By Samantha Leah …
The 2015 Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference was a combination of fascinating papers, talks and networking. Some delegates grasped the opportunity between sessions to connect and introduce, while others took the time to reflect on the implications of a paper for their own research. Most, like myself, did both.
One thing I found striking. It was, to my amazement, an issue being discussed in the same way at the last AHA conference I attended ― in 2007. The issue is the long-accepted assumption that history is composed of two types: the ‘academic’ and the ‘popular’. As a professional historian working outside the academy who tries to adhere to the academic standards of the discipline, this distinction sits uneasily with how I view my every day work.
I have spent enough hours tramping around heritage sites, conversing with librarians, heritage managers, architects, engineers and other consumers of history, to know that the division of history into these two camps is not something that the public often recognises. When I submit a tender for a project or run a community workshop, no one ever asks ‘what type of historian are you’. I have a degree (or three) and a business card. I also have experience. From my clients’ perspective, I am a historian. However, my work is located outside an academic institution. That this demarcation still exists was clear throughout the conference.
Is the old distinction between ‘real’ history and ‘amateur’ or ‘popular’ history still relevant? I would argue that my history and work in heritage is no less real than that which focuses on complex theoretical concepts and interpretations. I enjoy a good post-modernist deconstruction as much as the next person, but surely both approaches sit comfortably within the category of ‘real’. My work shapes spaces and places. My history leads to physical conservation or demolition. My history is tangible, real. Also, (most days) I love my job. I seek to be professional even though my career aspirations do not lean toward the academic path. So on what side of the line do I stand?
The conference gave me much cause for reflection. Has history evolved? With historians who are working both in and out of universities writing books and articles that are enjoyed by the public, is the distinction between the two still relevant? Is it time to think of new categories, such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’? How would we assess quality?
Long may we who interrogate the past seek to share, question, and support our colleagues, whether we are at the head of a classroom, pouring over documents in the archives, or walking transport routes in our steel-capped boots. This collegial aspect did appear at the conference; it was something I found warmly familiar.
Perhaps while we are discussing these ideas about who writes what types of history, the line is shifting beneath our feet without us being fully aware of it.