Australian Professional Historians and Conference Excellence

Hello again! I have been very busy the last couple of months with some projects that will come to light in due course. But one of the causes of my ‘busyness’ was one of the best conferences I have attended. Read on…

Banner of the PHA VIC“Things they never taught me at history school” was the topic of a panel at last month’s national conference of the Professional Historians Association of Australia, but it could have been an alternative title for the event. The ‘Working History’ conference held in Melbourne was unlike any other history conference I have attended because it was about professional practice, not the findings from our research.

History is a profession. Universities are influential employers of historians. There are also people who are professional genealogists and family historians. These people have many years of experience and often have certificates of qualification in this field.

I belong to another group of historians who are represented by the Professional Historians Association of Australia. We run history consultancy businesses, work in galleries, libraries, archives, museums and governments. We do all sorts of work from heritage assessments to curating exhibitions to writing and presenting history on websites. Among other things this year I have been part of a multi-national team working on a biography of a successful business man originally from Queensland who died in the 1960s.

Professional consulting historians come across different issues to those working in academia. We have to run a business and need to meet and guide the expectations of clients. We are often working in the field of public history. The history we produce needs to appeal to audiences who are not trained in history and may only have a passing interest in it.

The Professional Historians of Australia has a branch in most states. I belong to the New South Wales and ACT branch. The national organisation and each branch has a website where anyone who wants to hire an historian can get guidance on how to hire an historian and a list of historians available for hire and their contact details. There are also some guidelines on fees for hiring consulting professional historians which is useful for negotiating contracts.

Working History Conference

Last month I presented at the Working History conference organised by the Professional Historians Association of Victoria together with the national body. The program was excellent. Over two days we discussed the particular issues that we face in our professional practices. This conference was not about the outcomes of our research – there are plenty of conferences that do that. The Working History conference was about how we run our businesses, communicating history, ethics, meeting the needs of clients etc. Around one hundred historians from around Australia and New Zealand attended.

It has been over a month since the conference ended but I found it so valuable that this week I went back over my notes and the conference tweets.  

The presentations at the conference were about all sorts of topics relating to the professional practice of historians such as technology, running a small business, writing for the public, working with and learning from other professions, sharing our research with stakeholders, ethical issues, identifying audiences for our work, contributing to social policy etc.

Smiling Tim Sherratt

Keynote speaker: Tim Sherratt, Associate Professor of Digital Heritage at the University of Canberra

The conference opened with a keynote presentation by digital historian extraordinaire, Tim Sherratt from the University of Canberra. He wowed the audience with all the things you can do with easily accessible tools and digitised documents. Learn about easily available digital history tools and have your imagination sparked by reading his presentation, ‘Telling Stories with Data’ on his blog.

Tim Sherratt’s presentation touched on many things that I was planning to talk about the next day, so that evening I tweaked my paper, ‘Life of a Fragment of History’. I traced the life of an archival scrap as the historian captures it in the archives and works with it in their office. I considered ethical issues, maintenance issues (back it up!) and the enormous possibilities opened up by very simple use of technology. By the end of the presentation I wanted the audience feel that they could give it a go, even if they had no background in the IT world. I limited my examples to just a few things and included URLs to good, basic, step-by-step tutorials. You can read about my presentation on my digital humanities blog, Stumbling Through the Future. I have also included the slides I used. Watch out for the piece of steam punk I unwittingly included, and the cultural reference I added as a result of some back-channel fun.

Lucy Bracey also spoke about simple use of technology, in her case the use of websites for clients of Way Back When Historians. These are easy to establish and free to run. Bracey pointed out that early in a project the audience for the history needs to be identified. Once this has been done historians need to assess the best means of reaching that audience. Not everyone wants to read a history book, so for some clients a website is the right medium to convey a history. Among the issues that Bracey raised was the importance of interviewees understanding the implications of the global accessibility of a public website, especially for those who may not have much experience with the internet such as older people.

Reaching Audiences for History

Bracey’s presentation brought together aspects of the two keynote presentations of the conference. Identifying and reaching audiences was the topic of the second keynote presentation by Lisa Murray (@SydneyClio) who is the Historian for the City of Sydney.

Head and shoulders of Lisa Murray

Keynote speaker: Lisa Murray, historian at the City of Sydney council

Lisa Murray started with the findings of a survey of historians in 2013 by the History Council of NSW. The Council expressed concern that historians were focussing on a vague ‘general public’. The ‘general public’ in reality is an incredibly diverse, large group of people. Lisa Murray explained her Sydney Council unit worked with marketers to identify market segments and home in on how to reach these audiences.

