The Possibility of Small Revolutions

The digital revolution and the practice of history: what’s changed and what hasn’t changed? This was the question posed by Dr Tim Sherratt in his keynote address at the History teachers Association/Macquarie Uni Headstart to Extension seminar this week.

Sherratt describes himself as a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections. As well as an academic post at the University of Canberra, he’s currently half of the Trove management team at the National Library of Australia.  My favourite line from his keynote was that he wants “to mobilise our cultural collections into the spaces people already inhabit.” That is, I think, what public history is all about.

The study of the past has already been transformed by digital technology: Trove’s 190,000,000 newspaper articles is just one example of this. But Sherratt demonstrated that digital technology means more for the practice of history than ‘simply’ digitising documents. Through the course of his keynote, Sherratt demonstrated a number of digital tools which can help historians think about and analyse primary sources in different ways; and he showcased a number of projects which utilise digital technology to help us see people, places and events in the past in a new way.

But back to the question—what’s changed and what hasn’t changed? We must continue to be sceptical of our sources. Just as students of history are trained to think about the assumptions and forces which shaped individual primary sources, so we must also think about the assumptions and forces which shape digital collections. Funding priorities, significant anniversaries and curatorial agendas are just some of the forces which dictate which documents are digitised, and how the collection is presented. For example, Trove (which draws from other digitised collections around Australia) returns significantly more digitised newspaper articles for 1914. This is the result of the priorities of the state libraries around Australia, which have focused on providing sources in relation to World War I during the current 100 year anniversary.

Understanding the forces and assumptions that drive the creation of digital collections should in turn lead the historian to consider the age-old questions of what isn’t there, just as much as what is. Absence is just as important as presence when considering an archive. As Sherratt noted, it’s important to guard against the “sense of completeness” in the digital age. Just because something isn’t in google, does it mean it doesn’t exist?

TR-riding-moose-560.7

I can’t take credit for discovering the Roosevelt on a moose picture. Refer to Dr Sherratt’s slides for more on this.

Sherratt also drew attention to the presence of fake and unattributed historical pictures which seem ubiquitous online. But the well-known fake picture of Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose was actually created in 1912. New technology may make it easier to share fakes, but as Sherratt pointed out, this technology also makes it easier to learn about—and from—those fakes. For example, @picpedant tweets attributions and calls out fakes, and digital tools such as Tin Eye enable anyone to analyse whether an image has been doctored. The fake historical pictures may drive pedants mad, but they do generate discussion.

The slides from the keynote are available online here and include links to many exciting digital history projects, and the tools I’ve mentioned in this post.

I’m really excited about the possibilities for accessing and analysing sources, and communicating historical findings, which digital technology is bringing to the practice of history. Much of the audience at the keynote yesterday was students in their final year at school. My hope is that Sherratt inspired some of them with the desire to see where technology can take their historical practice in the future—in Sherratt’s words, “the possibility of small revolutions.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Podcasting for historians (and for fun)

I’ve been thinking about writing about podcasts for a while and it seems I’m not the only one. Elizabeth Covart published a really interesting blogpost today about  Trends in Digital Communications which is worth a read—she  produces the successful Ben Franklin’s World podcast series in the US.  I’m no tech writer, but it seems to me that the medium has come into its own this past year—possibly owing to the runaway success of Serial last year. The industry has now entered a consolidation phase as the commercial realities of the medium are thrashed out. As Covart argues, historians need to be aware of digital media trends in order to better communicate their work.  I believe historians (individually or en masse) can utilise podcasting to get their work out into the public domain—to spark discussions, influence debate, entertain, and maybe even sell their books—with much lower barriers to entry than for other media formats.* We might even remind people why the humanities are so important to everyday life.

