By approaching national institutions and government departments concerned with environmental interpretation, we hoped to create an ambitious project that would research history from the ground up, focusing upon specific Australian landscapes.
The first person that Peter Read and I approached was Peter Cochrane, Director of Parks Australia, an authority that is part of the Commonwealth Department responsible for Environment, Heritage and more. As Peter Cochrane was immersed in setting up the National Landscapes project – a program encouraging local community collaboration to enhance and market quality ‘off the main road’ tourism – he recognized a strong match with his interests. (The two Peters also had a great chat about their kids fishing somewhere in the Snowy Mountains area, if I recall correctly.)
As historians, we wanted to improve the quality of content for local and overseas visitors and tourists. Indigenous perspectives, collaboratively researched, could deepen history beyond the straitjacket of ‘convict beginnings’ in 1788 and a distinctively British and European chronology.
While we know that much more happened in these landscapes, but how to research that, and how to convey this to a wider audience?
Rather than time line sequences, or an archival starting point, a landscape- or place-based approach to Australian history might open up deep human and geological histories that took place on the Australian continent. We might investigate not a time-line for nation, but for the layers of history that occurred over time in specific locations.
Building the Team — More Partners, More Skills
We started to think about bringing in more partners with the kinds of skills and collections that were essential to assist us in researching and presenting history in multimedia and digital formats. Dr Darryl Macintyre, then the Director of the National Film and Sound Archives, an organization that has a huge film and audio collection, as well as major studio expertise, expressed firm interest. (The NFSA also happens to be just across the road from the Coombs Building, where we are based at ACIH.) The NFSA also wanted to do more work to ensure that they were following best practice in Indigenous research protocols, and saw our project as a way to bring in Intellectual Property advice to add value to their own organizational practice. We agreed that it would be terrific to bring in Terri Janke as a consultant. However, I was skeptical about this proposal, as I didn’t think we would have any chance of luring such a leading, in-demand lawyer at the top of her game! (Terri later became NAIDOC Indigenous person of the year.)
It also seemed logical to work with The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies. Not only is it down the road from us at ANU, it holds a highly significant photographic, film, linguistic and archival collection and promotes research that sets standards for ethical and cross-cultural practice, including collaborative principles. We approached them and they agreed to join the project. The anthropologist Dr Luke Taylor, then of AIATSIS, had conducted research in Central Australia and Kakadu, and as Research Director, he could offer wonderful insights into the currents of Indigenous studies taking place around Australia. Luke agreed to join as a Partner Investigator. The Council of AIATSIS, Chaired by Professor Mick Dodson, agreed to provide a cash contribution to assist our project.
We also invited Andrew Pike, a Director of the filmmaking and distribution company Ronin Films, who had expressed interest to the Australian Centre for Indigenous History in recording biographies and other history themes. ACIH was already working with Ronin Films on a Lake Mungo film.
Another Chief Investigator
We invited another Chief Investigator on Board. Dr Shino Konishi, of the Yawuru people of Broome, to join the project. She was particularly interested in advising on the Indigenous research protocols that were integral to our project and which would have to tackle some new challenges in use of multi-media. Dr Konishi works as a Research Fellow in ACIH (Australian Centre for Indigenous History).
We needed to think about developing pilot studies. We thought of a variety of possible sites, and although a tough decision, we decided on three. Sadly, the Barrier Reef, the Kimberley, the Snowy Mountains could not be included this time.
Peter was already working on a History of Aboriginal Sydney project, and he wanted his future research to complement that project. He imagined a study of the sandstone of the Sydney and the Blue Mountains as geological corridor and a place for people through time. I wanted to work in the Northern Territory again, so we decided on a Kakadu/Top End study and a Central Australian study. Additionally, many of these wider landscapes hosted not only National Parks but were officially recognized as World Heritage areas. Also, they were part of areas being developed in the federal government’s National Landscapes scheme, which was premised upon the idea of a visitor appreciating connected areas in a landscape, rather than single destination sites.
This prompted us to think of routes and tracks and how important these are as an organizing principle in Indigenous history. For different reasons, there are parallels with stories of exploration and European ‘discovery’. Just think of the many highways and roads named after European explorers.
Our title, ‘Deepening histories of Place: Exploring Landscapes of National and International Significance’ reflects this ‘exploration’ idea, and it also conveys how the sites are already recognized as National Parks and/or World Heritage areas.
We also approached National Parks New South Wales, part of the wider Department of Environment and other portfolios. Their tourism division, under the management of Carl Solomon, showed special interest. I met their representatives in Sydney, in their office that overlooked the vistas of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House and other icons of modern Australia. But browsing the tourist leaflets around Sydney that day, I could see that few sites were promoted as having Aboriginal histories.
