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

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