I have just finished watching online a critical discussion on the practice of history held at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
In these times of fake news, misleading information, and conspiracy theories. Whom do you trust? What is the truth? Social media is all-encompassing.
This discussion on the practice of history is a dose of hope when political interest groups seek to rewrite the past on their terms.
Maybe this discussion was not a complete cure, but it certainly seems like a ray of sunshine into the swamp of the abyss.
So what did I see?
I watched a panel of learned historians and museum directors discussing launching the Reframing History report by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).
The promotional email I received boasted:
This new initiative provides the field with a set of evidence-backed recommendations to communicate history more convincingly and to build a wider understanding of what inclusive history looks like and why it is important for all of us.
The discussion lived up to the hype.
I highly recommend this lively and challenging discussion to anyone involved in the practice of history. I do not think it matters whether you are from the academy, practise public history, or just like popular history. This discussion should interest you if you are concerned about the long term health of history as a discipline.
Panel Discussion Details
John Dichtl, president and CEO of AASLH, started the conversation by providing an overview of the project.
That was followed by a discussion by Anthea Hartig, Elizabeth MacMillan, Director of the National Museum of American History.
Martha S. Jones, author and professor of history at Johns Hopkins University
Clint Smith, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with Slavery Across America
Jorge Zamanillo, director of HistoryMiami and incoming founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino
The panellists expand on the Reframing History Report and Toolkit by talking about their personal experiences of communicating about history and sharing their recommendations for how history organizations can create environments for positive and productive conversations.
The Camden story is a collection of tales, memories, recollections, myths, legends, songs, poems and folklore about our local area. It is a history of Camden and its surrounding area. I have created one version of this in the form of a 1939 district map.
Camden storytelling is as old as humanity starting in the Dreamtime.
The Camden story is made up of dreamtime stories, family stories, community stories, settler stories, local stories, business stories, personal stories and a host of others.
These stories are created by the people and events that they were involved with over centuries up the present.
Since its 1997 inception History Week has been an opportunity to tell the Camden story.
What is the relevance of the Camden story?
The relevance of the Camden story explains who is the local community, what they stand for, what their values are, their attitudes, political allegiances, emotional preferences, desires, behaviour, and lots more.
The Camden story explains who we are, where we came from, what are we doing here, what are our values and attitudes, hopes and aspirations, dreams, losses and devastation, destruction, violence, mystery, emotions, feelings, and lots more. The Camden story allows us to understand ourselves and provide meaning to our existence.
Local businesses use the Camden story as one of their marketing tools to sell local residents lots of stuff. There is the use of images, logos, branding, slogans, objects, window displays, songs, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, and other marketing tools.
What is the use of the Camden story?
The Camden story allows us to see the past in some ways that can impact our daily lives. They include:
the past is just as a series of events and people that do not impact on daily lives;
the past is the source of the values, attitudes, and traditions by which we live our daily lives;
the past is a way of seeing the present and being critical of contemporary society that it is better or worse than the past;
the present is part of the patterns that have developed from the past over time – some things stay the same (continuity) and some things change.
History offers a different approach to a question.
Historical subjects often differ from our expectations, assumptions, and hopes.
The Camden storyteller will decide which stories are considered important enough to tell. Which stories are marginalised or forgotten or ignored – silent stories from the past.
Just taking one of these component parts is an interesting exercise to ask a question.
Does the Camden story contribute to making a strong community?
The Camden story assists in building a strong and resilient community by providing stories about our community from past crises and disasters. These are examples that the community can draw on for examples and models of self-help.
A strong and resilient community is one that can bounce back and recover after a setback or disaster of some sort. It could be a natural disaster, market failure or social crisis.
Young visitors to the Camden Museum love the model of the HMS Sirius, in the ground floor display area. HMS Sirius was the flagship of the First Fleet in 1788 under its commanding officer Captain John Hunter. He was later promoted to NSW Governor and in 1795 he visited the local area in search of the wild cattle and named the area the Cow Pastures Plains.
