The Story behind the Deepening Histories Project
Professor Ann McGrath
During the twentieth century, Australia was called a ‘timeless land’. It was either that ‘people’ had not been there before, or as if those people had no history.
Today, travellers to the Australian countryside or to urban areas, can still feel that they are journeying into a history-free zone.
Even taking a history tour, a traveller could be readily left with the impression that nothing much had ever had happened in many Australian landscapes – especially before the European governors, explorers and white pioneers arrived.
Such a ‘lack of history’ is hard to believe anywhere, let alone in Australia, where Aboriginal Australians lived on the continent for over 40,000 years.
While I was keen to play a role in shifting the narrative of Australia history beyond the post 1788 story most often encountered by travellers, a wider collaboration outside the academy would be needed to change anything.
While monuments, road names and plaques have traditionally told historical stories to the tourist, digital platforms now offer fresh ways of delivering knowledge on location. Alternatively, they might be able to check out a website and download some information in advance of their journey.
What is more, numerous visitors, both Australian and from overseas, wanted deeper cultural and historical knowledge. In particular, they hungered to understand the ancient story of Indigenous culture. There were the stories of intertwined people too. I do not see Indigenous history as something separate from the history of Australia. After the British arrived, no matter whether people tried to stay separate or not, the histories that ensued in this common landscape were both shared and contested.
Yet, as Australian historians in the academy have tended to use archival texts as a starting point, we generally spend little time thinking about points on a map, let alone ‘landscape-based’ approaches to history.
In recent decades, historians have been increasingly aware of the material world by making multi-dimensional contributions in museology and heritage, while environmental historians were working across disciplines to tell the story of human relationships with landscapes and landscapes themselves as history. Encouragingly, some of our students have been undertaking important interdisciplinary research in these fields.
So how might we expand this? How to gain the right skills set, and how to proceed?
I had previous experience of applying for and working on an Australian Research Council Linkage grant with the National Museum of Australia, which created wonderful on-the-job training for a postgraduate student and that ended up consolidating our Centre’s links with the NMA.
I wanted to expand potential ways of thinking about and interpreting histories for public consumption.
Starting to devise a project that might expand our Centre’s activities into fresh research into landscapes and land rights, I organized some meetings with a senior executive in the government department responsible for heritage and environment. But he went onto a job that involved more work with the United Nations, so consequently that particular potential partnership fizzed out. I remained keen to expand ACIH’s network of partner organisations, and the Parks sector shared a common interest in landscape and place-oriented interpretatios of the past.
In 2010, I asked Professor Peter Read, employed at the University of Sydney and an Affiliate at our Centre, what he thought about joining such a project. So we agreed to start developing an Australian Research Council Linkage project that would explore something about Indigenous and landscape histories. This was a vital turning point, as Peter’s reputation in the field is outstanding. He has a wonderful capacity to get down to business and to get on with things.
As historians, we both wanted to show that this was not only cultural heritage but also part of Australia’s history with a capital ‘H’.
One to one, in classrooms and as Parks rangers, Indigenous people readily shared much of their knowledge about place and its history. Complemented by academic research, we hoped to develop Indigenous community collaborations that might enable the ‘authorized’ Indigenous historians or knowledge holders to showcase these stories on a wider platform. We thought that a University-based team could facilitate this and help make it happen.
By developing collaborations with Indigenous people, whose families connect each individual with histories going way back before 1788, we hoped to integrate the histories of landscape that they wished to share with other research backed by documentary research.
This integrated method might inform the public about the much deeper stories ingrained in the land and its modern Aboriginal peoples. But it would need to be informed by a new set of guidelines for digital and multi-media research. As the visual and the aural would be equally important in telling these human history stories in landscape, film would be as important as sound.
We were aware that there is no uniformity of connection in the story of Indigenous association with discrete landscapes, for this is a history marked by extreme ruptures of colonialism as well as histories of ongoing connection and change over deep time.
Any such project would need to balance the story of people living in and associated with urban and rural areas alike. Its research would need to grapple not only with a story of continuity of association, but with dislocations, the impacts of government and mission reserves, the cultural impact of forced child removal, and in remote regions, with a relatively recent history of European contact, massacre, the trauma of its aftermath, pastoral co-existence and scientific research.
But how to do that?
Indigenous Australians often told their histories when actually journeying through significant landscapes. The process of reconnecting with these landscapes was a visceral experience of history as not only in the landscape, but by the landscape itself. And even moreso, for the land, for ‘country’. People must exercise their duties, their responsibilities, to ensure it remained alive, empowered, empowering, and full of story and history.
As we explored in our earlier ARC Discovery, Unsettling Histories project (with Frances Peters-Little and Margo Neale) Indigenous history telling was embodied, multi-dimensional – delivered and retold through art, song, music, making objects and through highly visual and aural performances. Increasingly, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were also taking a keen interest in using television and web productions to record and document their histories.
We started to imagine some kind of downloadable product, perhaps accessible from a computer, and then deliverable via a hirable device at a National Parks outlet. Or, possibly via a person’s own i-pod, if they owned one, and in 2009, these were still in a luxury category. While historians are rather poor at forecasting the future, we were warned about the danger that our work could become defunct. So, we would need to devise systems adaptable to new e-technologies and platforms that we could not yet imagine. Just as well – at the time, there was no such thing as ‘the tablet’ computer, and nobody had heard of the iPad.
Peter and I are both historians who have played some role in raising public awareness of Indigenous history, via making histories accessible and addressing issues of public policy relevance. Peter had made a major impact in raising awareness of Indigenous child removal (culminating in the Prime Ministerial Apology in 2008), of colonial violence and of Australian’s sense of belonging. My contribution has been about Aboriginal people’s labour contributions in building the nation, especially via the cattle industry, and in analyzing gender relations and colonialism.
We were both keen to work collaboratively with interested Aboriginal people, and were committed to oral history and activist research. (I recall a conversation that took place in the late 1970s when I was visiting ANU and AIATSIS and we were PhD students. Peter was adamant about being more committed to Link-up and facilitating family reunions than a purely academic pathway.)
We both aspired to explore multi-media technologies and diverse ways to deliver history. I had already started to become involved in historical documentary films, and believed that trained historians should be playing a more active role in influencing popular historical content. We were interested in developing digital history products that could reach the widest audience. Peter had worked on developing major exhibitions, was also making films and had already started a major ‘Aboriginal Sydney’ web-project that was well-advanced.