Big Questions in History: Historians and Public Policy

‘Big Questions in History’ has been the topic of the final plenary panel session at the last few conferences of the Australian Historical Association. These plenary panels have been my favourite session at every conference I have attended. The panels discuss some aspect of historians engaging with people who are not historians. Last year the plenary panel discussed ‘Who is our Audience’. This year the topic was ‘How can Historians Influence Policy’.

This was a powerful session. The ‘Big Questions’ series is always a good demonstration that history really matters, that it is not some arcane, abstract discipline. It matters to every person on the planet. If you get the history wrong, if you hide the uncomfortable bits, injustice ensues.

History opens up the possibility that it doesn’t have to be like this, Professor Ann McGrath said in her opening remarks as chair of the panel. History shows that we can take action to change things, she said.

Book cover of The Reef

The Reef: A Passionate History by Iain McCalman (Penguin: 2013).

If historians want to influence society then they need to get involved with communities said Professor Iain McCalman from the University of Sydney. He is a historian who feels deeply about the subject of his writing and it showed in his impassioned delivery at the start of the plenary panel. His book is titled, Reef: A Passionate History. He talked about how he could use his status as an author to discuss current issues concerning the management of the Great Barrier Reef with the media. He pointed out that historians can do powerful work with local communities and activists on issues.

Professor Tom Griffiths of the Australian National University concurred. “It is worth going straight to the people”, he said. “It is the ordinary people who are leading innovation re renewable energy… The people are moving faster on this issue than we can measure… They are acting on their pragmatism and dreams.” Continue reading

Violence and the Intimate Frontier

In my continuing series of posts about the Australian Historical Association today I write up some notes I made at two plenary panels. These notes are not a comprehensive overview of the panels; rather they are a handful of the thoughts presented which particularly resonated with me. 

Conflict in history is the theme of the Australian Historical Association conference which was held in Brisbane last week. Held just weeks away from the centenary of World War I, the immediate assumption is that this conference would be about the history of wars in other places such as the world wars. However, a plenary panel and other papers presented throughout the conference demonstrate that historians are continuing to research conflicts on Australian soil.

Book cover, Out of the Silence

Out of the Silence: The history and memory of South Australia’s frontier wars, by Robert Foster and Amanda Nettelbeck (Wakefield Press, 2012)

Australia has a history of conflict on this continent which goes well beyond the bombing of Darwin during World War II. As Australian historians over the last twenty to thirty years have found, the settlement of Australia by Europeans was not peaceful. Violence and conflict can also be expressed in many forms.

Military aspects of frontier violence have taken away from inter-cultural violence on the Australian frontiers observed Professor Amanda Nettelbeck of the University of Adelaide. When we think of conflict between two peoples we think of armed conflict between two groups of strangers who do not know each other. Yet conflict between two peoples can be waged between people who know each other, who perhaps grow up with each other and even live under the same roof. Nettelbeck reminded us that when thinking of conflict between Aborigines and settlers we should also consider the intimate and everyday aspects of the violence. Continue reading

Exhibition of Soldier Diaries at State Library NSW

war diaries sitting amongst red poppies

Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

We gasped as we entered the exhibition. The enormous room was dominated by a wall of hundreds of World War I diaries. Born at Gallipoli, on the Western Front, the Middle East or on an Australian naval boat, these diaries now sit in the calm and comfortable conditions of a new exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales.

There are big diaries, little diaries, stout ones and thin ones. Some contain pragmatic accounts of the experiences of the diarists; others contain discussions of the literature they read and their thoughts as they battled internally about the horrors they were participating in.

The State Library of New South Wales has launched a major new exhibition that draws on the wealth of material in the diaries. Life Interrupted: Personal Diaries from World War I is comprehensive. It includes the familiar aspects of Australian participation that you would expect – Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Middle East. But it also includes the often overlooked military action by the Australian Navy and World War I in New Guinea. The exhibition has a section on Australian prisoners of War and scattered throughout are the words of a World War I nurse and army chaplains. Continue reading

Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Book cover of Dark Emu

Dark Emu: Black seeds agriculture or accident by Bruce Pascoe (Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 2014).

While the Australian Historical Association conference was being held this week an important annual national celebration was taking place. This year the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Day of Commemoration Week, commonly known as NAIDOC Week runs from 6th to 13th July. Lisa Hill at the ANZ LitLovers Lit Blog runs the Indigenous Literature Week book reviewing challenge to coincide with NAIDOC Week each year.

