Wednesday, July 13, 2016

From Boom to Bust: AHA Conference 2016- Day 1

Last week I attended my first Australian Historical Association conference, held this year in the historic Victorian goldfields town of Ballarat.

In my previous work I've been to many archaeology conferences, but this was my first time joining the crowd as an outright historian. Ultimately, a fabulous experience in every way. The four-day conference was jam packed from beginning to end, with almost a dozen concurrent streams in some sessions, plus a plenary each day.

While this breadth of material was initially a little bit hard to navigate, there was always something fascinating to choose from. As a result, I came home with a whole range of new ideas and a great surge of enthusiasm for my own work. I met so many lovely people with so many great projects- there's just nothing like being surrounded by a whole lot of similar minds, occupied with similar topics. A great festival of history.

I attended papers in all but a couple of sessions, so I'll split my record across a few posts to save it from becoming too overwhelming.

Ballarat welcomed us with some stubbornly cold, grey and drizzly weather that would persist for the whole week. The temperature did not go beyond 9C most days, and the sky barely stopped spitting for five minutes at a stretch. Given that the conference was spread across three separate venues up and down Lydiard Street, requiring a bit of a hike between each, this was not the ideal weather. Nonetheless, suitably rugged up and umbrella-fortified, everyone took to the streets with a cheerful attitude.

The coffee and hot chocolate sector in Ballarat must have experienced quite the surge in business! Appropriate for the theme of the conference- From Boom to Bust, which was interpreted in many different ways across many different topics.

Day One- Tuesday 5th July
After a welcome reception at the Ballarat Art Gallery the previous evening, the conference kicked off at the beautiful 1859 Ballaarat Mechanics' Institute building on Tuesday morning with a plenary lecture by Adam Wilkinson.

Adam had travelled across the globe from Edinburgh to talk about urban conservation, and the importance of recognising the present, lived value of heritage places as much as we recognise their past value. He had many fascinating examples of the way Edinburgh has revitalised the use of historic locations within the city in innovative ways, thereby increasing their value to the community now, and ensuring a greater level of ongoing protection.

It was a lively and interesting plenary that set a great tone for the whole week, and a perfect subject for a place like Ballarat, where heritage is on display on every corner. There are some great initiatives in town to help people explore the history of the place, including the Ballarat Revealed app, which can be used as a sort of walking tour through your smartphone.

Most tea breaks and lunches took place in the Hummfray Room of the Mechanics' Institute, which was a bit squishy for (so I hear) close to 400 delegates, particularly when book launches were also held at those times. However, it certainly did lend itself to meeting new people- I really enjoyed all the chats I had with others from universities and institutions across Australia.

Day 1- Session 2

After morning tea, I walked up to the School of Mines to attend the session on Vietnam, Uncle Sam and the Peace Movement. This is not an area of history I've worked on much myself, but I'm growing interested in it for several reasons. First, because I have relatives who were closely involved in the Vietnam protest movement. Second, because I now have family connections to Vietnam itself. And third, because working on First World War history over the last few years, I've been a keen observer of the trends in Anzac attention, and I have perceived a very interesting shift toward the Vietnam War as an area of historical focus into the future.

The three papers were all fascinating, particularly given the presence in the room of several people who had been directly involved in the events discussed, who were able to give great insight into the time.

In discussing the anti-Vietnam War protests, Lisa Milner talked first about the role of women's organisations, and in particular the work of Freda Brown, a fascinating figure who has been a little sidelined in this area of history. You can read some of Lisa's work on Freda Brown here- her story is very worthy of being heard.

Nicholas Butler spoke next, detailing how anger over the 1967 execution of Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Melbourne, rolled into subsequent radical protests against the Vietnam War. This review of the play Remember Ronald Ryan details some of the same historical background, explaining how the two events came to be related in a time of major social upheaval for Melbourne's youth.

Both papers gave a unique angle on the tensions of the time, and reminded that Australia has a strong history of people standing up to protest when necessary.

The final paper in the session was given by Holly Wilson, who spoke about protests that took place in Sicily in 1997 after many jobs were cut at the NATO/ American military base at Sigonella. This was quite a different geographic and cultural context, particularly given that the protesters were arguing not against war, but against the loss of work. A very interesting counterpoint.

Day 1- Session 3

After lunch, I wandered back to the other end of town to attend a session at the Camp Street building on Photographic Histories. Not only have I done a lot of work with historic photographs in my years of cultural information management, but I have a large collection of my own family's material that I'm still working through.