*My latest favourite podcast, which is not history-related, is Annabel Crabb & Leigh Sales’ Chat10Looks3. This is a weekly Australian podcast, where two journos discuss (often hilariously) what they’ve been reading, watching, writing, baking etc. They frequently remind listeners not to expect high production values in their podcast, so they serve as a good example of the low barriers to entry in terms of technology. Although having said that,  both are well-known in Australian media, so I guess being a relatively-invisible historian might make launching your own podcast slightly harder.  Hence networks as a way of getting content noticed.

There is a range of history-related podcast material out there, and I list below some of what I’ve discovered. Most of what I’ve found is American. Some of it is quite academic, advanced-meta-historiography-type stuff, some is really engaging, some is very light-hearted. There are also some lecture and conference recordings available, although I agree with Covart that this doesn’t always translate into great digital content.  But as someone researching a topic on the other side of the world from most other researchers in my field, I would dearly love to see conference proceedings recorded for podcast on a regular basis (please!)

The Juntocast – a podcast on early American history

Ben Franklin’s World – what I love about this is listening to both academic and public historians talk about their work in archives, museums, research, writing etc.

Rum, Rebels & Ratbags – slightly irreverent Australian series presented by the author of Girt, the Unauthorised History of Australia Great for getting some facts about the early years of European Australia (but mostly stories about men…)

PastPresent – American, links history with current affairs

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – great content but slightly boring as it’s just someone reading out entries from the dictionary!

I’ll also link to an article from the Telegraph (one of my least favourite newspapers I must disclose), but they list some British history podcasts which may be of interest: The Telegraph’s best history podcasts list and this is a link to a list of 19 (American) history podcasts compiled by the online magazine Mental Floss

My other non-history favourite is Happier with Gretchen Rubin … an acquired taste perhaps, but it’s been great for helping me think about productivity, which has been important in my first year as a PhD student.

**Update 24 November 2015: I’ve had quite a few comments via WordPress and elsewhere, so here are a few more podcasts to add to my list. (Thanks to all the commenters.)

The British Museum/BBC podcast series: A History of the World in 100 Objects

Mike Duncan’s Revolutions Podcast

Backdoor Broadcasting – this site contains recordings of presentations (often including Powerpoints) given at various UK universities in the Arts and Humanities. It’s not the easiest site to navigate but has some interesting content.

New Books in American Studies and New Books in Gender Studies

Finally, this is a blogpost on the Teaching United States History Blog, which contains an extensive list of podcasts, and some interesting comments on using podcasts as a teaching tool.

Institute of Historical Research Interviews The IHR produces occasional podcast interviews with historians, the list includes Peter Burke, Anthony McFarland & Lady Antonia Fraser.

**Update 2 May 2016: Some non-history podcasts I’ve enjoyed so far this year:

I religiously listen to Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast and have recently discovered Dan Harris’ 10% Happier in which he interviews a great mix of people about their meditation practices. I loved his book, and find the interviews really engaging. I also really got into Serial Season 2 – a thought-provoking series, which really drove home the point that emerges again and again in historical research, that nothing is ever quite as it seems, and nor is anything ever black and white.

Liz Covart has also launched a great series with the Omohundro Institute as part of her Ben Franklin’s World podcast – it’s called Doing History and I think should be mandatory listening for all students of history. Three episodes have aired thus far, with experienced historians discussing questions such as how they come across their research topics, how they use sources, and the cross-over with archaeology.

We can hold more than one story in our heads #anzachistories

As History Week draws to a close in Sydney, this is a summary of the Symposium held to explore public and popular histories of Anzac. The Symposium was put together by Associate Professor Michelle Arrow, and was supported by the Modern History, Politics & International Relations Department, and the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University. These are my (possibly somewhat random) thoughts on the day. I hope not to mis-represent any of the arguments advanced during the day, and welcome comments from anyone who was there, or who would like to know more.

The day was a success, with some great presentations, excellent questions, and thought-provoking discussions. For the students in the audience, there were many hints from the speakers about areas crying out for further research (a history of the RSL anyone?)  I always think it’s well worth the price of admission to attend these sorts of events as listening to researchers and commentators invariably sparks creativity and questions, and avenues for further research.

