Sharing history with the public has been a strong theme at the Australian Historical Association Conference. Wonderful! There is so much to be done and so much that can be done. It is encouraging to see that so many historians are actively addressing this in their work.
Reaching out to the public was shown in myriad ways throughout this conference. Aside from writing a book that the public can read, historians demonstrated that they are connecting to the general public through:
- Public history;
- Digital humanities; and
- Social media.
Use of technology is an important aspect of most, if not all these categories, however, much can be done with minimal technical skills.
History on Film
Utopia Girls, Mabo – The Life of an Island Man and Australia on Trial are just a few of the Australian history documentaries that have aired on television this year. 544,000 viewers watched the documentary about Eddie Koiki Mabo. Can we expect that many people to read an Australian history book? While television is no longer a new medium, it still appeals to many people. It presents an opportunity to historians to reach out to a wider audience who do not necessarily read history books.
Despite a small band of historians working with television Australia is still “punching way below its weight” in the production of history for television according to Alex West, co-producer of Utopia Girls and “head of factual” at Renegade Films. He was one of the panelists discussing ‘What is the Future of Australian History’ chaired by Macquarie University’s Michelle Arrow. There are many issues contributing to the paucity of Australian history on television, lack of funding was cited as one.
West raised the issue of the suspicion some academic historians have towards popular history such as that presented on television. This issue was also raised in a recently published article written by John Gallagher in The Guardian newspaper. A related issue which was raised by fellow panelist, writer and presenter for Utopia Girls, La Trobe University’s Clare Wright, is the fact that universities do not give enough recognition of the value of historians working to share history on television. Historians who wish to do this work need to invest considerable amounts of time, thus limiting the time they can devote to work that is more highly valued by universities and therefore better for an academic’s prospects of promotion – writing academic journal articles and books.
Another of the panelists, Tanya Evans from Macquarie University, said that women are a largely untapped market for history documentaries. The very successful series, Who Do You Think You Are, has appealed greatly to women, but not so other history documentaries. West remarked that new documentaries tended to follow the formula which had appealed to large numbers of (male) viewers of history documentaries in the past leading to a perpetual cycle of history documentaries continuing to fail to appeal to female audiences. I can relate to this problem being very disappointed with the content on the History Channel despite the fact that I am interested in a wide range of historical themes and topics. I don’t see this as an either/or problem. I am sure that it is possible to create a book or a documentary that appeals to both women and men.
There are a growing array of wonderful Australian history websites. Galleries, Libraries and Museums have put a great effort into creating informative websites. Here are just some of the websites showcased in presentations which I attended or I chanced upon while looking at the archive of tweets from the conference:
- History South Australia: Bound for South Australia;
- Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB): the People Australia section of this website draws on the entries recorded on all the different ADB websites (NB – this website also includes lots of New Zealanders according to ADB staff);
- Find and Connect Australia: for forgotten Australians and former child migrants to help understand the history of the child welfare system in Australia; and
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Data Archive.
Darren Peacock of Sweet Technology said in a paper delivered on his behalf by Margaret Anderson, that when historians engage with the general public online they should expect some challenge to their expertise. I heard this type of comment a number of times during the conference and it reminded me of the comments made by a geography lecturer I had several years ago that the era of the unquestioned expert is over. Personally I think we should welcome such debate and challenge. When it occurs it demonstrates that the public is thinking through the history presented to them. Ultimately general historical understanding should increase as a result of this process. However, as we heard at the conference, such public engagement can be a messy affair with unforeseen consequences.
Lisa Murray, historian for the City of Sydney delivered a great paper concerning basic digital humanities issues for historians. Digital Humanities is about the use of technology to advance research in the humanities. Murray argued that digital humanities is about connectivity, community and collaboration. She said that the techniques of digital humanities such as the visualisation of the community of Harlem by the Digital Harlem project (University of Sydney) allows historians to convey complexity where it would be difficult to do so in a written narrative. It allows historians to reach a much wider audience. She referred to the collaboration among researchers which is a hallmark of digital humanities which is one characteristic that I love about digital humanities.
Digital humanities is not just about unquestioningly embracing technology. Murray raised the issue of whether the ease of use and availability of our digitised newspapers on Trove will change the subjects historians will research in the future. Will we see nondigitised sources neglected, not because they are irrelevant to a historian’s research, but because it is so much easier, and cheaper, to restrict research to archives available online? Will the use of digitised records skew our outlook on history? “Whither context and meaning”, asked Lisa Murray? Will historians miss out on reading the context in which a newspaper article is set because it is so easy to zero in on the article desired without reading any other articles in the newspapers concerned?
Murray’s presentation was a good example of how those researchers involved in digital humanities examine the use of technology critically. For this reason, I feel that historians who truly engage in this emerging discipline will not fall into the trap of producing poor history due to neglect of relevant sources which are not in digital form.
I missed out on the last digital history session on Thursday, so I will draw on the tweets that emitted from that room. Peter Read has used Google Earth to map Aboriginal sites of significance around Sydney for the A History of Aboriginal Sydney website. He talked about how important engaging with communities was when working on this website. This is a powerful reminder that digital humanities is not just about sitting in a room full of technology, nor is the collaboration of digital humanities restricted to academically qualified historians. A number of presenters noted that engaging with the public is not just about delivering a final product for the general public to consume. In a number of projects people who are not historians are an integral part of the creation of the historical product.
Gaming and History
Lendol Calder (Augustana College, US) shared a ‘dream’ that he had in a plenary session about ‘The Future of Teaching and Learning in History’. He highlighted how prominent history is in the gaming community and showed us a clip of the game, Assassins Creed III. His dream was that the visual and interactive elements so enjoyed by people in games could be used in history lectures. Traditionally history has been text-based; the future seems to be very visual. While Calder expressed this as a dream, there was one history lecturer at the conference who was already using games as part of his teaching work. Daniel Reynaud from Avondale College is using the game, Flames of War, to teach about the two world wars. I was not at his session, but Ashleigh Gilbertson reported on twitter that Reynaud found this helped his students to understand a large amount of information about the wars and contextualise it.
There were two important points that were made with regards to history, technology and engaging the public at the conference. Firstly, Lisa Murray said that historians need to acquire the technical skills to produce this type of history and said that it should be a key component in professional development. The second comment that resonated with me was by Tim Sherratt, who was listening from afar via the conference tweets. He tweeted:
What more can I say but that I heartily concur with both Lisa Murray’s and Tim Sherratt’s comments!
It was encouraging to hear so much discussion about engaging with the general public and the use of technology by historians at the conference, but I could not end this post without mentioning one important example of this that could be seen throughout the conference. There were a group of conference participants who shared the conference with the world on twitter through the conference hashtag, #OzHA2012. In writing this blog post I have found those tweets invaluable as a conference record. You can see all the tweets on the conference twitter archive and Dave Earl is creating a list of tweeps who talk history in Australia. We are in the process of establishing an #OzHst tag to use when tweeting history in Australia. Please join in – we would love to hear from you!
The twitter stream enabled people all over the world to get a sense of what was happening at the conference. As I said of my experience listening to the American Historical Association through twitter and blogs earlier this year, it is not as good as actually attending the conference, but it is way better than the old days when those who did not attend only heard about a conference through journal articles published quite a long time later.