Citizen Curators Unlock the Past

Old photo of fashionable woman on a boat on Sydney Harbour.

A photo from 1930 held by the Australian National Maritime Museum, part of a presentation given by the Museum’s Nicole Cama.

Everyone has a drawer full of old photos. Each photo has its own importance. The photographer used precious film to take the photo and paid to have them developed. They were kept because they were an important store of memory. But the memory has disappeared into the past. We gaze at the photos today, reluctant to dispose of them yet for us many of these images are meaningless. The person who first stored the photographs often failed to record identifying details with them.

Our cultural institutions also have these drawers of photos – hundreds and thousands of them like the one above. They were regarded as an important record of a society in the past, but today many of these images are mysteries. No museum, library or archive could dream of discarding these photos, but without knowing the context of these photos they are reduced to meaningless bits of paper.

This is where the citizen curator steps in.  Working through social media on the internet, citizen curators apply their knowledge, diligence, enthusiasm and generosity to help cultural organisations identify people, locations and the overall context of photos in their collections.  We heard about this exciting work at a History Week event, ‘From Glass-plate to Cyber-space’ hosted by the Australian National Maritime Museum. Continue reading

Significant Historic Australian Education Collections – Deakin University, Geelong

Entrance to Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library

One of Australia’s most extensive collections for the history of education – the Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library at Deakin University, Geelong.

While working on the Teaching Reading in Australia project I had the opportunity to work in some of the best archives in Australia for the history of education.  These archives are significant repositories of Australian history.  Some don’t get the attention they deserve, others are well recognised but their education collections are little known.  In this, the first of a series of occasional posts on education archives in Australia, I share with you the delights of one of the most extensive education collections that I know of in Australia.  It is held by the Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library at Deakin University in the city of Geelong, Victoria. Continue reading

Women and Archival Silences

Rows of floor to ceiling shelves.

Records of women's history are often missing or obscured in archives such as these, but with creativity and persistence historians can do a lot to recognise the enormous contribution of women to our society in the past.

Archives are not neutral.  We can’t keep everything so choices have to be made and those choices reflect the values of the people making the decisions about what to keep and what to discard.  In the past people such as women, non-Europeans, Aborigines, the poor etc were not considered important contributors to our history so their stories are often not portrayed in archival records, or they were obscured in the archives by the social conventions of the time.  If the archival records were taken at face value they would reveal a distorted view of the past.  It is the job of historians to be alert to this distortion, to question the records and to look for the fleeting clues that indicate that there is something missing.

Women are often the subject of archival silences and diminution.  I confronted this when researching for my honours thesis about the Queensland ‘Bible in State Schools’ referendum of 1910. In this article one of Brisbane’s major newspapers attributed the passing of the referendum to the role of women.  Just five years previously most women in Queensland had been granted the right to vote at state polls.  A statement in the Anglican Church’s newsletter, The Church Chronicle, indicated that women didn’t just vote, they immersed themselves in the campaigning work.  This was an era when women were not considered important contributors to politics, yet they were being publicly acknowledged for their significant contribution by major media outlets.  I wanted to know more. Continue reading

When Family History is All That is Left

The outside of the upper level of the House of the Báb in Shiraz, Iran before it was destroyed.

The upper portion of the building where the Báb declared His mission on 23 May 1844 in Shiraz, Iran, before its destruction in 1979. Reproduced with permission of the Bahá’í International Community.

I sat on the edge of my seat with my cup of tea in suburban Sydney listening to the elderly man recount a scene in the city of Shiraz in Iran.  It was 1955 when he saw the mob tearing down a house with their bare hands.  Fearing that another historically significant building (pictured above) would be torn down, Mr Noorgostar guarded it for three months.

Why were these buildings targets of such fury?  They were of great significance to the history of Iran because they marked the birth of what has become the largest non-Islamic religion in Iran today – the Baha’i Faith.  Since the emergence of the Baha’i Faith in mid-nineteenth century Iran, Baha’is have faced recurrent waves of persecution.

The dawning place of the Baha’i Faith can be traced to the building which Mr Noorgostar helped to protect.  It was here in 1844 that a young man called the Báb first announced that the long-awaited Messenger of God would appear very soon.  The windows of the room in which this event occurred are pictured above.  During 1955 when Mr Noorgostar was guarding this building he slept outside in front of these windows. Continue reading

Of Recalcitrant Staples, Paper Clips and Mould Mould Mould!

Instructions for mounting photos in a photo album from the early 1980s

The 'modern, easy and quick' self adhesive photo albums from the 1970s and 1980s are a bad place to store your memorabilia.

While the goals of a historian and those working on family history at times are quite different there is a considerable overlap.  I have found family historians very helpful while I have been researching the history of teaching reading.  Over the last few days I was reminded again about how complementary the two pursuits are.

I’m sorting through the archives of a local community organisation.  The work has been similar to the kind of work done by anyone who is securing the material that documents their family history.  An important task became evident while I was sorting through photos, letters and other memorabilia dating from the 1970s to just a couple of years ago.  I had to arrest the deterioration of the items in the collections and rehouse some of the material.  I am not an archivist but on the way I have picked up some basic do’s and don’ts of storing material for posterity.  It was the world of genealogy which first alerted me to the need to take great care about storage conditions of historical archives. Continue reading