The day opened with keynote addresses from Carolyn Holbrook and Anna Clark. Holbrook’s book Anzac the Unauthorized Biography was a joint winner of this year’s prize for an Australian First World War History, part of the NSW Premier’s History awards. Holbrook addressed the question of how we account for the change in attitude about Anzac from being a point of protest about war (the position for much of the last century), to today’s reverence for the sacrifice of naive young men, which seems to takes on more and more the mantle of a civic religion? Given the attachment of today’s Australian politicians to the ‘Anzac legend’ and the supposed un-Australianness of questioning it, can we blame politicians for the revival of the legend? Holbrook argued that no, the roots of the revival lie not in high politics, but rather in popular life. She noted Bill Gammage’s ground-breaking study of Australian WWI soldiers in The Broken Years, an approach which has been taken up by family historians, shifting the focus away from the military aspects of the War, towards the voices of the soldiers. Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli has something to do with this too.

Anna Clark addressed the question of Anzac and everyday historical consciousness, drawing on interviews undertaken with a variety of ‘ordinary’ Australians in her current research project Private Lives, Public History. Clark noted the “quite nuanced” views her interviewees expressed about Anzac, including conflicting, complicated thoughts and emotions, even for those with a personal connection to Anzac. Clark concluded by noting the complexity of vernacular historical consciousness. This resonates with me, and was a theme which emerged throughout the day. It is so easy to simplify thoughts and reactions to history—in this case Anzac—but history is never as simple as one uncomplicated story.

The panel on Anzac Fictions included a discussion of the history of Anzac in Australian cinema by Daniel Reynaud, Fay Anderson’s assessment of Deadline Gallipoli, and Kylie Flack’s fascinating review of representations of Anzac in Australian junior historical fiction since 2000. I mean to follow up Reynaud’s claim that the footage we often see on Australian TV of the landing at Gallipoli is genuine, but rather is from The Hero of the Dardanelles, a 1915 movie filmed at Sydney’s Tamarama Beach!

I chaired the Selfies and Diaries panel. Tom Sear discussed the ‘hyper-connective commemoration’ pf Anzac Day 2015, including Woolworths’ infamous ‘Fresh in their memories’  campaign/PR disaster, which was live for all of eight hours on 15 April this year. Maggie Patton then discussed the State Library of NSW’s exhibition of WWI diaries in ‘Life Interrupted.’

The final session was Q&A style, run by Dr Michelle Arrow, with a panel comprising Christopher Lee (screenwriter: Gallipoli), Andrew Anastasios (screenwriter: The Water Diviner), Lisa Scott (Producer: Anzac Girls), and Rachel Landers (Director) and Kate Aubusson (Presenter) for ABC’s Lest We Forget What? The panel canvassed many issues, but a theme which had emerged earlier in the day was taken up, which is the power of Anzac to engage Australians emotionally, something the writers and directors drew upon in their screen work. All the panelists expressed their essentially anti-war motivations. Lee channelled this into as realistic as possible a depiction of the violence and ugliness of war in his Gallipoli—a stark contrast with Weir’s version, which contains virtually no combat. I would do the panellists a disservice if I tried to sum up their discussions in a paragraph, so will leave their work to speak for itself. But as with the speakers I heard during the 2013 Presenting the Past Symposium on History and the Media, I was struck by the amount of research writers undertake, and the care with which they approach their subject.

I’ll end with a quote from Kate Aubusson, which epitomises for me why the study of history remains crucial, and has so much to offer society… “We don’t have the memory of mice, we can hold more than one story in our heads.” Anzac is complicated.

