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.

Western history is the history of individuals. That is true. As Watson pointed out we have statues of individuals. I also think of the biographies, the memoirs, the lists of famous people. People like the personal story but do we read and write the history of land or the history of groups as well as we could? Do we appreciate them? I often think of the women suffragists in Australia. They operated as collectives. Some did stand out but even those worked as part of a team. Are we representing this properly? There are quite a few papers on environmental history being presented at this conference but is this something the public clamours for? The work needs to be done but there also needs to be an audience for it.

“We should never forget to value the discipline”, said the Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland, Professor Peter Peter Høj, in opening the conference on behalf of the host university. He encouraged historians to continue to share research findings “in a language that lay people will understand”. That is what Stumbling Through the Past is about. This conference is about academic history but every paper is about the history of people. This conference is about all of us. This is why I share it with you every year.

Professor Marilyn Lake is the outgoing President of the Australian Historical Association. She gave the Presidential Address in a speech titled ‘1914: Death of a Nation’. She focussed on an essay written by H B Higgins, in 1902, ‘Australian Ideals’. Higgins was the architect of the Australian system of arbitration and conciliation which governed the relationship between workers and employers. After serving as a member of the Victorian and then the Federal parliaments he became the president of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration.Lake explained that in his essay Higgins said that Australia had a choice between militarism and equality. He argued that Australia could not have both. Lake called this ‘Higgins’ choice’. As she said it is a very interesting dichotomy. I am now curious about this essay but unfortunately I don’t have the publication details.

There are a number of conferences which are happening concurrently that are affiliated with the Australian Historical Association conference. Tomorrow I am looking forward to some sessions about archives and digitisation that are being run under the banner of the Australian Women’s History Network Symposium. I also hope to attend some sessions at the main conference about newspapers during WWI. My day will end by listening to Professor Emeritus Ron Numbers giving the keynote speech at the conference of the Religious History Association. He will be talking on ‘Revisiting the Battlefields of Science and Religion’. This is a topic I have delved into in the past. It reminds me that I should write about it on this blog one day.

I hope to write daily posts from the conference this week. I hope you enjoy them!

5 thoughts on “Historians Talk History in Brisbane

  1. I tested because there is a terrible glitch in the system. If you post your comment and then sign-in at the prompt, you loose you comment. The system signs you in and takes you back to the original blog, and ditches the comment that you composed. I really wonder about the ability of designers in thinking laterally.

    I am not going to be censored by the technology design and the accidents of process. I am determined not to loose my voice by fate, so here is the comment I was offering from memory.

    Digital communication is great. It connects us individuals separated by large distances in physical space. However, I am looking forward to the flesh to flesh presence at the conference. I am also pleased for the blog because having the conference in your home town you can not run away from family responsibilities, and I have to miss many sessions by choosing to be at home. Hence, perhaps the dichotomy of the individual and the tribe is made too fast and easy, like the black and white world.

    I am pleased, though, that a dissenting view to the commemoration of militarism is being aired.


  2. I’m so pleased that you’re attending the AHA conference again and blogging and tweeting assiduously again! I’m too embroiled in writing to attend this year, but I’m looking forward to reading your commentary.


  3. I’m also looking forward to hearing about the sessions you go to. I’d love to hear about what was said but I’m also looking forward to hearing your opinions about what was said. And it’s very kind of you to provide us, your blog readers, with all this information when you could instead be socializing with your fellow conference goers at the end of each day… Thanks!


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