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.

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

AHA Conference in Brisbane

I don’t mean to drive you wild with jealousy, but in mid-July while Melbourne shivered through its coldest day of the year, Lucy and I had the pleasure of travelling north to Brisbane for the 2014 Australian Historical Association (AHA) conference. The conference was held at the University of Queensland, St Lucia, in glorious, warm winter sunshine. We ate lunch with colleagues on the grassy lawns, gazing up in admiration at the surrounding sandstone buildings, and we even had to break out the sunhats and sunscreen – I kid you not!

But warm weather and beautiful location aside, the conference was a wonderful opportunity to connect with colleagues and enjoy presentations around the conference theme ‘Conflict in History’. While many sessions focused on war history, the theme was interpreted broadly and there were also papers on a wide range of topics such as feminism, sexuality, indigenous history and history making. We particularly enjoyed Ann McGrath's presentation about an indigenous woman, Alice Kelly, who became involved in the management of archaeological work conducted with human remains at Lake Mungo. We're very much looking forward to seeing the film Ann has co-produced, 'Message From Mungo'.

Lucy presented as part of PHA (Vic)’s session for the conference – a replay of last year’s History Week event ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’. Despite being one of twelve sessions held concurrently, it attracted an audience of over sixty people! Clare Wright was a wonderfully engaging host, and the presentations showed off the skills of professional historians in presenting history that is both informative and entertaining. While originally developed with a general audience in mind, the event also seemed to be very well-received by an audience of fellow historians. A PhD student was even inspired to write about it in a blog post!

Lucy and I also really enjoyed Professional Historians Australia's affiliated conference, visiting the University's Anthropology Museum and taking an exclusive look at the WWI material held in the Fryer Library. We celebrated the launch of the fourth issue of PHA’s Journal of Professional Historians, Circa, in style one evening at Brisbane’s Old Government House. Following the launch we were treated to a tour of the stunning early 1860s building, including some rather beautiful fireplace tiles, which you can see in the photos below.

Although we attended just two days of the AHA and PHA conferences, we had a fantastic time, and not only because of the rejuvenating Brisbane sun! 

Fiona Poulton


History Week 2013

During History Week this year, the Professional Historians Association (Victoria) presented a free public event, 'Flashback', designed to showcase the skills of professional historians. The event was held on Sunday 27 October at Melbourne Museum and consisted of a series of lightning talks of just eight minutes each around the theme 'Well-behaved women seldom make history' (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). Four professional historians presented on the lives of four extraordinary women, who each challenged the social norms of the times in which they lived.

Way Back When were very involved, with Lucy presenting and Fiona and Katherine helping to organise the event as members of the PHA's History Week Sub-Committee. Lucy presented on Ethel May Punshon, known as Monte, who revealed her sexual preference for women at the age of 103. Monte has been remembered as 'the world's oldest lesbian', but, as Lucy demonstrated, there was far more to Monte than her sexuality! Lucy was fortunate enough to be able to use film taken of Monte and her scrap book collection, which are held by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA). The scrap books contain newspaper clippings of cross-dressing women, women in the army, sports women and women just generally challenging the expectations of mid-20th century Australian society. Despite her radicalism, Monte rejected labels, saying, ‘I don’t want to label myself as one thing or another. I’m just me ... Scorpios are like that.’

Writer and social commentator Clementine Ford followed the historians as our special guest speaker, presenting her own take on the theme of radical women in history. The event was a huge success. The 250-seat theatre at Melbourne Museum was filled to capacity with people eager to spend an enjoyable hour on a Sunday afternoon immersed in the past. In fact, 'Flashback' was so popular that we ended up completely booked out a few days out from the event, and with a waiting list of over fifty people!

'Flashback' certainly succeeded in challenging the stereotype that historians give boring, incomprehensible and long-winded lectures, showing that history can be presented in an engaging and accessible way, and still be well-researched and academically sound. We're already getting excited about the possibilities for History Week 2014! 

Fiona Poulton

Monte, c. 1930s courtesy ALGA Collection.

2013 HTAV Kids Conference

On Tuesday 26 November Fiona Poulton and I went along to the History Teachers Association of Victoria's (HTAV) Kids Conference 2013. The Kids Conference was the brainchild of Jo Clyne from HTAV and Stephen Spain from Australian Catholic University and was first held last year. This year's conference was twice as big as last year, with primary and secondary school students presenting in two separate sessions.

All the presenters were school students; the youngest just 7 years old. Digital history was the topic of exploration and the projects the students demonstrated were truly inspiring (and alarmingly sophisticated to us consulting historians!).

Some standout presentations were those from the students of North Melbourne Primary School who undertook Culture Victoria's History in Place project, combining their Italian language skills with investigations into stories of migration from Italian/Australian families. My favourite story is this one by grade 5/6 students Tommaso, Charlie, Robbie, Vincent and Dominic.

Another outstanding example of combining historical research with creativity and new technology was this stop-motion animation by Anita from Camberwell Girls' Grammar School. Truly amazing!

The students from St Monica's Primary School in Footscray also impressed us with their programming skills, having made computer games to better illustrate their understanding of early Australian explorers.

All in all, it was a fantastic day and we walked away very impressed with not only the standard of historical understanding but the incredibly creative and technically challenging ways in which these students had interpreted and presented history.

The theme of the day certainly was that technology makes history fun. And while we at Way Back When are excited by history presented in any format, we know that the best way to communicate history is to make it enjoyable. So a huge congratulations to the teachers and students who participated and keep up the good work (just make sure it's not too good, so we're not out of a job!).

Lucy Bracey