Lisa Murray revealed that there are many audiences for history, but some are more enthusiastic than others:

Lisa Murray talked about the ‘skimmers, delvers and divers’ of history. Each of these are potential audiences but as the names suggests, divers are hooked and will immerse themselves in history whereas the skimmers will be interested in learning a little bit, but they will be harder to entice. A person is not trapped in a category for ever more. In a talk that had resonances from Anna Clark’s latest book, Private Lives, Public History, Murray explained that people’s interest in history changes over their lives:

Audiences won’t flock to historians. Like other professionals in the cultural sphere, historians have to work hard to reach audiences and persuade them to enjoy the history we produce. While there will always be a space for histories which people can spend hours over, historians need to give attention to presenting it ways that will entice people who want to spend a small amount of time on history. Murray argues that historians need to entice people by intriguing them with a small amount of detail that has personal relevance to the audience using channels that are favoured by that particular audience. Intriguing snippets can lead to deeper history that meets the needs of the divers.

Regarding content, Lisa Murray shared some interesting responses from Sydney audiences:

It was great to hear her confirm that people are interested in Aboriginal histories and the histories of ordinary people. As Anna Clark has noted in her book, people living in Australia have a much more sophisticated understanding about history than politicians give them credit for.

Lisa finished with an important call for action:

Murray Powerpoint slide

Lisa Murray’s call to action for historians

In another presentation, author of a prize-winning history about the convict history of Cockatoo Island, Sue Castrique, talked about the importance of excellent writing to engage readers in a sophisticated historical analysis in books. Castrique uses insights from film studies to write engaging, character-driven history. She pointed out that government inquiries are rich sources into people’s lives and provide the biographical details that can enliven a book. She observed that characters are vehicles for ideas, in history as well as fiction. She argued passionately for narrative history as a means to interpreting history, not an impediment to it. Her understanding of the writing process has made me want to read her book!

Organisational Excellence

I cannot possibly give a grand overview of the entire conference in one post. Every session was packed with gems and insights. It is one of the best conferences I have attended. The fact that I can refer back to the tweets for a good record of the conference is due to the organisers doing all the things necessary for a good conference twitter stream. They established the hashtag months before the conference and publicised it. They responded quickly whenever someone used the hashtag in the lead-up to the conference, thereby encouraging people to use it more. At the venue the wi-fi worked from the beginning of the conference and everyone had a sheet of paper in their conference bag explaining how to use it. Conference organisers of the future take note!

Every aspect of the conference was done with excellence by the organisers. It ran to time, the food was good and the queues were not too lengthy for getting drinks in between sessions. They chose an easily accessible venue for those without a car as it was close to trams. I lost my conference bag and mentioned this to someone who was not on the organising committee. It was my fault that I lost it and I don’t expect organising committees to cater for my carelessness, but to my surprise, later on someone on the organising committee pressed a new conference bag in my hands while walking past me. I hadn’t even officially requested another one, but they heard and provided.

Now that is taking conference organisation to another level!

In this post I chose to focus on the themes of the two keynote presentations, but there was so much more. Fortunately other people have written about the conference:

As always, the informal conversations a conference sparks are valuable. What do you think about the issues raised in this post? Do you think you are a skimmer, a delver or a diver into history? Do you learn about history the traditional way through articles and books, or do you prefer to use new media such as podcasts, apps, blogs and other forms of websites?

4 thoughts on “Australian Professional Historians and Conference Excellence

  1. I’m definitely a skimmer. The blogs of historians have been a revelation but I’m still mostly a book guy. Any research I do is on the background of books, ie literature.


    • There is quite a cross-over between literature and history isn’t there? I might have been more interested in English literature at school if there had been any discussion of the cultural and historical context that books were written in.


  2. i love the insights and conversation i see coming out of Australia and these conferences. thank you for making them available to us here in the states. i, too, find the term ‘general public’ vague and unhelpful and am exploring new channels through which to present history. how can PHA and history communicators work more closely together?


    • Thanks for dropping by Jason. Effective history communication is the business of PHA members – our businesses depend on it. If we don’t communicate well with clients, other stakeholders and potential clients we don’t get more work. Historians are professional communicators. Some do a fantastic job of it, but we all need to adapt quickly to the changing media world. It was great to see that this issue was given such prominence at the conference.

      I think the #histcomm hashtag on Twitter is a great initiative to help the exchange of ideas on this topic. The History Communications website is also helpful. We need historians to experiment with different forms of communication and share ideas. Communications are an expression of culture. We need to hear diverse voices and reach diverse audiences such as our indigenous peoples, immigrant communities etc.

      I am interested to hear what new channels you are exploring to share history. I see that you have been a professional musician. Have you explored the use of music in sharing history?


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