AHA Conference 7 July 2016

Another early start on a morning that seemed to promise warmer temperatures but by Ballan the fog had closed in, presaging yet another gloomy, cold day.

 Australia at War

What’s happening to me? After railing all through 2015 at the Gallipoli Centenary Extravaganza, I’ve found myself drawn to several sessions looking at WWI. Once again, I arrived too late to catch the first paper. In this case, Ian Willis spoke on “The Red Cross and ANZACs at Home”. I wish I’d caught more of it, alert as I am now to the industriousness and civic pride engendered through middle-class suburban Red Cross branches, as a result of writing my Hundred Years Ago column for the Heidelberg Historian. Unfortunately, though, I just caught the end of the paper.

The second speaker, who was to give a paper on the Australian Nursing Corps and Conscription, did not appear, which was disappointing.

The final paper for the session was Effie Karageorgos who spoke on “War in a ‘White Man’s Country’: Australian Perceptions of Blackness on the South African Battlefield 1899-1902”. Australian men volunteered to fight in the Boer War when it commenced in 1899, fired up by press columns syndicated from England which characterized the Boers as “dirty Dutch” and “uncivilized”. In Karageorgos’ study of 126 letters and diaries of Australian Boer War soldiers, she notes that soldiers often replicated such comments when they first arrived, but over time began identifying more with the enemy than the British. Meanwhile, the British Army began using (black) Africans as manservants, support workers and even soldiers, roles that the Africans embraced because they had no great love for the Boer settlers and they needed the money and supplies that accompanied military service. This threw up an interesting situation for Australian soldiers who were imbued with the Social Darwinist and Protectionist views towards race relations with indigeous people at home.   Yet here they were, fighting a ‘white’ enemy, alongside African soldiers and assistants.  She notes that many of the Australian volunteers were rural workers, who may well have worked alongside Aboriginal stockmen, but in their letters and diaries,  where the African workers were mentioned at all, it was often (but not always) in a rather infantalizing mode, reflective of the particular Protectionist model in play in Australia at the time.

PLENARY: Robert Anderson “The Changing Nature of Museums: Booming, Busting or what?”

This plenary was rather a surprise. Robert Anderson has worked in National Museums in UK for the past 32 years, the last ten years of which was spent as director of the British Museum. Many of his observations, taken singly, I agree with: the emphasis on blockbusters and getting numbers through the door and the resultant triumphalism of attendance statistics; the dominance of publicity and fundraising and the incorporation of museums into the mass tourism circuit; the discordant architectural design of museum extensions and annexes; the brevity and simplicity of labels (both in language and conceptually) and the increasing governmental managerialism of museum administration.  These are all things that I have thought about at various times, but not all together. It was when he began defending the British Museum’s inflexibility over repatriation that I became uncomfortable, and his observations cohered into very much a ‘in the good old days’ lament.  Should a curator be in charge of a particular collection for thirty years? I wondered when he praised the work of such a person. Does his assertion that, legally, objects belong to the British Museum and his attitude that therefore no correspondence can be entered into, still stand in a post-colonial world? Is the ‘best’ place for an artefact only in London, Paris, Berlin or New York?  When questions were raised, for example, about the Gweagal shield that I saw in the temporary exhibition in Canberra recently, his answers were forthright, obviously well rehearsed and completely immovable.  It’s an attitude that could only come from a position of plenty. All of a sudden the world didn’t seem quite so post-colonial after all.


There’s been a couple of book launches while I’ve been here.  The first one, at morning tea on Tuesday, was for Kate Auty and Lynette Russell’s monograph ‘Hunt Them , Hang Them ‘ about Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener, the two ‘Van Diemens Land Blacks’ sentenced to death by Judge Willis. Naturally, I bought the book and no doubt sometime soon I’ll review it.  The second launch, today after lunch, was of Tom Griffiths’ ‘The Art of Time Travel’, a book about Australian historians which sits on my bookshelf. Katie Holmes gave a beautiful speech in launching the book, which I know will be written with Griffiths’ usual grace and perspicacity. I’m looking forward to it.

 Marginal Living and Dying

And so, to the final session of the day for me, because I needed to leave early. This conference is being held in conjunction with the Australian Victorian Studies Association, and this was the first of their streams.