One of the key roles of GLAM sector organisations is to allow their visitors to learn things, in both formal (aka classroom) and informal settings. For the visitor this can come in a vast array of experiences, contexts and situations.
The Macarthur region has a number of galleries, museums and libraries. They are mostly small organisations, some with paid staff, others volunteer-run.
Local council galleries and libraries have the advantage of paid staff. The Alan Baker Art Gallery is located in the Camden historic town house Macaria. At Campbelltown there is the innovative Campbelltown Arts Centre and its futuristic styling.
The local council libraries and their collections fulfil a number of roles and provide a range of services to their communities.
On a larger scale the state government-run historic Belgenny Farm is Australia’s oldest intact set of colonial farm buildings in the Cowpastures established by John and Elizabeth Macarthur. A number of other colonial properties are also available for inspection.
Doing more with less
Doing more with less is the mantra of volunteer-run organisations. They all have collections of objects, artefacts, archives, paintings, books and other things. Collections of knowledge.
Collections are generally static and a bit stiff. There is a distance between the visitor and the collection. Visitor immersion in these knowledge collections is generally through storytelling of one sort or another.
The more dynamic the immersion the more memorable the visitor experience. An immersive experience will be informative, exciting and enjoyable.
This is certainly the aim of school visits. Teachers aim to immerse their school students in these collections in a variety of ways through storytelling. Hopefully making the student visit educational, memorable and enjoyable.
The learning framework
Local schools connect with local stories through the New South Wales History K-10 Syllabus. A rather formal bureaucratic beast with complex concepts and contexts. Local schools vary in their approach to the units of work within the syllabus.
Mrs Pesic said, ‘The students visit was integral in engaging the students and directing them to an area of interest’.
The school teachers posed a number of Key Inquiry Questions throughout the unit of work. The museum visit, according to Mrs Pesic, was the final part of the unit that started with a broad study of Sydney and narrowed to Camden. The students then had a ‘project’ to complete back at school.
Mrs Pesic reported that the teachers felt that they ‘had achieved the outcomes that they had set for their museum visit’.
Another local school Stage 2 group recently visited the museum, the gallery and had a walk around the Camden town centre. They too addressed the same unit of work from the History Syllabus.
Storytelling – the past in the present
The integration of local studies and inquiry-based learning by school students calls for imagination and creativity. What results is an opportunity to tell the Camden story through a narrative that gives a perspective on the past in the present.
There have been generations of story tellers in the Cowpastures and Camden district since the Dreamtime. Young people can have meaningful engagement with these folk through local GLAM organisations, ‘that cannot always be obtained in the classroom’, says Mrs Pesic.
The cows and more. So what do they offer?
All this activity takes place in the former Cowpastures named by Governor Hunter in 1795. This country was formerly Benkennie of the Dharawal people. The Cowpastures is one of Australia’s most important colonial sites.
Under European dispossession the Cowpastures became part of the Macarthur family’s Camden Park Estate from which the family carved out the private township of Camden with streets named after its founders – Macarthur, Elizabeth, John, Edward.
The Camden district (1840-1973) tells stories of hope and loss around farming and mining in the hamlets and villages across the region. New arrivals hoped for new beginnings in a settler society while the loss of the Burragorang Valley, the Camden Railway and a landscape aesthetic created sorrow for some.
The Macarthur region (1973 +) named after the famous family and the infamous Macarthur growth centre. The area is on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe and made up of Camden, Campbelltown and Wollondilly Local Government Areas.
The more things change the more they stay the same
The Cowpastures and Camden districts, now the Macarthur region, are some of the fastest changing landscapes in Australia. There is a need by the community to understand how the past created the present and today’s urban growth.
There is a need for creative and innovative solutions and ways to deliver the Camden and Macarthur stories. These are only limited by our imagination.