PS. a number of attendees tweeted about the day via the hashtag #anzachistories

History Week #Anzachistories

September 5 — 13 is  History Week in New South Wales, and this year’s theme is ‘War: Nationalism & Identity.’ I must admit to being a bit underwhelmed by the theme when I first heard it, as I’ve definitely suffered from Anzac fatigue in 2015, and rather enjoy exploring history through lenses other than war. On reflection however, I think the History Council’s line-up of events will stimulate discussion which goes deeper than simply drawing a straight line between the battlefield and nationhood, and I hope will draw in other stories around war and nationhood beyond the ‘baptism by fire’ narrative.  The Council explains on its website that the theme of the week “will focus on the history of nation building, nationalism and national identity as the products of both peaceful and violent processes.” Click here to go to see all the events planned for History Week.

Along with two fellow PhD students, I’ve been assisting Michelle Arrow in organising a public Symposium, sponsored by Macquarie University, entitled Public and Popular Histories of Anzac The programme focuses on what ordinary Australians think about Anzac, and what sorts of stories about Anzac circulate in popular and consumer culture. The speakers include Australian screenwriters, journalists, film/TV directors and producers, academics and writers and will discuss everything from films, TV shows, children’s books, literature and social media. The symposium is designed for the general public – it’s certainly not just for scholars and the media. This is a link to the symposium’s website and programme: Symposium Details

If you can make it to the State Library of NSW for all or some of the sessions, I encourage you to Book Now! If you can’t be there in person, and are a twitter-type, follow #anzachistories for a taste of what’s being discussed on the day.

Of course, you can always follow up the Symposium with the Annual History Lecture,  to be given by Professor Bruce Scates this year: Anzac Amnesia: How the Centenary Forgot the War I’ll be going if I can get some babysitting in place!

Irish archives at PRONI

I’ve just completed my initial archival research for my PhD, which involved a very long trip from Australia to Ireland. After a couple of days in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin, I ventured north to Belfast. My aim in this blogpost is to provide some information about carrying out research at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland—PRONI for short.

IMG_3164PRONI is housed in a modern, light-filled building in the Titanic Quarter, a twenty-minute walk from City Hall in the centre of Belfast.  PRONI is a repository for archives from all over Ireland, and holds a diverse collection of official and private documents.

Obtaining a reader’s card was simple – no academic reference was required, just photo ID, and the card was produced on the spot. As is the norm with archives, researchers cannot take bags, coats/jackets or pens into the reading room—a plastic bag is provided to carry in your pencils, laptop, purse etc with you. The rest can be left in a free locker for the day (although you need to insert a £1 coin which is refunded when you finish with the locker).

Most visitors to PRONI seemed to be people researching their family history, and from what I observed, the staff were enormously helpful and patient with these visitors. I heard accents from America, Canada, Australia, England and New Zealand—PRONI clearly generates a fair amount of tourist revenue for Northern Ireland.

As an academic researcher spending more than just a couple of days at PRONI, I encountered some stumbling blocks, and having chatted with others doing similar work, I realised I wasn’t alone. Time was of the essence for my trip, I couldn’t be away from home for long so a leisurely trawl through the archives was out of the question. My aim was to locate and photograph as many potentially useful documents as possible, then catalogue and review them on my return home.  I hope that by writing about my experiences, I can help future researchers better prepare (logistically and financially) for research at PRONI. This is by no means a criticism of the archives or its staff, as I found them all to be friendly, welcoming and helpful. It was lovely to be greeted by name as I arrived for ‘work’ in the morning!

Bulk ordering documents: The PRONI catalogue is marvellously detailed. The online catalogue is good, but PRONI’s onsite catalogue (which cannot be accessed unless you are onsite) is far more detailed. This onsite catalogue breaks down each collection into individual items, for example, I wanted to review the collection of 18 letters exchanged between James Blair and his family in the 1770s. The collection is broken down into the 18 individual letters. As PRONI only permits readers to order 5 items at a time, this meant I was ordering 5 letters, then returning each as I finished reading or scanning, then ordering the next one—wasting precious time. The reading room staff eventually put me in touch with the manager of the document-ordering department, who gave me permission to make a ‘bulk order,’ so that I could order an entire collection. I couldn’t put that order in the system myself, this had to be done on my behalf by a member of staff. During my time at PRONI, some staff members would require me to fill out a form before placing a bulk order, others would call the head of the document-ordering department, and others just took my word for it that I had permission to do so. So while bulk ordering solved the problem of time-wasting for me, it was still a bureaucratic process.

