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)

4 thoughts on “Deep time and public history”

  1. This is a thoughtful and well argued piece. The practice of public history is not well known amongst the academic historians who dominate the Australian Historical Association. As Stephen argues, we need to do more to raise awareness of the practice of public history at the Australian Historical Association conferences, but we also need to do a lot more to raise awareness of the work of historians in the area of public history with potential clients, media and the general public in Australia. Perhaps the PHA can come up with a strategy to do this? There is a PHA conference coming up in NSW. Could this be a focus of consultation at the PHA conference?

  2. Great post Stephen. It reminds me of a seminar I was involved in at Sydney Uni when Bill Gamage’s The Biggest Estate was published. I argued that historians working in various heritage fields such as the old NPWS had been grappling with such issues since the 1990s (how to develop a human history of a landscape that was still popularly considered to be ‘pristine wilderness’, or recently degraded by settlers and which could be ‘restored’ to ‘pristine wilderness’). Natural heritage advocates could, at that time, be quite blind to Aboriginal shaping and making of environments – it was around that time that I came to a view that the concept of wilderness was another version of terra nullius. I’m not sure how much the academy is open to persuasion about public history – but perhaps they are not the audience we should really worry about, rather, taking more time to explain the role of public historians in developing concepts and approaches to deep time to non-academic audiences may be more important (including publishers). I found Rob Paton’s essay in “Long History Deep Time” (ANU Press, 2015) particularly useful, and my thinking is currently enamoured (if that is the right word) with the three-part history timeframe outlined in the Uluru Statement – neither of these are from the academy, but they are stimulating reading.
    Thanks again for an excellent post,

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