Historians communing: part two


by Laila Ellmoos …

A few weeks ago, I reflected on the 2016 AHA conference. This week my focus is on the Working History conference (#WHpha2016) organised by PHA (Vic) with support from Professional Historians Australia. The conference was held over two full days (19-20 August 2016) at the Graduate School within the Melbourne University campus. It was launched with a generous Welcome to Country from Wurundjeri elder Tony Garvey.

The Working History conference was notable for the variety of presentations. Each of the two days was anchored by keynote speakers: Tim Sherratt (Associate Professor, Digital Heritage, University of Canberra) on telling stories with data and Lisa Murray (City Historian at the City of Sydney) on identifying and developing audiences for public history. Apart from the keynotes, there were sessions made up of long-form papers (20 minutes) and lightening papers (5 minutes), a panel and a digital and poster presentation in the lunch room.

It was a single-stream conference, which was great because there weren’t any difficult choices about which paper to listen to. This ended up being the conference’s strength because participants went on a ‘journey’ together: we all heard the same people speaking and sharing their work, listened to each other’s questions and offered our own. There was no grandstanding from the floor; instead careful suggestions and advice about the methodology and practice of public history. This strong level of engagement generated vigorous discussions in the meal breaks about the work we do as professional historians, namely the methodology of creating and making engaging history for public consumption. One of the highlights for me was the exploration of the ethical dimensions of professional practice.

On the close of the first day, we were treated to an ‘in conversation’ with Michelle Rayner and Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey, who arguably led the way for professional historians in Australia through writing commissioned histories for a range of large mining companies from the 1950s (although as it turns out, he was not well renumerated for these works). He was a charming speaker – funny and sometimes provocative and always directly engaged with his audience. (See Francesca Beddie’s post on what he said.)

Throughout the conference, delegates were invited to write ‘provocations’ (suggestions or issues for discussion) on post-it notes stuck up on a white board outside the main room. In the final session of the last day, the chairs in the main room were rearranged so that conference participants could face each other (literally and figuratively) to partake in the ‘Provocation’ session: ‘Where to for PHA? Have we done enough?’

Over the final hour, we discussed a range of issues about how we, as professional historians organised through a professional body, can engage with our profession as well as broader social issues including collaboration with our peers in allied professions, ethical practice, our role in providing advocacy for the history sector, and our participation in social policy. For the Professional Historians Association, there is much food for thought about the future of our organisation, in terms of its structure as a federated body, succession planning, increasing the cultural diversity of the membership, reaching out to rural and regional members, standardised membership fees, and recognition of volunteer time of executive members of the state bodies. There was also discussion about the viability of training for public historians, as well how we can promote the profession and our work through the media.

These were timely reflections in the 25th year of PHA (Vic), but also for the entire membership of Professional Historians Australia. I look forward to future discussions. All in all, with members attending from across Australia, the Working History conference was a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with our interstate colleagues.


Image: Delegates at the Working History Conference in Melbourne, August 2016.

3 thoughts on “Historians communing: part two”

  1. Nice summary Laila! The days were so full of talks and ideas it’s hard to summarise. I’d be interested to see if the notes from the provocation session will be made available online as there were so many important issues raised during that part of the conference.

  2. Yes it is a good summary of a well organised conference. I’d like to reiterate the point about the desirablity of having uniform membership fees across Australia as a first step to raising fees to a more professional level that would enable our national body to be more proactive and ambitious. I also would like to see PHA input into new public history courses that would help equip beginners for a career as public historians.

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