Historians Ask: Who is our audience?

Historians are researchers and they are also communicators. Both roles are intrinsic to the profession.  Without original research an historian has nothing to contribute to our understanding of history.  If they do not communicate their research they can make no contribution irrespective of the quality of their research.

University history courses train students to communicate their research to an academic audience.  Unfortunately very few history courses in Australia train historians to communicate to other interested audiences.  This is a shame.  Effective communication involves a lot more than writing an essay that complies with the marking criteria. Every history graduate should leave university with a profound understanding of the principles of good communication.

While university history courses may be lacking in this area, it is encouraging that at both the 2012 and the 2013 conferences of the Australian Historical Association have had a plenary where some aspect of communication has been discussed. This year the final plenary session of the conference focussed on a critical question for communicators – ‘Who is Our Audience?’

Lisa Murray wearing a black t-shirt with word, 'strumpet' emblazoned on the front.

“I am a strumpet for history” declared Lisa Murray showing us her ‘strumpet’ t-shirt on stage.

“I am a strumpet for history” declared the first speaker, Dr Lisa Murray. She opened her jacket for all to see her ‘strumpet’ t-shirt. “I wore it just for you today” she confided to laughs from the audience.

Yet Murray was making a serious point.  Reaching out to a wider audience is her professional goal as a public historian working for the City of Sydney Council. Her audience also includes fellow council workers.  By wearing this t-shirt occasionally to work she elicits questions from other Council employees which leads to discussions about her historical work.

Murray said that merely stating that ‘everyone’ was the audience for historians is simplistic.  Historians need to think deeper about exactly who they are trying to reach with every historical project they are working on.  The City of Sydney Council history unit chooses different publication media according to which audience they are trying to reach.  This may be a website such as that used by the Dictionary of Sydney and City of Sydney Oral History.  It may be a YouTube video such as A History of Sydney Streets.  Or it may be using Facebook to share historical photos and participating in popular online activities such as ‘Throwback Thursday’.

The same message was delivered in the same week by Professor of Media and Communications, Deb Verhoeven, at a conference on the other side of the country. Jo Hawkins reports that Verhoeven told researchers in Perth, “we are not communicating to a homogenous group of people called “the public””.  It is encouraging to see that this conversation is taking place in a number of forums.

Sandra Pires and Lisa Murray at the end of the conference.

Sandra Pires and Lisa Murray at the end of the conference.

Each of the speakers has successfully connected with audiences outside of academia.  They have done this through creative use of a wide range of media and forms.  Sandra Pires is a documentary film-maker and shared her passion for relating local stories and exploring what they meant for developing community mindedness.  She said there was an untapped demand for local stories and explained that telling someone’s story is a gift which people appreciate.

Pires works with ordinary people who are passionate about history.  She explained that people are researching and relating historical stories themselves citing the Facebook page, Lost Wollongong, with over six thousand members, as just one example.   She sees the role of the historian is to help people tell their historical stories effectively.

Sandra Pires is reliant on funding for her films, however, most television networks are nationally based and she found it difficult to get funding for one local history project because they said it did not have enough national appeal.  However, she believed in her project and raised funds locally.  Her documentary, ‘Beneath Black Skies’, turned out to have enough broad appeal for History Channel to buy it. She shared an excerpt of another successful documentary that she has produced – ‘My Backyard, Your Backyard’ about Italian backyard gardeners as well as a sneak preview of her current project,  ‘Pigiron Bob’.

Academic historians in Australia do not confine themselves to writing academic books. Graeme Davison, Emeritus Professor of History at Monash University, is a good example of this.  Davison writes scripts for documentaries as well as writing books. He has advised museums as well as delivering lectures. There are not many historical arguments that can’t be explained in intelligible language Davison told us.  I gave a hearty, but silent cheer on hearing this comment. I liked the fact that Davison assumes that there is an audience of people outside academia that are interested in history and can intelligently engage with the thoughts shared by historians.

Yet Davison cautioned that historians should not simply focus on improving their prose in order to connect with audiences outside academia.  He reminded us that print media and publishing are facing problems generally which is affecting sales of all books including histories.  However, he remained upbeat about the influence of books. Sales numbers don’t reflect the effect of the book he observed.  “A book published is a seed that can grow”, even when it goes out of print due to the effect of things such as library circulation.

It was abundantly clear from the plenary that the book and journal article are just one form of history and that historians need to also use other forms to communicate history.  This requires a change to traditional work practices.  Collaboration in documentaries and museums is hard for a profession that values individual authorship observed Davison.

Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje

Lecturer in US politics, Michael Ondaatjie, focussed on the work historians need to do to engage a broad, mass audience.  He drew on his experience as a television commentator about US politics. He observed that while historians regard their role as to revise our received notions of history, people outside the profession can review such revision with suspicion.  The reason historians are revising older accounts of history is because they excluded marginalised groups such as women, indigenous people, the working classes, non-English speaking people.  This confronts some people.

We can’t claim to provide “all the answers” to issues, remarked Ondaatjie.  History offers many cautions, but not lessons. It does not provide a roadmap.  However, history is powerful.  Politicians simplify and mislead.  Many of the ‘lessons’ they talk about are based on a selective depiction of history. Where a history is popular and contested historians have an important public role. Later he noted that public debates such as those prompted by history depicted in films provide an ideal opportunity for historians to provide useful comment and to be heard.

There are plenty of examples of historians reaching out to a broader audience but Ondaatjie observed that universities deter such involvement.  Much has been written about how academics are required by universities to write academic books and academic journals in order to continue their employment, be promoted or secure another academic position.  The teaching and research workload of academics is intense and thus communicating with people outside academia can be the area that suffers.