Caitlin Mahar’s paper “On Life’s Margins: Procuring a Good Death in Nineteenth Century Britain looked at the medical management of the dying in Britain. Until about the middle of the nineteenth century, suffering was seen as an emulation of Christ, and a spiritual as much as physical phenomenon. The clergy were at the heart of the death scene, and it was felt that pain relief might numb the expression of faith that characterized the “good”death. However, during the nineteenth century the doctor became a more prominent figure at the death bed, and the family became more important. For some time doctors had caused more suffering amongst ill people with their ‘cures’ (cupping, bleeding, amputation), but with the rising use of pain relief, it was thought that instead of distracting the dying patient from the faith element of death, analgesics could make them more able to concentrate on it and facilitate, rather than hinder, a ‘good’ death. Almost immediately the problem of hastening death through overuse of analgesia was raised, and definitively rejected, but today doctors are actively encouraged to relieve suffering even if it shortens life. As for enabling the patient to make this decision…well, as we know, it’s an argument that still rages

The second paper “Outcasts of Melbourne: Representations of the ‘Underclass’ in Late 19th Century Melbourne” was delivered by Jenny Sinclair, who has published two books related to this topic and Melbourne generally. She looked at three authors: Marcus Clarke, J. S. James and ‘John Freeman’ who published sensational accounts of the less salubrious inhabitants of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’. All three authors focussed on the city rather than the suburbs; they conflated poverty and crime, and they maintained the point of view of the respectable reader.  They were often highly judgmental, although sometimes they turned their judgment back onto their readers. Yet, Sinclair argues, each of the writers had an agenda of social reform that can be traced back to their own origins.  Marcus Clarke had been sent as an impecunious orphan to the colonies by his family; James was an activist who worked in church organizations and institutions, writing in what we’d call ‘gonzo’ journalism today; and ‘John Freeman’ was in fact Edward Oxford, who had been incarcerated in asylums after an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Queen Victoria no less.

In the final paper, Shale Preston took up an analysis of ‘John Freeman’ (Edward Oxford) in a beautifully written paper called “Bedlam and Beyond: John Freeman’s Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life.” Starting with the assassination attempt, she traced through Oxford’s twenty-seven years in Bethlem (Bedlam) and Broadmoor lunatic asylums, where he learned languages, became the in-house painter and generally kept himself aloof from his fellow inmates. He was released in 1867 on condition that he come to Australia and never return, and was given money by a philanthropist in order to do so. His book ‘Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life’ was not received well, with critics complaining that his sketches of the underclass could have been written in London rather than Melbourne. There is a remarkable lack of empathy or fellow-feeling in his writing, especially given his background. But, Preston suggests, perhaps it is symptomatic of his egotistical and jaundiced world-view that may have shaped his whole life. What a fascinating story- I’m going to follow this up!

And so ends Thursday- and what good timing, as the train is just drawing in to Southern Cross station!

4 responses to “AHA Conference 7 July 2016

  1. These summaries are terrific, thanks so much. And I hope you treat us to a review of ‘The Art of Time Travel’ – I’m looking forward to reading it.

  2. I would have liked that session on museums, I have been on my soapbox every now and again about the brevity and simplicity of labels and I used the expression ‘dumbing-down’ as well.
    Can’t wait for your review of Hunt Them Hang Them. I’m not often in the area of the Queen Vic market which is where their memorial is, but one day I’ll visit to pay my respects to Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener…

  3. Your conference summaries have been truly interesting reading Janine.

  4. “What’s happening to me?”. I have asked that same question myself. Unfortunately the Centenary of Gallipoli tended to be an inappropriate celebration that too many companies sought to make money out of. That was distasteful. But I have been drawn to WWI because there have been many glib pronouncements about people at the time which don’t ring true for someone who has worked a lot with late nineteenth and early twentieth century history. Then I realised that there are oceans of sources from WWI which reveal a lot more rich historical evidence than just battle ground strategy. We can use that evidence to dig beneath the flotsam of the daily decision-making, battle-ground gains and retreats, to explore questions about the human condition at the time wherever the people were living.

    The points that you mentioned about populism in museums etc are interesting. I just remember back to my (fortunately) few visits to a museum as a child. The boredom is etched in my mind. Those glass cases, dead butterflies pierced by pins, stuffed animals, hush, don’t talk. Shudder. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far as a result? I was at an exhibition recently where there was definitely far too much writing on the wall – there is only so long you can be bothered standing in front of a label. Skipping such exhibitions and curling up with a good book on the topic seems to me to be a better idea. I like exhibitions that offer QR codes linked to audio, or those dedicated audio thingy’s that you carry around your neck and consult when you want to know more. But I know some don’t like them. I think museums have a way to go to work out the best way of doing things.

    I gleaned from Twitter that there was some discomfort among conference attendees about some of the comments by Robert Anderson. I think the British Museum and other European museums face an existential crisis regarding stolen or dubious origin artefacts. What would be left if they repatriated it all? No wonder they are digging their heels in. As you said, it is all very colonial.

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