Day three of sessions at the Australian Historical Association conference started with disasters. No, nothing awful befell the historians ensconced at the University of Adelaide. Rather, the subject of the plenary panel in the morning was ‘Disasters in Social and Cultural Perspective: Impact, Response, Memory’.
Archives, museums and libraries around Australia have done tremendous work to preserve collections and collect memories of the recent disasters. It was therefore fitting that we heard first from Liza Dale-Hallett of Museum Victoria. She discussed the Museum’s work with the victims of the Black Saturday fires of 2009 through the Sustainable Futures project. She argued that the experience of the bushfires was a gendered one. As Mike Jones observed on twitter, Dale-Hallett raised “interesting issues of identity and belonging”. There have been so many other valuable projects like the Museum Victoria Sustainable Futures project. As I was listening I was thinking of the ABC Open’s ‘Resilience: Disaster, Resilience and Recovery‘ project and the State Library of Queensland’s work on the Floodlines project to name but two of the many such projects around Australia.
A perceptive question from the audience revealed that those who work to record memories of disasters, such as Dale-Hallett, can also suffer from stress as a consequence of many hours listening and recording the experiences of the victims. It reminded me of the difficulties of the ABC journalist who had worked in Aceh immediately after the tsunami and who subsequently suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Professionals who deal with recording memories of recent disasters need to be looked after.
An interesting inclusion in the panel was a psychiatrist, Professor Alexander C McFarlane from the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies, University of Adelaide. His participation showed the benefits to be gained for historians by engaging in inter-disciplinary (and inter-professional) interaction. He said that his work in some respects was very similar to that of historians – he documents disasters and acts as an expert witness. He urged historians to examine the class actions that are often launched in the aftermath of a disaster.
McFarlane’s comments about the use of language in the wake of disasters were illuminating. “Traumatic experiences are hard for language to capture”, he remarked. He spoke of the silence of victims of disasters in the immediate aftermath and the frequent comments of victims that words could not express the experience. This made me think of Museum Victoria’s work to preserve memories through symbolic artefacts connected with the Black Saturday bushfires, such as the Kinglake Chimney. Maybe the object without language is as good at conveying memories and communicating about the disaster?
McFarlane was emotional about the subject, in particular about the issue of learning from past disasters. Why have we not learned from the previous disaster experiences in Australia, he asked. His answer – language fails to express the disaster experience. He urged historians to research this issue.
Historians were included on the panel. Professor Charles Zika of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at the University of Melbourne discussed ‘Reading Disaster in Early Modern Europe’. Disasters of course are not just a modern experience. He argued that each disaster become a particular experience not only because of the presence of a destructive agent but because of the social and cultural conditions that are present at the time.
Zika said that disasters can often be seen by us today to lead to disenchantment and a move away from religion. This attitude is a manifestation of the secularisation thesis which is used to argue why religious beliefs will eventually disappear. We need to be careful about this attitude. He said that in early modern Europe people had a rational response to disasters such as the construction of dykes in the Netherlands, but they also drew on religious beliefs. He mentioned days of atonement and prayer in the aftermath of disasters. I have also come across such days in nineteenth century Australia.
Zika’s current research is on a collection held in Zurich of early modern images and documents concerning disasters. Why were disasters memorialised in this way? Zika argues that this collection was an instrument for coping. The work of Dale-Hallett at the Museum of Victoria has a long lineage!
The other historian on the panel was Maria Tumarkin who gave an engaging and absorbing presentation – unfortunately I did not catch the title. She also acknowledged the culturally specific nature of disasters and the expression of grief, noting that her comments were specifically about the western experience. She stated that grief has always been part of life and has always had a public life, but that the public life of grief has changed recently. Now spontaneous public memorials are a normal response to tragedy. We grieve with and through objects and place. These often replace absent bodies. Spontaneous memorials and other new rituals of grieving are replacing traditional religious expressions which for many people no longer meet their needs, she remarked.
Tumarkin commented on an emerging genre of writing – the grief memoir. I have one at home written by residents of Far North Queensland in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi, but I didn’t know that this type of book was a recognised genre. Tumarkin commented that grief memoirs were replacing manuals on coping with grief written by ‘experts’. This is a familiar refrain that I have heard often over the last few years. It is yet another example of the democratisation of knowledge and the challenge to the authority of professionals traditionally regarded as experts. Grief memoirs are changing the public discourse of grief observed Tumarkin. “The era of ‘getting over’ grief is over”, she stated.
I was tweeting furiously during this session and intensely absorbed in it, becoming emotionally involved as it invoked recent memories of disasters. I have endeavoured to faithfully record the session, but during Zika’s talk I tweeted that I was having difficulty keeping up. I would love to read the papers that were delivered. If the speakers or those in the audience have any corrections to the above account, please record the corrections needed in the comments below. And of course, I would love to hear your reflections on this new field of history.