We were thrilled when Dr Denis Byrne, a prominent, internationally renown archaeologist whose work on heritage principles and ‘Sharing Histories’, agreed to become an Industry Partner Investigator.
You will not be burdened with the story of the grant writing process, the contractual negotiations, the legal discussions that accompany the history of most Australian Research Council (Industry) grants. Well, there were last minute dramas only a day before submission and I happened to be on Thursday Island at the time. My mobile phone would not work there as it was not linked via a Telstra provider; there was no phone in the hotel room and they would not allow me to use the reception’s phone. Then, the public phones in front of the TI post office would not accept coins – all adding to the excitement. When the morning of the submission deadline broke, I was able to purchase a special Telstra card from the post office and to finally get through at one of the post office’s many non-working phones and to speak to our Research Officer Sean Downes and to one of our potential partners whose government was experiencing a political crisis. I was highly aware that one cannot always count on being in a digitally and telephonically connected world or for all the partners having a predictably calm signing day.
One day in the office… I received an unexpected email from the Western Australian based historian Mary-Anne Jebb, stating that she and her husband had decided upon a change of location to Canberra. She casually asked if I knew of any work around ANU. Well, I jumped at the opportunity and fortunately Mary-Anne liked the sound of our project. I couldn’t believe our luck. Her credentials are outstanding. Not only was she a prize-winning historian who had long worked with Indigenous communities, on research projects, in native title and in heritage, she had also co-ran a successful historical consultancy company. Although we had a limited budget and could only employ her for two days a week, she was the dream Project Manager from the beginning. With some additional funds negotiated from the Northern Territory government, we were able to upgrade her position to four days a week, so that she could also become a Research Associate on the project.
Mary-Anne’s strong experience, powerful work ethic and willingness to mentor the postgraduates and liaise with a range of partners, could not provide a better match for this complex project. Beyond that, she has brought sage-like wisdom, ready practical advice, consistent ingenuity and integrity to the project management and Research Associate roles!
Jason Ensor was the exact person that Deepening Histories needed to work out how to develop innovative IT as a research tool. With a PhD in the history of publishing and a strong background in web-publications, we had gained another ‘dream’ candidate as our web developer, and research commons database and IT consultant. While Jason regularly visited the project team at its Canberra base, he also stayed in contact via Skype.
Multi-award winning designer Sarah Evans of the Freelance Project joined us as a consultant designer, devising a versatile design concept and banner. The great designs speak for themselves, but Sarah is terrific to work with, translating our vague researcher notions into zany visuals.
Partner representatives have also made huge contributions, including David Boden, Martin Darcy, Caroline Ford and Hilary Schofield.
We had an outstanding range of students who applied for the Australian Postgraduate Award (Industry) applied to work on the project. All were based interstate, but the idea of working with our team project at ANU appealed to them and justified their moving. They told us that they were particularly attracted to opportunities to work with Industry Partners, the major government and collections agencies. They were also keen to work collaboratively with Indigenous people. Working on film and multi-media sources seemed a new, versatile way of doing history. Their diverse backgrounds included strong history training, archaeological training, media, performance and events management, and strong work experience prior to taking up their postgraduate studies. Working in a team is also rather a rare experience for history students, so it would be a different kind of Postgraduate training experience.
Our hope is that it will equip them will to be historians of the future, to work with diverse people for whom history is meaningful, with confidence in a variety of mediums and a thirst for exploring new directions.
As a descendent of the Eora people, Julia Torpey was keen to learn more about her people’s history. She brought organizational, communication and people skills to the project. She also brings an insider awareness to the significance of honouring Aboriginal people’s multiple and diverse connections to country, family and ancestors.
Shannyn Palmer is a first-class honours student from the University of Melbourne who had studied with Dr Tony Birch, an Indigenous creative writer also trained in history. Shannyn was interested in the opportunities allowed by the project to work with Aboriginal communities in Central Australia, to develop more skills in multi-media, and to apply her training in rigorous scholarly critique.
Rob Paton has practiced as a professional archaeologist around Australia over the past thirty years and has an excellent reputation in his field, including as a respectful collaborative and ethical researcher. With extensive experience in the practicalities of field-work and techniques, he has much to share with other project members. With a strong interest in interdisciplinary approaches and having long served as a member of the Aboriginal History Board, his Doctoral candidacy will enable him to reflect on earlier fieldwork and to explore innovative approaches to working across the disciplines of archaeology and history.