Professional historians who gathered at the annual History in July occasion in Sydney must have been heartened by the thoughtful words uttered in the second Peter Tyler Oration. Alan Atkinson, Emeritus Professor and literary prize winner, traced the origins – and rise and rise – of public history. He did so with rigour and sensitivity, reminding us that historical inquiry is essentially about better understanding the human condition.
The oration was a deft blend of rumination on historical method and the politics of history-making since the 1960s and 1970s. Atkinson sees that period as the birth of public history. It was a time when young historians like himself were rethinking history and looking for new audiences. Local and family history were emerging as part of the discipline, new technologies (like microfilm!) were making resources more accessible, statistics and sociology were becoming historical tools. More generally, people were beginning to talk about how the past impinges on the present and acknowledging that history belongs to everyone.
In those exciting times, Alan Atkinson formulated an approach to history that investigated the still depths of human existence. First, he embarked on an endeavour to depict how people in the nineteenth century understood place and time. He took the town of Camden, scrutinising its statistics to build a picture from below.
Atkinson acknowledges that the best history must do more than paint such a picture; it must merge the partial, messy particulars of life with a view from above. So the observer of a gaol, for example, must walk around the place both with the warden, who has access to all its parts, and with the prisoner, whose space is much more constrained.
In the Commonwealth of Speech, Atkinson moved from place to sound, aiming to capture from the past something as ephemeral as noise. In his oration, he suggested that novelists often find it easier than historians to capture the sensuality and physicality of the past. He also emphasised the need for historians to delve into the intellectual world of oral cultures, which have left no written record thus reinforcing a sense of terra nullius.
Now, as an eminent historian, Atkinson has embraced a new challenge, to examine the role of religion in human affairs. He is doing so to counter the secular, nationalist strand in Australian life that has pushed aside much study of belief. In this age when religion is reasserting its influence on how public institutions operate, it is a subject that deserves the attention of historians, not least public historians whose quest, after all, is to illuminate what it means, in all its aspects, to be human.