My advice to future researchers is to contact PRONI ahead of your visit to request permission to place bulk orders, or at least to make contact so they can set you up with the necessary permissions as soon as possible.

Photographing documents: As I was in Belfast for a limited period, my aim was to photograph as many documents as possible, then catalogue and read them later. I had contacted PRONI to check I could photograph documents in the archive ahead of my visit, but I hadn’t understood the subtleties of the rules! They differ from any other archive I’ve ever visited…

Basically there are two options. Option 1 is to use your own camera. PRONI charges £10.50 per hour for camera use, and they require you to give advance notice in writing of exactly which documents you will be photographing. Your camera will be held behind the counter in the reading room until you begin using it, and then the clock will start running to calculate the price you need to pay. For example, if it takes you 10 minutes to do your photography, you will be charged £1.75.  Option 2 is to use PRONI’s scanner to photograph documents. You do not need to give notice of what you will be scanning, but it does cost 30p per image. Copy cards can be purchased at the reading room, and you need to bring your own USB stick to save the scanned images to. The scanner is easy to use and the scanned images are excellent quality, but this is an expensive exercise if you wish to take a lot of pictures, which I did!

If I’d grasped the complexities of PRONI’s photographing/copying rules, I would have incorporated copying costs into my funding request from my university. I did feel rather taken advantage of in this respect, particularly as other archives and institutions (the National Library of Ireland and Linen Hall Library in Belfast, to name two) permit researchers to photograph documents with smartphones. I happily scanned a number of documents in both these places at no cost.

Eating & Drinking in the Titanic Quarter: As I already mentioned, PRONI is located in the Titanic Quarter. I didn’t take long breaks for lunch but found a couple of interesting options if you want to get out. Alternatively, if you pack your own lunch & want to stay at the archives, there are comfortable tables and chairs just inside the building’s entrance where you can eat. There is also a cafe in the building, but frankly, there are better options a short walk away! Dock Cafe

Cast and Crew is a fairly new restaurant from well-known Belfast restauranteurs, 5 minutes walk from PRONI. It’s only open during the day, but they do great lunches (and presumably great breakfasts too). You can eat-in or take-away, and the coffee was great. The restaurant is so-named as it’s opposite the Titanic Studios where Game of Thrones is filmed. I wonder if I tag ‘game of thrones’ for this blogpost I’ll get a huge spike in readership 🙂

The Dock Cafe is a 2 minute walk from PRONI. It is a charity-run cafe which operates on an honesty-box system, so you pay however much (or little) you wish! They have excellent soup (after 12.30pm), tea, coffee, and the ubiquitous Irish scones & traybake offerings. They’re also more than happy for you to bring your own food to eat in the cafe.

All the best with researching at PRONI. Overall I had a great time discovering the wealth of archival material available, as well as exploring further afield in Belfast and County Antrim.

* The header image for this blogpost shows some of the glass frontage of the PRONI building, which features script from the archives. It also features some blue sky in Belfast!

My favourite history blogs

As a novice PhD student, I spend an inordinate amount of time reading, but end most days frustrated that I haven’t read more. I have trouble settling down with fiction, which was one of my favourite pastimes pre-study. Instead, my spare reading time these days is taken up with reading blogposts—there are so, so many fantastic blogs out there written by academic historians, public historians, genealogists and other students of history. The WordPress Reader is one of the most-used apps on my phone (after twitter of course!) But the problem with an over-reliance on WordPress is that I have to remind myself to seek out blogs published on other platforms.  According to an astute observer* of digital media, it’s so easy to create and publish content in the digital age, but much harder to get noticed. I’ve recently discovered History Carnival, which does a great job of drawing history blogs out into the light. History Carnival is a monthly showcase of blog writing about history, hosted by a different blog each month to provide a variety of approaches and perspectives. In a similar vein, the University of Exeter’s Imperial and Global Forum’s weekly Top Picks in Imperial & Global History and the Junto’s The Week in Early American History provide links to blogposts, as well as writing from more traditional outlets.  The Two Nerdy History Girls also regularly post collections of links to their favourite blogposts, entitled the Breakfast Links. If any readers know of any other such aggregators, please do let me know.  These collections of links do other bloggers a great service by further sharing bloggers’ work.

