Coal Monument in the Anthropocene, given by Nancy Cushing, of the University of Newcastle. Nancy raised the issues of both the active role of history and of historians in the world, particularly in the light of the current climate emergency. She eloquently argued that history is ‘the story (the stories) that the present needs’.

The second session of the Conference was one of two NAIDOC Week Celebrations within the programme. John Maynard, also of the University of Newcastle, gave a keynote address on ‘Yuraki – 65,000 years of place and memory’. In it, Maynard spoke about the deep time history of the Australian continent in the context of local Aboriginal stories of place and memory in the Newcastle area. Later that Tuesday afternoon came the second NAIDOC Week celebration, a plenary on ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth: Australia’s Unfinished Business’, featuring three younger indigenous Australians – unionists, lawyers, activists – who had the entire conference considering the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the possible next steps to fulfil its call to non-indigenous Australians.

PHA NSW & ACT members attended the conference, and at least four presented papers or participated in panels. Ian Willis spoke about his work on Shirley Dunk’s archive of the year she spent travelling to and throughout the United Kingdom and Europe in 1954, while Jo Kijas gave a paper in the Green Stream on a history of the Tuckean Swamp, on the far north coast of New South Wales. Paul Irish participated in the ‘Aboriginal Cities Panel’, speaking with other historians from across Australia. I heard Rose Cullen, another of our members, give a very interesting paper on how care (restoration, repair, renovation) of old houses in Australia reflects historical consciousness. She argued that the ways old houses and their furnishings were related to national history legitimised caring for them.

I spent Wednesday attending roundtables and panels. The roundtable on ‘Digital Histories of Crime: what they are, what they tell us, and what they promise’ examined not only digital accession and analysis of data arising from crime events but also the very interesting issue of the digital curation of records. I was also interested to hear Margaret Allen, Fiona Paisley and Jane Haggis on their project, ‘Faith-Based Cosmopolitan Networks and the Ends of Empire, 1920s and 1930s’, having first heard them talk about the project two years ago at the AHA in Newcastle. In the ‘Democracy and Dispossession: where to now’ panel Ann Curthoys and Marilyn Lake each spoke about their significant recent publications:  Ann Curthoys on her co-authored book with Jessie Mitchell, Taking Liberty: Indigenous Rights and Settler Self-Government in Colonial Australia, 1830-1890, Cambridge University Press, 2018 and Marilyn Lake on Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform, Harvard University Press, 2019.

And on Thursday morning I did what you often do at conferences – attend a session to support a friend who was giving a paper. Then it was time for me to leave Toowoomba and the conference, after a couple of stimulating days of historical conversation.

‘Christmas Food and Feasting, A History’

…by Minna Muhlen-Schulte

In the Antipodes Christmas in July has become a mid-year winter tradition to indulge the food and booze we normally enjoy at the end of the year. What is the historical lineage behind turkeys, puddings, mince pies and mulled wine? In her new book Christmas Food and Feasting PHA NSW member Dr Madeline Shanahan has traced how Christmas is a palimpsest for millennia-long traditions. It’s a story brimming with social and political change.

The book highlights how, despite the Christian veneer of Christmas, the festival has far deeper pagan roots that have continued to challenge the religious orthodoxy because of its traditions of excess and inverting the social order of the day. This played out in the more performative aspects of the festival as early as the Roman festival of Saturnalia where slaves would become the master for the day, or in medieval times when elite households would play host over a 12-day feast, allowing the lower members of society respite from the feudal system. It was only later in the Victorian era, when a politicised working class threatened the elite, that the festival retreated indoors to the family home. Children and the domestic space became the focus of Christmas, which was no longer a public, hedonistic festival reminding those with the most of their social responsibility to those with the least.

From an Australian perspective the curious story of the pudding is fascinating. More than dried fruit was bound up in the dessert that became a symbol of nationalism, trade and empire.  Despite the summer heat, serving Christmas pudding during the colonial era was a reminder of our British heritage. Roast beef and plum pudding was dished out by Governor Macquarie to Aboriginal people in Parramatta on the feast day of 28 December 1818, the beginning of attempts to institutionalise the First Australians. Later, incensed Australian producers invoked the importance of maintaining the ‘empire pudding’ with Commonwealth fruit as opposed to that grown in the new fruit and vine industries of California.

Madeline’s book brings to life the sights, smells, taste and even sound of Christmas over centuries: from the whimsy of trumpets announcing the arrival of the boar’s head at Henry II’s court, to hundreds of thousands of turkeys marched on foot to market and even the antipodean counter to the boiled pudding – the fresh Pavlova.

Madeline will be launching her book on Wednesday 31st July at GML Heritage in Surry Hills with a glass of Wassail. RSVP here to join in:

Image: James Gilroy ‘The plumb-pudding in danger; or, State epicures taking un petit souper’ 1805