'History wars' propel local yarns into big picture

'History wars' propel local yarns into big pictureIn April, representatives of Monash University’s Institute for Public History (IPH) attended the launch of the fifth history book commissioned through them and the third one published under their imprint. The book, Coming home: A history of Corpus Christi Community Greenvale, was launched in the Corpus Christi dining room in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Greenvale.

The launch of Coming home was particularly poignant, not only because it marked the successful completion of an important history about homelessness and how one organisation was established to address that issue, but also because the book serves as a family scrapbook for many of the men who call the Corpus Christi Community home.

Commissioning a history is a big undertaking, and one that is often hard to justify if you are a non-profit organisation like the Corpus Christi Community (or the Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda, whose history the IPH is currently preparing.) But both of these relatively young organisations have realised that not writing a history can be even harder to defend as they witness key people in the life of their organisations becoming frail or passing on, taking their stories with them.

A written, organisational history is also a significant challenge for the commissioning organisation. They know it must speak in the first instance to the people who are connected to their organisations, who know its daily operations, successes and failures, but they also know that it must engage with the big questions and debates that help contextualise the place of the organisation in the broader community. It must allow 'outside' readers an entry point into their world. They know that to produce a history that will interest the public at large, it must contribute to a shared historical literacy or conversation, the kind that will hopefully become more wide-spread following the recent 'history wars'.

This conversation should remain diverse and inclusive. In histories like Corpus Christi’s it does not diminish the importance of telling the stories of those who founded, staffed or volunteered their time in their communities, or of providing the equally important opportunity for the voices of those who use their services a chance to be heard by a wider audience.

The idea and practice of writing for a ‘wider audience’ is critical for work produced by professional historians. A key reason for establishing the IPH within the School of Historical Studies at Monash in 2004 was to foster the writing of histories that are accessible and that strengthen public awareness of historical issues.

There are of course pragmatic reasons for universities to solicit commissioned histories. Bringing research money into the Academy is a vital requirement for receiving government funding. But Monash has a long engagement and commitment to training historians who now work in a variety of public arenas and as independent historians.

'History wars' propel local yarns into big pictureAll Monash histories are written by professional historians. Most are members of one of the state-based Professional Historians Associations (PHA), many of whom have trained in public history programs like the one Monash has run since 1989. Assisting graduates in finding work was another important consideration in setting up the commissioning arm of the IPH.

Not all historians who work on Monash histories are Monash trained, nor is Monash the only place to go if you are looking for someone to write a history. The PHA, which was set up to promote the discipline of history as a profession and set standards for how it is practiced in the public realm, keep its members informed of available work.

One of the advantages in commissioning a history through the IPH, however, is the support and advice these projects get from historians on staff at Monash. Graeme Davison, the Director of the IPH, for example, contributes his broad knowledge on urban and Australian history to various projects.

Social justice histories, like that written for Corpus Christi, receive input from historians, such as Seamus O’Hanlon, who has researched boarding houses and the gentrification of inner suburban Melbourne, or Mark Peel, who has investigated the worlds of impoverished and marginalised groups in our society. Another recently completed commission, a Holocaust memoir, is also in an area that can be ably supported by the Centre for the Study of Jewish Civilisation which is also part of Monash’s School of Historical Studies.

The IPH undertakes commissioned histories from an array of clients, including businesses and schools. We have completed a history on the Castlemaine Bacon Factory and are currently preparing one on the post-war years of Haileybury College. There is, of course, no end of tales to be told, and telling them well is our business.



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