The first paper was presented by Fiona Kinsey and Hannah Perkins from Museum Victoria, talking about a true boom and bust tale- the 120-year rise and fall of Kodak Australasia, as seen through oral and visual records. Starting as a local company before merging with the larger international brand, Kodak Australasia experienced great growth and success through the middle part of the 20th century- only to decline and fall just as quickly as the digital era swept into photography in the 21st century. The visual record provides such an interesting illustration of the story.

The second paper was given by Heatheranne Bullen in what had to be the most heroic performance of the conference. Just at the end of the previous paper, the AV system dropped out- and could not be revived. Presenting in a tightly-framed session, giving a paper that relied almost entirely on the visual elements, it was enough to make anyone shudder. But Heatheranne soldiered on like a champion while the venue staff scurried to get the screen working again, presenting probably half her paper before the technical issue was fixed. Despite the lack of visuals she did a stellar job of describing the unseen photographs she was discussing, and I know we were all relieved for her when at last the problem was fixed.

Her paper discussed a collection of family photographs taken around Oodnadatta in South Australia in the 1920s, exploring what could be learned from the visual record. It was easily one of my favourite presentations of the conference, looking not only at the obvious, but also at the importance of the context we cannot gain without talking to other people. There have been many additions to the understanding of these photographs through Heatheranne talking to people who still live in the area, or who do similar work today. Heatheranne also overlaid modern and past photographs to demonstrate landscapes that had changed or had not, and looked at the importance of perspective in photography and interpretation. Just great.

The final paper was an emotional hard-hitter, with Jacqueline Wilson talking about the visual representation of boat people over the past decade, and the political uses of those images. I find some of those photographs very hard to look at, but it was a very timely and important topic, and well covered.

Day 1- Session 4

The final session of Day 1 was one of the most interesting I attended. The topic was, The Fortunes of Women? Life, death, and loss in reproduction in Australia, 1850- 1970

Madonna Grehan spoke first with a searing and insightful view of childbirth at home gone terribly wrong between 1850 and 1880. As a midwife and nurse herself (as well as an historian), Madonna takes an unflinchingly political view of the history, intending to use it to eliminate some of the romantic ideals she believes are held by many modern home birth advocates. In the cases she discussed, there was nothing romantic about the desperate ends met by many women delivering their babies at home. The comprehensive stories of death by haemorrhage in particular were truly horrifying. The paper sparked some lively debate between presenter and audience, and I'm sure everyone was left with much to think about.

The next speaker was Dot Wickham, talking about the Ballarat Female Refuge, where unmarried mothers were 'incarcerated' in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was another fascinating piece of history, though I did find myself questioning some of the conclusions, in particular the interpretation of tone (terse vs compassionate) in the comments of the doctors on official records. I'm sure a shift in tone is evident if you read through many years of records, but in the examples given, I saw the same kind of comment that is evident in the daily records many of the other institutions I've studied, such as police and lock-up records, native welfare, and the military. There are certainly subtle hints of tone there (exasperation being high on the list!), but a definite interpretation of that seems a tricky prospect in the absence of other evidence to support particular attitudes. Which of course, may exist- I would be interested to learn more about this, because it was a great subject, and one that, as Dot explained, comes with a lot of silence around those female perspectives. I love that so many projects are working to find some noise amidst all the quiet, and to fill in gaps that have long existed in the historical record.

The final speaker was Judith Godden, talking about the Crown Street hospital in Sydney, and the forced adoptions of the 1960s and 1970s. This is a topic that has directly affected a family friend, and the details of women being coerced into giving up their babies were pretty harrowing in places. Also very interesting to see the adoption bust that occurred as social change accelerated (post-birth control) and more support was made available for single mothers.

It really was a fascinating session, with the topic of motherhood always so fraught with emotion, particularly in relation to past troubles around maternal mortality, moral judgement of single mothers, and adoption, particularly forced removal of children. I thought all the speakers navigated their topics with sensitivity, and the passion in the room was a good thing in collective total.

Worn out from a long day of listening and learning, I didn't attend the evening events, but rather went back to my hotel to prepare for giving my paper the next day. I'll add a detailed post about that, too, and I'll continue to blog about each day of the conference, updating with links below as I go.


  1. Thanks for sharing all this Claire. That paper on interpreting photos by Heatheranne Bullen sounds really interesting. Are you able to suggest good online sources about interpreting historic photos?

  2. Great summary of all the sessions you attended, Claire! Some of these might be tangentially related to research I may or may not need for my stories, but reading them all at once like this reinforces my sense of just how much there is out there to learn and know and discover. It makes me want to get three more degrees and reading everything there is. We need wormholes and multiple lifetimes!

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