Courtesy of Joanne Bailey’s excellent history blog, I’ve discovered a great app called Bundlr which has allowed me to take control of my messy collection of internet bookmarks. Click here to view the bundle I’ve created for my favourite history websites. (I was going to break the bundle down into categories of history blogs, but I think that’s called procrastination as I really should get on with my work!) I hope Bundlr is here to stay…it’s an intuitive platform, and very simple to use. I hope you find some new favourite sites and writers among mine. Let me know what you think!

*my husband

Update: Bundlr contacted me today (13 May) to say that my History Bloggers Bundle is featured on their Explore homepage today. I have no idea of the exposure that page has, really, but if it garners some new readers for any of the fabulous blogs I’ve bundled, I’m happy!

Google Street View, c.1872: Hill End

The cover photograph for my blog was taken by my husband at Hill End, a  designated ‘Historic Site’ in country New South Wales.  It’s a fascinating place, well-known to anyone who grew up in Sydney and traipsed out there on a school excursion.  The township sits high in the Central Tablelands, 300km northwest of Sydney. We visited Hill End for the second time a couple of years ago, and I wrote this review as an assessment for my Masters unit ‘Making Histories Public.’

Hill End Historic Site owes much to the Holtermann Collection—the photographs taken by Beaufoy Merlin and and his assistant Charles Bayliss, who were later employed by the successful gold miner Bernhardt Holtermann. Merlin and Bayliss’ work has been compared with Google’s Street View; they travelled through Victoria and New South Wales in the 1860-70s systematically photographing every building in towns “of any importance.”(1) In 1872, Hill End was reputedly NSW’s largest inland settlement, boasting a population of over 10,000.

The starting point for a visit to Hill End is the Museum & Visitor Centre, housed in what was once the Hospital. From the Museum, visitors can either follow the signposted walk into town down Hospital Lane, and along tree-lined Byers Avenue to the centre of the township, or make the short drive there. Parking is easiest outside the Royal Hotel at the top of Clarke Street, and the large map is a good starting point for the walk around town. Clarke Street was the commercial hub of gold rush Hill End and is the focus of the displays; few buildings remain on either side of the street, but there are plaques placed along its length, each with a photograph of the building which stood on that spot in 1872.  In some cases nothing remains, but in places the outline of foundation stones peek through the weeds, or occasionally an entire building remains (as in my cover shot), usually in a state of disrepair.  There’s very little interpretative labeling on the plaques, which simply contain the photograph and name of the establishment. The handful of plaques with more information are written in a light tone, such as this outside a hotel,

“It’s true…there really was an oyster salon here in 1872. Fresh (?) oysters were brought up from Sydney in lead lined cases…would you have been game to try them?”

While the photographs successfully bring to life the short boom period in Hill End’s past, the fact that the visitor experience to the town is so bound up with the photographs tends to highlight above all else the sense of loss associated with the boom and bust story. What of the sense of loss of the original Wiradjuri inhabitants? The over-riding narrative at the Site reflects the historiography of Hill End—that of the short-lived gold rush and the subsequent sense of loss when the rush moved elsewhere.(2) But Hill End’s history is more complicated than simply telling one story. The Site misses the opportunity to tell the other stories.

