A bit of a disrupted day today, because I had a Spanish conversation class at 9.30, then a book group lunch. So I just caught what I could.
I started with the ‘Lets Talk about things: Sydney region Aboriginal objects in overseas museums, for instance’ session. This seemed to be in a panel format, with the presentations referencing each other, and delivered one after the other with questions (I assume) at the end. Maria Nugent started off by talking about the Gweagal shield, which came to Australians’ awareness with the NMA ‘Encounters’ exhibition in 2016. Maria explained, in keeping with her argument in her Australian Historical Studies article of 2018 ‘A Shield Loaded with History: Encounters, Objects and Exhibitions’, there is doubt about whether the shield really was associated with Cook at all. But it has given rise to a project to find and return cultural material from museums across the world. Eleanor Foster then took over, talking about her project to locate and contextualize objects found in the Hunter Valley between 1826-1839. Regionally-focused object-directed research places importance on the context and relationships behind objects, rather than the qualities of the object or the collector. She spoke about metal fish-hooks which had previously been thought to come from Tahiti, but which documentary evidence suggested had been part of the exchange on Threlkeld’s mission (where they were swapped in exchange for information) or Dawson’s mission at Port Stephens (where they were swapped in exchange for other types of fish hooks). Then there were the fishing spears that Lady Perry wrote about in letters – she had real trouble in tracking any down to send ‘home’, perhaps because there were fewer produced, or were more tightly held by their indigenous makers. Then Paul Irish, who coined the term ‘affiliated coastal zone’ to describe the Hunter Valley region, spoke about the importance of the work being done by Gaye Sculthorpe and Danny Simpson in tracking down objects in different museums internationally. Objects often have no documentary links at all, and often the museum itself wants to know about the object as well. Finding similar objects in different repositories (often on different continents) means that they can be compared.
Entonces era la hora de mi clase de español
Spanish class over, I returned to catch the 11.00- 12.15 session ‘Defending White Australia’. I knew that I would have to leave this early too, as I was due to leave for lunch at 11.45. But the two papers I heard were excellent. Deirdre O’Connell (who has recently published Harlem Nights) spoke about Billy Hughes’ years on the backbench, after resigning as Prime Minister in February 1923 in her paper ‘This Bit of the World Belongs to Us: Billy Hughes, vigilante enforcement and the White Australia Policy’. In 1924 he embarked on an American tour, at the invitation of the English Speaking Union, arriving just as the U.S. government hammered out the Johnson Reed Act (also known as the Immigration Act) of 1924 which banned non-Nordic immigration. In March he was in Dallas, where the Ku Klux Klan hosted its Kolossal Karnival. While it is impossible that he would have been oblivious to the KKK’s presence, there is no evidence that he met with them. On his return, after a period of quietude, he hooked on to the arrival of Italians, and the deportation of Sonny Clay’s Negro Minstrels (hence Deirdre’s interest) and made a fiery speech at the National Party’s conference, advocating vigilantism. Joseph Parro‘s paper ‘Unfinished revolutions: unfinished examination: Australian fascism after the Second World War’ saw 1945 as a turning point, with the execution of Mussolini and with the Third Reich in its death throes. He focused on Tom Graham, who had arrived in Australia from Britain in 1936. He was jailed for pamphlets he had written, then interned. For him, the revolution was unfinished and called for nuclear weapons to wipe out ‘the Rabble’. Although he has been dismissed as a ‘crank’, we need to look at the heterogenous, adaptable, network-focussed, international nature of fascism, especially in view of the contemporary extreme right.
Lunchtime at the pub!
Finally, I caught the roundtable on ‘Unsettled Domesticities’. The chair, Victoria Haskins, reminded us that we were zooming in from our homes, but we were all living on unceded aboriginal lands, and the implications of that for an indigenous sense of ‘home’. Penny Russell gave a personal reflection on the exhumation in 2019 and recent reburial of the bones of her great-great-great (I lost count of the greats) grandfather, whose remains were exposed by rail works. The large plate on his coffin indicated who he was, but the family history that Penny has uncovered reveals him as an insular, authoritative man who emigrated to Australia in his 50’s, bringing with him his middle class, evangelical, entrepreneurial domesticity which he planted on the other side of the world. Katrina Dernelly‘s paper ‘Mrs Morland and Isabella Murrell: a husband’s cruelty on the Victorian goldfields’ told of the murder of Isabella Murrell by her husband William who literally beat her to death. He argued that he was trying to ‘reform’ her and that it was a crime of ‘passion’ (still a defence in UK) so that the charges could be reduced to manslaughter. Here, home was no refuge. Andrew Gorman-Murray who is a cultural geographer spoke of domesticity as a spatial concept. The ‘home’ is imagined as a heteronormative space, which has implications for queer home-making. He pointed out that for many homosexual men, privacy could only be found in public, and suggested that domesticity was a privilege. Perhaps ‘anti-domesticity’ is when an imagined home cannot be put into practice. Finally, Karen Agutter looked at displaced persons arriving in Australia post WWII and their accommodation in reception centres. Men were expected to work as labourers and women as domestics, no matter what their career had been previously. Families were often separated, and meals were held communally (although the ‘family meal’ was rather an English concept). It was difficult for families to get out of the reception centres because of high rents both for the hostel accommodation itself and ‘outside’ in the open rental market.
And so that was the end of the AHA Conference 2021. I’m looking forward to catching up on some of the sessions that I missed, because they will be available for a short time afterwards for attendees. That’s always one of the bugbears of a conference- wanting to be in two places at once. So, perhaps Zoom is not all bad. In fact, it’s not even half bad – think how hard things would have been over the last two years without it. But I still crave the morning tea muffin, and a club sandwich and a nametag. I’ll just have to make sure I get them in 2022 at some conference somewhere.