You know that a conference session has been successful in encouraging the audience to think by the quality of questions and observations from the audience.  There were many.  I’ll share just a couple of the comments.

Associate Professor Richard White from the University of Sydney said he was struck by the use of humour by most of the speakers when talking about history – Lisa Murray’s ‘strumpet’ t-shirt being a good example.  He said that he finds history entertaining.  You may find it hard to believe but the Hansard records of the debates concerning Queensland’s Bible in State Schools referendum of 1910 kept me amused for hours.  (I must write about that).

The other comment that struck a chord with me was that of the convenor of the conference the Dragon Tails conference about Chinese/Australian history which preceded the Australian Historical Association conference.  Paul Macgregor noted that the Dragon Tails conference engages family historians, academic historians and independent scholars working outside universities.  This is an interesting model of collaboration between various groups who love learning and sharing history.

This plenary was one of the highlights of the conference for me.  While we may complain that historians are not doing enough to engage with non-academic audiences, there were many examples in this plenary of historians doing good work in this area and branching out of traditional academic modes of sharing history.  On reflection I have not shared enough of these types of histories on this blog.  I’ll try to share these forms of histories with you in coming months.

It bodes well for history in Australia that the Australian Historical Association has chosen to tackle the issue of engaging with broader audiences at both the 2012 and 2013 conferences.  They are taking a lead in discussing this issue and I hope this will continue at the 2014 conference.

There are many Australian historians interested in the engaging with wider audiences.  The Macquarie University and the History Council of New South Wales are holding, Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and the Media.  It is described as a “hands-on” event bringing together historians and media professionals to “share ideas, skills and visions for the future”.  I am looking forward to it both as a participant and as part of a panel on social and digital media.  It will be held on 10th and 11th September in Sydney.  You can book here.  I look forward to seeing some of you there!

Some Other Perspectives…

As I explained earlier these posts from the Australian Historical Association conference are my impressions and reflections of the sessions I attended rather than a complete report. I recommend that you read Rosemary Kerr’s post about this session in order to hear a different perspective.  It can be read on the blog of the Professional Historians’ Association of NSW.

Janine Rizzetti did a great job of blogging the Australian Historical Association conference. Read her posts on her blog, The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

Jo Hawkins’ post about how researchers in the humanities can communicate to wider audiences is well worth reading.  Her post is a reflection on the proceedings of the annual meeting of the Australian Consortium of Humanities Research Centres which was held in Perth during the same week as the Australian Historical Association conference.

8 thoughts on “Historians Ask: Who is our audience?

  1. This is one of my biggest criticisms of historians and also of other academically trained people working in social sciences. I want to have access to history in a way that I can digest without walking away feeling like I’ve just had a dictionary jammed down my throat or that I’m dumb. I also don’t want to have to pay a small fortune to go to conferences to have access to the latest socio-historical discourse. And this is coming from someone who holds university degrees in criminology and law (i.e. someone used to reading academic articles).

    That’s why I like your blog – you tell it to us in plain English like you are having a conversation with us. And it’s why I love Tony Robinson’s television programs – because he tells us stories that we can relate to. He takes history from being something boring to being alive and relevant today. Sure, it’s low-brow television because it’s aimed at entertainment and comedy. But it gets such a strong message across and makes me want to keep watching and learning. I don’t feel dumb and I don’t feel like I’ve been sitting in school after I’ve watched his show. The other history program I liked was “Mankind: The story of all of us”. I totally got into it. The segways and ‘show don’t tell’ that they used was fantastic.

    Here’s to more history coming to life outside of academia. Because if we don’t understand where we’ve been we can never avoid the mistakes of the past to improve our future.


    • Thankyou for your kind comments about this blog Andrew. I totally agree with you, we need to connect with the audience in a manner using everyday language and sharing engaging stories. I am also a Tony Robinson fan. I love the archaeological digging in his Time Team tv series (I love digging!). Learning can be fun!

      Have you been watching the ABC TV series, First Footprints? It is an excellent series about the history of Aborigines prior to European settlement drawing on archaelogical work and the stories and art of the Aborigines. I found out about it through The Resident Judge of Port Phillip blog, which demonstrates the value of good history blogging!


  2. Thanks for sharing this perspective. There really are so many opportunities for collaboration as well communicating history beyond academia. Many family historians, for example, have a keen Interest but some are frightened off by too formal an approach. Long live the strumpets.


  3. Thanks, Yvonne. Very interesting. Did anyone talk about different audiences for different sorts of history? I think some historians do a terrific job interacting with the public in areas such as local history (e.g. Lost Woollongong) or family and diaspora histories (Dragon Tails, etc) but it’s harder to insert historical insight into broader public debates. It would have been a GREAT idea, for instance, if a few historians of Afghanistan had influenced government policy in the last decade or so. But it’s much harder to break through. The last book I can think of that had that impact was Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which came out just as the USSR was breaking up.


    • There was a roundtable hosted by the Professional Historians Association of NSW on the topic, ‘Public service: the role of history and historians in government’. It was an interesting session where historians working in local, state and federal government shared their experiences of working inside government. Rosemary Kerr has written about this session on the blog of the Professional Historians Association of NSW.

      Your comment also reminded me of the Australian Policy and History Network which “aims to provide policymakers, the media and the general public with relevant, accessible information about the historical background to current events and issues”. There is a lot of work to do in this area but it is encouraging to see that some historians are trying to address this.


  4. Pingback: Follow Friday: Informative and inspiring posts | Family history across the seas

  5. Pingback: Big Questions in History: Historians and Public Policy | Stumbling Through the Past

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