A walk around Hill End today is an evocative experience. The fact that the exhibition is the town means the visitor walks around in the outdoors, exposed to the elements just as the gold-rush miners were, with the soundtrack of buzzing flies and the occasional dog barking. The almost eery quiet of the town accentuates the sense of loss evident from juxtaposing photographs of a bustling, booming town with vacant blocks and derelict buildings.  Visitors are not roped off from the exhibit—free to tramp over foundations, or to pick up a rusty nail that once held two beams together.  It was this raw quality which attracted Australian post-war artists including Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale. Drysdale’s “The Cricketers” (1948) sets three figures against the backdrop of Hill End; it was a thrill to round a corner in the town and come across this most famous of brick walls!

A trip to Hill End is well worthwhile. It’s an immersive experience for adults and children alike, plus there’s the added bonus of a nearby river where it’s still possible to pan for (specks of) gold.

Russell Drysdale, ‘The cricketers’, 1948.  Private collection, © Estate of Russell Drysdale.

Russell Drysdale, ‘The cricketers’, 1948. Private collection, © Estate of Russell Drysdale.

(1) Alan Davies, “The Greatest Wonder of the World: Exhibition Guide”, State Library of New South Wales, 2013.

(2) Alan Mayne, Hill End: An Historic Australian Goldfields Landscape (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003): 39-43.

For more information on Hill End or the Holtermann Collection:

Keast Burke, Gold and Silver: An Album of Hill End and Gulgong Photographs from the Holtermann Collection. Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1973.

http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/society_art/photography/holtermann/

http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/hill-end-historic-site

Finding women in the archives

Late last year I attended a public lecture by Dr Noeline Kyle, an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, who has been working with and supporting family historians for many years. Dr Kyle discussed her recently published book Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. This is an update of her 1986 book We Should’ve Listened to Grandma. The lecture was directed at the family historian, so there was plenty of practical advice—which gave me lots to think about in researching my own family history, but also with my PhD project in mind.

My great great grandparents. Source: Judy Deane, Ancestry.com

Finding Florence is essentially a guide to finding women in the archives, with a focus on the women who didn’t make newspaper headlines. The book contains long lists of public records to search for traces of women in the past, such as educational archives, and government record-keepers for women who might have worked in the ‘female’ professions of teaching, healthcare and social welfare.

I was particularly interested in Dr Kyle’s discussion of what she calls a “circle strategy.” As women can be largely absent from the archival record, she suggested investigating the biographies of close siblings, parents, other relatives such as cousins, and friends, neighbours and work colleagues. This may be a laborious task, but as Dr Kyle said, our ancestors often lived in close proximity to extended family and community members—so newspaper obituaries (for example) for neighbours and relatives  might yield a nugget of information about a woman we know little else about. So too, the records of primary schools, community and religious organisations. The book would be of great use to researchers in Australia, as well as the UK and Ireland, as Dr Kyle has experience of researching in archives for all of these locations.

I went to the lecture with a friend who’s done extensive research into her own family tree, far more than I have. The budding historian in me was thrilled to hear her say that Dr Kyle’s lecture had made her realise why she’s found it so much harder to gain a clear picture of her female ancestors, than for the men in her family tree. Students of history will be familiar with the project of social history to raise marginalised groups (whether on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, ability etc) from obscurity. Whether consciously or not, non-academic, hobbyist family historians seeking to elucidate the lives of their female ancestors, are chipping away at the obscurity that many women have suffered at the hands of official histories, and archival practices of the past. Just another reason why family history is such an admirable pursuit!

Noeline Kyle, Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. Published by Unlock the Past, 2014.http://www.gould.com.au/Finding-Florence-Maude-Matilda-Rose-Women-FH-p/utp0321.htm