It is tricky as I want to participate but each year it coincides with the Australian Historical Association Conference. There is nothing like a bit of determination to find a way though. Each year I choose two books to review, one by a female author and another by a male author. I read the first one in the weeks leading up to NAIDOC Week and post the review right at the beginning of the Week, but the other I struggle to read and review in NAIDOC Week. The review often comes out later… but I’ve managed to fit it in this year!

I had a wonderful day reading Dark Emu: Black seeds: agriculture of accident? by Bruce Pascoe. Engagingly written, full of interesting material and a modest 176 pages , it was the ideal end-of-conference read. Continue reading

War and Gender

Large curved stone wall with Attaturk's words inscribed.

Forgiveness – Kemal Atatürk’s words at Gallipoli.

Some historians are particularly interested in gender relations and gender roles during war-time. It is while a nation is at war that underlying attitudes of society about the proper roles of men and women become exposed and reinforced. Men go to battle, women are responsible for keeping things going at home.

Professor Karen Hagemann from University of North Carolina opened her keynote talk at the Australian Historical Association conference in Brisbane by talking about a landmark German mini-series, ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter(Our Mothers, Our Fathers). It was broadcast early in 2013 to a large audience. It explores the atrocities committed by Germany during the Nazi period and the responsibility of ordinary Germans. Hagemann noted that women in this program are mostly portrayed at the home front or working, or heroines of the resistance or secret agents or nurses, Her talk highlighted the fact that women did more than that. Continue reading

Beyond the Church Parade: Religious beliefs in the front line during WWI

Soldier pausing from writing at a makeshift table and looking directly at the camera.

Australian WWI soldier-diarist, Henry Charles Marshall(1890-1915). Photo supplied by State Library of NSW.

Today I am presenting a paper at the Religious History Association Conference which is running as an affiliated conference to the Australian Historical Association conference in Brisbane. This post provides an abstract of the paper and supporting information about my paper.

To general readers of this blog I hope that this gives you a feel for the work behind an academic paper. This is the work I have been doing on and off behind the scenes for the last couple of years amidst everything else that life throws up. I hope to blog about the sessions I attended at the conference on Tuesday in the next couple of days. There have been some good discussions about how war both reinforces and challenges gender roles in society.


A review of World War I diaries reveals glimpses of the personal beliefs held by Australian soldiers serving on the frontline. Using research tools available to the twenty first century historian, such as digitised texts and programming, a collection has been made of the expressions of religious belief recorded by soldiers in their diaries while on active duty. Read with an understanding of the way audience and masculinity shaped the soldiers’ reflections, these fragments give us greater insight into the forms and extent of personal religious beliefs held by Australian soldiers. Continue reading

Historians Talk History in Brisbane

Inside a sandstone passage that runs on the exterior of a UQ building.

The University of Queensland is one of the ‘Group of Eight’ universities commonly known as ‘sandstone universities’ because most of these universities have iconic buildings made out of… sandstone! I took this picture at UQ on a research trip back in 2010.

It is that time of the year again, the annual festival of history known as the annual conference of the Australian Historical Association. I will be tweeting and blogging from the conference in Brisbane this week. So if you enjoy reading about the latest in the Australian history world keep an eye on this blog and follow the conference hashtag on Twitter -#OzHA2014.

The conference opened in the way it should – with a Welcome to Country by Aboriginal elder, Aunty Lilla Watson. A ‘Welcome to Country’ is a courtesy at official events in Australia. It is part of Aboriginal protocol when someone enters their land. It is like knocking on the door and listening to the greeting before we are invited inside. By inviting an Aboriginal person to do a Welcome to Country the conference organisers show respect to the indigenous people on whose land the event is being held.

“Westerners like to locate history in individuals”, said Aunty Lilla Watson. She explained that Aboriginal people have a different perspective about history. “Something so important as history for Aboriginals cannot be located in someone as fragile as human beings”, she said. “The greatest thing in our lives is land – tells us who we are, where we belong.” Watson talked about the custodial ethic that Aborigines have regarding the land. “That is not just Aboriginal people’s responsibility”, she argued. It is everybody’s responsibility to ensure we have clean land and clean water. Continue reading