ReViewing History – Day Three

I’m late with this post, but will do it anyway!

Yesterday we all trooped back to UWA for day three. Boy, was I tired! I skipped the keynote and made it in time for morning tea and the first parallel session, listening to Sue Graham-Taylor from History Council of WA, Zoe Pollock from NSW History Council and someone (I can’t remember her name!) reading John Bannan’s paper (SA History Council). It really was a trio of stories of wins and losses and some ironic justice on the side of right. The endless battles fought against governments to keep heritage, the arts and history alive and well in the three states were somewhat depressing, but the spirit and belief demonstrated in this battles were a counter. It was hard to walk out of the session and not be completely disheartened by the trend for underfunding, undersupporting and undermining the arts industry and I’m trying not to be. In fact, I think probably the best way to deal with this is take a leaf out of their books and donate my time and skills to the cause. To that end I’m going to email Sue Graham-Taylor and find out how I can be involved.

The rest of the conference was a pot luck for me. I’d really heard all the things I thought were important to hear in the context of my studies, work and interests. I went to some papers on ‘second tier’ families research – that is not the stars of history but those just on the rung or so below them – this was very interesting, especially Angela Woollacott’s argument that these families networks made the Empire a smaller place than we would assume, given the geographic distances involved.

The last session of yesterday was titled ‘The Big Questions for Australian History’ and the dicussants were John Hirst, Marilyn Lake, Joy Damousi, Ann Curthoys and Alan Mayne and if you know anything about the study of Australian history you’ll know these are the big wigs and leading lights. Very, very clever people who have brilliant ideas and insights. They each read a short paper and then participated in a discussion with questions from the floor.

John Hirst wanted to debate the notion that our national character comes from the ‘larrikinism’ and anti-authoritarian of convicts, suggesting that this is a transplant of English working class character, rather than particularly Australian-developed. A really, really interesting idea. I can see a desire developing for the study of convicts to represent them not as in the past – a kind of mis-accused, essentially good person caught up in a silly, inconsequential crime for which they were undeservedly (but thankfully) transported to Australia – but more in the light of their real characters where some were ordinary people, some ordinary thieves (but still criminals) and some truly evil, nasty people – to represent more truthfully the spectrum of their characters.

Marylin Lake argued for the developing area of transnational histories against the backdrop of the new National Curriculum in history and how we teach the idea of ‘Australia in an Asian context’. She asks can we and do we have the historiography?

Joy Damousi and Ann Curthoys both discussed the question of publishing history. Joy spoke about who our audiences are and the pressures and limits placed on the publishing of academic scholarship and what, if any, effect the change in publishing outlets (from the ERA rating system) will have on this scholarship if we are increasingly publishing in the international arena. Ann explored the dichotomy of popular vs academic history and how to understand and reconcile this for our own publishing. How far “out” should academic histories go, should they be expected to go? There was some good discussion on these topics. Only one person brought up the digital publishing angle, which is surprising. I really think this needs to be thought about more.

Finally we heard from Alan Mayne who argued for a better way of doing the history of the outback. He discussed the growing connections between the ideas of urban and regional and argued that history needs to move beyond notions of developmentalism and progress, that the history of people is about social sustainability, that we must think beyond race relations in a colonial frontier zone and the multi vs mono cultural ideas of city/country. These are HUGE ideas. I love them and would love to work within and around them.

An inspiring ending to another great day at conference.

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