Lego in Museums

Acropolis

Lego Acropolis. (c) Richard McLaren

As a regular museum-goer in Sydney, usually with a small child in tow, I’ve been well-aware of the appearance of Lego in museums over the past couple of years. I believe the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum set the trend, with their Lego Colosseum display back in 2012. Next was Lego Acropolis, which the Nicholson recently donated to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where it is now on display.  The current Lego model on display is Pompeii.  All three models are the work of Ryan McNaught, a Sydney-based Lego certified professional. The Acropolis, Colosseum and Pompeii all incorporate elements of the sites in the past, as well as how they appear today. So the current model shows Pompeii as it was at its moment of destruction in 79AD,  as well as when it was rediscovered in the 18th Century, and as it is today. http://sydney.edu.au/museums/exhibitions-events/lego-pompeii.shtml The Nicholson proudly declares its commitment to Kids in Museums. And the Lego models really do provide an accessible entry point into ancient history for young children (and are an entertaining display for adults too). In conjunction with the Nicholson’s small but beautifully displayed collection of art and artefacts from the period, ancient Greece and Rome have really come to life. We’ve also recently been to Sydney Living Museum’s Towers of Tomorrow exhibition, which has been extended due to popular demand. The exhibition is testament to the architecture and design elements of sky-scrapers around the world, as well as a fun way to spark creativity—and awe—in children and adults alike. As well as the display, there are banks of tables with piles and piles of lego bricks. Entry to the exhibition is for a set time (I think about 45 minutes), which means that after looking at the display, visitors can pull up a stool and build their own lego creations, before the session ends and the next group of visitors enters. To be honest, I didn’t really understand the connection between Sydney’s history (which is the theme of the Museum), and Lego skyscrapers, but I presume the exhibition has managed to draw in some first-time visitors to the museum. It’s certainly a fun way to spend an hour with a Lego-mad child. I did learn something about big buildings too!Towers of Tomorrow SLM IMG_2509

The Power of Audio: Presenting the Past

A cornerstone of this week’s New South Wales History Week was Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and the Media, held at the State Library of New South Wales. The symposium has its own blog which will soon feature detailed reviews of the sessions. Suffice to say I came away from the Symposium inspired about the potential for public history, education and story-telling!

What I’ve been thinking about most since the symposium is the power of audio. As Michelle Rayner, Executive Producer of ABC Radio National’s history program Hindsight said, radio is undergoing a renaissance in the age of the podcast. The possibilities for using radio and audio for history teaching, story-telling and for connecting with the public are enormous. History programming on radio is no longer the ephemeral thing of the past, once heard, often forgotten (unless of course you had your tape recorder at the ready to record a program…)

Dr Siobhan McHugh’s presentation during the Radio Panel in particular evoked the power of audio. She argued her case for the need to connect emotionally as well as intellectually with an audience using the medium she is so passionate about.  We heard clips from radio documentaries she’d made about the Snowy Hydro scheme, with the rich variety of voices and accents  of the Scheme’s workers; from Beagle Bay, which featured the voices of a child of the stolen generation, and one of the Irish nuns who cared for the children.  Siobhan’s excerpt from Marrying Out reminded me of stories my Mum has told me of growing up Catholic in small-town NSW. But the most powerful piece for me  was an excerpt from a program about Vietnam, in which an army nurse described cradling a soldier as he died. It took enormous self-control not to dissolve into tears in the midst of the symposium. I suspect I wasn’t alone in that.

 This experience took me back to a lecture that the late great Dr Tom Stannage delivered in my first-year Australian history course at UWA in 1988. I will never forget the recording he played of Aboriginal women describing the day their children were taken from them, talking about how the children’s footprints remained on the sandy ground of their huts long after they were gone. It was the most powerful lecture I have ever attended—of course that has to do with the lecturer’s skill, and the emotive subject matter, but it was the voices of those mothers that remain with me to this day.

Attending the Symposium reminded me I hadn’t listed to Hindsight for a while, so I listened yesterday to The Catalpa Escape, which aired about a month ago. My connection with that story and the hold it has over me is probably the subject of another blogpost, but hearing the voices in that audio as they discussed a story I so love gave me goosebumps. Historians can  reach different people in different ways, for me audio seems to evoke a deep-seated response… Surely the aim of any public history project.

http://www.mchugh.org/index.html

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/the-catalpa/4806338

http://histmedia2013.wordpress.com