Historians at Work at the Melbourne Writers Festival

This year’s Melbourne Writers Festival included a number of sessions featuring history and historians, which made us at Way Back When very happy. Lucy and I enjoyed the opportunity to attend ‘Historians at Work’ and hear insights into our profession from three of our colleagues: fellow professional historian Dr Clare Wright, Dr Nicholas Clements (University of Tasmania) and Professor Christopher Clark (University of Cambridge).

The session was chaired by prolific writer and long-time friend of Way Back When, Gideon Haigh, who deftly guided the discussion, directing poignant and challenging questions to the panel of historians. Each brought to the table a different perspective and historical background, but their individual work – on women at Eureka, indigenous and colonial relationships in Tasmania, and European politics in World War One – informed a stimulating and inspiring discussion around the practice of history.

Questions like how to escape what is already written about history were examined, leading to discussion of certainty and distortion in history. Nicholas suggested that history is all about now, not about the past, but cautioned that history does not always give a clear answer. Clare advocated that the archive is always right – but that we get different histories by asking it different questions. This led us to wonder, what questions will historians be asking in ten or twenty years that we don't think of today?

The archive was a significant discussion point during the session and questions around interpretation – how it changes and how it is challenged – as well as the daunting idea of what the archive of our time now will look like for future historians, were thoroughly digested. What will historians of the future use as sources from today? Will there be an overwhelming amount of material, particularly considering the advent of social media? Christopher suggested that changing patterns of attention to archives make history a living discipline.

The role of the historian – our involvement in the histories we write – was also up for debate. The old notion of the detached, neutral voice is a thing of the past and much more importance is now placed on the voice of the historian. Authors are now writing themselves into their histories. Nicholas indicated that empathy is crucial to the historian, while Christopher’s advice to researchers is that before reading a history, first study the historian. Understand where he or she is coming from and you’ll understand what interpretation of history they are presenting.

The enthusiastic audience that filled Deakin Edge at Federation Square contributed some thought-provoking questions. The discussion was exciting and we really enjoyed the opportunity to think more broadly about what it is we do when we do history. Often in our daily work we become so wrapped up in our individual projects that we don’t get the chance to think big. While we did not come away with all of the answers to these questions, we left inspired to continue asking them and motivated by the idea that our job as historians is to keep the conversation going between the past and the present.

Katherine Sheedy