Conference Review: Working History

Working History: Professional Historians Conference

19-20 August 2016, Graduate House, University of Melbourne

A short time ago the Way Back When team attended the Professional Historians Association conference 'Working History' in Melbourne. Taking place over two days at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate House, the conference attracted professional historians from across the country and beyond, with several participants travelling all the way from New Zealand. 

The theme of Working History encouraged us to share our professional experiences and expertise as professional historians. It was an absolutely jam-packed few days, with stimulating discussions and debates inspired by the engaging papers and keynote speakers. 

We were fortunate to have two excellent keynote speakers – Tim Sherratt, Associate Professor of Digital Heritage at the University of Canberra and Lisa Murray, City Historian at the City of Sydney. Both were equally inspiring – Tim on the seemingly limitless possibilities of digital technology for history (check out his blog for some really exciting ways to tell stories of the past using data) and Lisa on her work and role as the official City Historian for Sydney. It certainly got us Melburnians wondering why we don't have one!

The stimulating program was packed with interesting and thought-provoking topics, and the quality of the presentations demonstrated the talent of our professional historian colleagues. The varied lengths and formats of the presentations, including 20 minute papers, lightning talks, panels, posters and digital presentations, added to the vibrant atmosphere. Katherine and Lucy both gave presentations – Katherine a lightning talk on the role of the consulting historian, and Lucy demonstrated how free software can be used to create interactive and engaging community histories.

The Navigating Complexity session, where silence emerged as a major theme, was a stand-out. In her paper ‘A contemporary collision: School history meets child abuse’, Helen Penrose spoke candidly and carefully about one of the most challenging situations that can confront a professional historian. She urged us not to be silent, arguing passionately for histories that tell the full story honestly and sensitively, without shying away from even the most difficult aspects. Michael Bennett gave great insight into the multitude of challenges involved in Native Title, including the issue of dealing with significant gaps and silences in the records. And Nikki Henningham highlighted silence as a form of agency in oral history interviews, encouraging us to examine the silences for the complex meanings they can reveal. All three papers generously and unflinchingly interrogated our everyday practice, and left us with much to think about.

Another highlight was prominent historian Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey, who captivated the room with reflections on his own journey and career as an historian. You can read more about his conversation with Michelle Rayner over at PHA (NSW & ACT)’s blog.

The conference’s closing session – a provocation on the question of where to for PHA – was a chance to examine where we are now and discuss the challenges we face as a profession. Interactions between historians continued in person and online with the hashtag #WHpha2016 even trending on social media at one point. Search this tag on Twitter to see some of the many links, quotes, photos and connections being shared during the conference. 

Working History was an opportunity to meet colleagues from across the country – something we value and often lack – and to share some of the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of being professional historians. Presenters explored issues that we face in our profession, demonstrated the huge array of work that we engage in, and raised common questions and challenges that so many of us encounter. It was a forum for self-reflection and assessment of our practice, in an atmosphere that was encouraging, supportive and respectful. At the end of the two days we felt invigorated and inspired to continue our practice.

The conference organisers, including several of the Way Back When team, are to be heartily congratulated for putting together a conference of such depth, breadth and professionalism. We all agreed that Working History was the best conference we have attended and we are grateful to have been able to participate in such a positive and engaging experience.

A journey of hope and resilience: safeguarding children for 120 years

On a bitterly cold winter's evening, Katherine and I headed to the warm and opulent surrounds of the Regent Theatre to celebrate 120 years of the Children's Protection Society (CPS). Way Back When has been working with CPS to produce a book and a website to explore the story of the development of the society, its ground-breaking work with families and its contributions to the child protection system in Victoria. The book, A journey of hope and resilience: safeguarding children for 120 years, was launched by Minister for Families & Children and Youth Affairs, The Hon. Jenny Mikakos on Wednesday 13 July. Professor Dorothy Scott OAM, who was on the steering committee for the project, gave a fascinating and inspiring speech on the evolution of child welfare services in Australia, and the part CPS has played and continues to play. 

