…and to Samantha Leah, a PHA NSW member from regional New South Wales. Samantha is an historian and heritage consultant with nghenvironmental, based in Wagga Wagga but travelling far and wide!
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
My Pop was a pilot with the RAF in Bomber Command during the Second World War. Whenever I asked him about his experiences, he would always say ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older.’ He died suddenly of a stroke when I was 15; all my questions were unanswered. I originally went looking for the answers to those questions, but fell in love with the other aspects of history − the weighing of evidence, investigating sources. I love to read, and there is a lot of reading in history! I was fortunate to have some great history teachers in high school. It all came together from that point.
I was extraordinarily fortunate to be a Summer Scholar at the Australian War Memorial after I had finished my Arts degree, and before commencing honours. After that experience, I’ve never wanted to do anything else.
Who is the audience for your history?
Mostly I write reports for government agencies, but occasionally I get to produce public history that has an interest beyond the approval process. It sounds a bit mundane, but I love it. I never quite know what I will come across. In an assignment or individual project, I can change my approach if I have difficulties finding evidence, but don’t have that luxury with a report. That has really honed my research skills, not to mention perseverance!
What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?
Too hard to pick just one! I love the Australian Dictionary of Biography. It is such a great reference tool. One of the best engineering history reference books I have read is Don Fraser’s Bridges Down Under. It’s a history of railway under bridges of New South Wales, but he ties the engineering developments to the social and political context. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of day-to-day life. He captures the energy of innovation, without becoming sentimental.
For fun I love to read Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution. There’s a way he writes the narrative that builds the story that grabs me every time.
But there is no book as good as the archives.
If you had a time machine, where would you go?
Provided I could keep my head, the French Revolution. To see and be a part of that process of massive change and upheaval, and to try and understand the period before would be amazing.
Also, if I could stroll through the 1960s, that would be an adventure.
Why is history important today?
History means different things to different groups and different people, and I think it is important to keep rewriting old stories by incorporating new perspectives. Every generation rewrites history in its own image, and this is not a bad thing. It is important to allow those new ideas to come through.
In heritage planning, which is most of my work, history is crucial, as it is used as the justification for preservation or demolition. Getting the historical background right is important to make sure the limited resources available for heritage preservation are used in a way that keeps the important relics.
History is also important because so many people find it enjoyable − either in researching family history or watching a documentary or visiting a museum. History allows people to engage with the world around them in these different mediums, and to come in contact with different ideas and ways of living. It’s important to encourage the simple enjoyment of this experience.