Deborah Lee-Talbot reviews Paul Ashton and Paula Hamilton, The Australian History Industry, (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2022).
The Australian History Industry is an ambitious book that covers the intersecting and often competing sectors that produce the various elements of this nation’s history.
This book builds on earlier volumes that touch on this topic, such as Graeme Davison’s Uses and Abuses of Australian History (2000). This edited collection differs by considering how the Australian history industry has evolved in the 21st century with the application of digital technology, social media, present-day national and local policies, new public history courses and the emergence of new professional organisations.
The editors, Adjunct Professor Paul Ashton and Dr Paula Hamilton are well-qualified to oversee the production of this volume. Ashton was the founding co-director of, and professor of public history, at the Australian Centre for Public History (ACPH) at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) (1999-2015). Hamilton co-created the public history program at UTS, worked alongside Ashton at the ACPH and was co-editor of the Public History Review journal. The other contributors have a range of experience, from independent scholars to emeritus professors. As a means of presenting the broad nature of the Australian history industry to readers, this inclusive approach works well. Furthermore, the twenty-two chapters provide insights into the core moments, institutions and events that made academic, professional, and teaching organisations in Australia what they are today.
There are varying writing styles and sources involved in the production of this work. With this range of contributors, it should be expected by the reader that some will draw more on academic sources, whereas others will tend to cite popular magazines or newspapers. For instance, the digital historian Tim Sherratt’s contribution is a technical, practice-based, analysis of Trove as a resource; professional historians Sue Hodges and Sharon Veale draw on their experiences of practicing professional history to produce a reflective, but well researched, call-to-action to support the heritage industry; and the academic and documentary creator, Tom Murray, uses documentary evidence to demonstrate how screen media supports the development of a historical consciousness. This editorial flexibility with regard to content is grounded by a series of core national debates. This firm thematic foundation for this edited volume works well as an appeal to numerous readers to see the ramifications of national debates across various sectors – academic, professional, public – of the industry. Contributors to The Australian History Industry highlight debates that have shaped history, such as Australia’s Bicentennial, the History Wars, funding for the Australian War Memorial, domestic violence, remembering the silenced children from care facilities and the Stolen Generation.
The collection’s focus on the outreach and community engagement aspects of history makes for refreshing reading. ‘Social media and History’, by Minna Muchlen-Schulte, assesses the value of social media for history professionals in Galleries, Libraries and Museums, [GLAM]. As the potential demise of Twitter is a weekly discussion point in national newspapers, the loss of networks, outreach opportunities and engagement is a timely discussion point. It also raises the question of whether social media blurs and obscures the past rather than deepening ‘our understanding of place, people and our past’ (101). Muchlen-Schulte does this well in a subsection of her chapter, ‘#Woke: Waking up Collections’, in which she discusses how social media was used by Rodney Kelly, a Gweagal man, to challenge the British Museum’s claim to an Aboriginal shield believed to be collected during Captain James Cook’s 1770 expedition to Kamay/Botany Bay.
In Alison Atkinson-Phillips’ chapter, ‘The Power of Place: Monuments and Memory’ the reader is invited to consider the tightrope of balancing the twin-concerns of emotion and critical thinking in public history. Discussing the global movement of monument protests since the 1980s, Atkinson-Phillips shows how the ideas and arguments of renowned scholars like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak apply in Australian scenarios (129). Spivak argues that marginalised communities, especially Indigenous people, are restricted to adopting colonised language and formats to ensure they can be heard by the mainstream (129). Building on Spivak’s argument, Atkinson-Phillips demonstrates how Ray Minniecon’s consultation with the Karajarri community led to the public recognition of violent expedition practices during the settlement of the region. Aboriginal oral historians provided information that the expedition leader Frederick Panter ‘killed, captured, and threatened Aboriginal people in an attempt to locate water for his expedition’(130). The modification of the monument in 1994, with the addition of an informative plaque that included Indigenous oral history, ensured public recognition of settler violence (129-131). The chapter, in turn, becomes a blueprint for the fraught process of publicly presenting painful narratives.
Another subtle thread that permeates The Australian History Industry is that historians do not frequently work in isolation, as stereotypes may suggest, but liaise with community groups, professional networks, and other, non-industry, collaborators. It was a pleasure to see evidence that the industry is often community-minded and, at times, driven by the needs of the public, not market requirements of the Academy. Today, as historians find and create spaces for themselves in public conversations about healthcare and government responses, it is a timely reminder about the value of meaningful public engagement. This was adeptly demonstrated by Meg Foster’s chapter ‘Unprecedented Times?: Covid-19 and the Lessons of History’. There she demonstrates how historians were some of the ‘first responders’ to the Covid-19 pandemic, bringing to Australians’ attention lessons learned during the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic (226-231).
The Australian History Industry covers a wide range of issues concerning the history industry. The outcome is an informative edited collection, one that situates the reader well to find more information about the sector that appeals to them most. It also works as a testament to Australian historians’ tenacity in achieving recognition of the stories that captured their attention and led to fulfilling careers. There was, however, a need for closer proofreading to address typographical errors which distract from an otherwise engaging reading experience. But aside from this small criticism, it is clear that many readers, such as HDR students would benefit from learning more about the possibilities and opportunities created through the often-underappreciated history industry in Australia, as revealed in Ashton and Hamilton’s edited volume.