The Hon. Jenny Mikakos (centre)

The Hon. Jenny Mikakos (centre)

Professor Dorothy Scott OAM

Professor Dorothy Scott OAM

Gathering to celebrate 120 years of CPS

Gathering to celebrate 120 years of CPS

CPS President Jane Munro AM and CEO Aileen Asford

CPS President Jane Munro AM and CEO Aileen Asford

The society was born on a Saturday morning in 1896, when a group of Melbourne’s most influential dignitaries and charity workers gathered at Government House with the intention of forming a group aimed at protecting children from cruelty and neglect. Led by Lady Sybil de Vere Brassey, wife of the Governor of Victoria, this meeting resulted in the formation of the Victorian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty and Neglect of Children (VSPCC). Over the past 120 years the society has provided services for children in need. It has faced constant challenges with passion and commitment, and remained steadfast in its support for families and children throughout Victoria.

An early VSPCC executive committee. Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library Victoria, MS 10384

An early VSPCC executive committee.
Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library Victoria, MS 10384

Unfortunately Lucy and Sarah couldn't be at the launch, and were greatly missed! As always, this project was very much a team effort.

It was an honour to work with CPS on documenting and celebrating its history, and to tell the story of such a long-running and important organisation. We're looking forward to working further with them on a website, which will feature audio documentaries using the oral history interviews we conducted with current and former staff as part of this project. 

You can read more about the launch on the CPS website.

Fiona Poulton

The little-known story of Melbourne's involvement in the American Civil War

Did you know that Melbourne has a strong link with the American Civil War? I certainly had no idea of this connection until State Library Victoria launched an appeal recently to raise money for the purchase of a diary written by a crewman on the Confederate warship CSS Shenandoah, which docked in Melbourne for repairs in 1865. In his diary, Lieutenant Dabney M. Scales, known as 'Dab', chronicles the ship's arrival in Port Phillip Bay, tensions with the local authorities, and his observations and illustrations of Melbourne and its people.

Last week I went along to an event held at the library to find out more about this story and have a sneak peek at the diary itself, which was on display. Author Robyn Annear facilitated an in-depth discussion between historian Dr Angus Curry and journalist Terry Smyth, both of whom have researched and written about the ship and its crewmen. The discussion ranged from the experiences of the men on board the CSS Shenandoah, the part they played in the Civil War and what happened to them thereafter, and what new information the diary has revealed.

I was particularly interested to hear that the diary is not only a window into the stories of the ship's crew and the history of the American Civil War, but also reveals much about Melbourne in 1865 from the perspective of a foreign visitor. Melburnians were apparently thrilled by the ship's arrival, whether they took the side of the Confederates or not. Captain Waddell and his crew were welcomed into Melbourne society, given free railway passes and thrown a lavish ball in Ballarat during their stay of more than three weeks. Victorian women proudly wore gold buttons gifted to them by affectionate soldiers. Every inch of the ship was picked over by thousands of eager Melburnians keen for a gander. Forty-two men even managed to 'stowaway' on the ship and enlist with the Confederates, although the panellists pointed out that there was a secret, illegal recruiting campaign going on in Melbourne before the ship left.

The panel discussion was punctuated by readings from the diary, performed by 2014 Creative Fellow James Saunders. It was very evocative to hear him bring the words of Lieutenant Scales to life, and in a most authentic Southern accent! Saunders also read from some of the media reports published at the time, which illustrated just how the Shenandoah's arrival had both thrilled and divided Melbourne society.

Jo Ritale, Head of Collections at State Library Victoria, explained how the diary came to be made available. Kept in the family of Lieutenant Scales for 150 years, it finally came up for sale at an auction, and was purchased by an Australian buyer who recognised its significance. This buyer has offered to sell the diary to State Library Victoria, which through this appeal aims to raise $100,000, some of which will go to the preservation of other significant collection items. 

It was wonderful to get a quick look at the diary after the event, after hearing so much about it. Mercifully, Scales' handwriting is beautifully clear and easily legible - much appreciated by those of us used to slowly and patiently wading through difficult handwriting in early historical records! Here's hoping the library's appeal will be successful and the item will be permanently preserved in its collection, as well as digitised, for the benefit of researchers of the American Civil War and Melbourne's early history alike.

If you're interested in learning more about the CSS Shenandoah, the event was filmed and is available on YouTube. It's worth a look, even just for James Saunders' wonderful readings (and impressive Southern drawl!) You can also learn more about the story on Lucy's blog, History Bites.

Fiona Poulton

All images courtesy State Library Victoria