Whole Histories – Keeping the Stories Alive

Papers presented at the conference held at St Clement’s Retreat and Conference Centre, Galong NSW Friday 7 to 9 April 2017.

I was fortunate to be able to attend this conference, and benefit from the experience of meeting with like minded history enthusiasts and volunteers in the region.  Yass and District Historical Society is to be commended for the organising, advertising and implementation of an excellent event.  The range of speakers was of great relevance to historical societies and to the study of history in general.  Subsequently, the publishing of these papers in a single volume has allowed for a handy reference for the local history museum, and is of great relevance to our work here in Queanbeyan. The volume opens with a quote from Thomas J Noel, author and historian:

History is not something that happened long ago and far away. History happens to all of us all the time.  Local history brings history home, it touches your life, the life of your family, your neighbourhood, your community”.

Dr Mathew Trinca from the National Museum opened proceedings, speaking of how local history casts light on and can even shape the national narrative. Many historians and professionals contributed articles, with the purpose to empower and enthuse local workers who are volunteers. I will focus this time on the article, Future Options in a Changing World, by Dr Carol Liston AO, History Professor, Western Sydney University. Local history and museum groups proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in country areas, with many people involved as keepers of their local history and objects.  However, today there are more groups to compete for volunteer’s time, and few younger people have time for community groups outside of their children’s education and sporting activities.  Dr Liston presents sobering facts on a world where future generations could have difficulty in engaging in the study of Australian history.  She teaches university students, and cannot assume prior knowledge, for example in reading maps effectively or even handwritten documents and manuscripts.  Reading habits have changed because of technology, and vocabulary has been lost.  Multicultural groups have changed local demography.  So, many are not interested in the local history, and one instance is cited of a historical society in Sydney being wound down, its papers thrown in the rubbish!

Managing a Museum is not easy, and community perception is very important. Record keeping, meetings, elections, constitutions, finances and tenure of positions are all important.  Also of great importance is the rights of volunteers, covered by the Fair Work Act, anti-bullying legislation Jan 2014, gives volunteers rights to make complaints to the Fair Work commission, and societies are obligated to ensure a fair and safe working environment.

The objects of Societies include: to encourage the study of Australian and local history, and publish same, to acquire historical records for the purpose of research, acquire objects to form a museum, promote exchange of information with similar bodies, and preserve local buildings and places of historical interest.

Many societies have failed because of bullying or arrogant leaders, death of office bearers, burnout (our own experience in Queanbeyan! Although we are still pretty healthy), narrow membership, disrespect or destruction. The Society needs to be involved and reaching out to record and participate in the local community.  A constant revision of the objects of the society is needed, including visibility, education and advocacy.  Ways to reach out to non traditional members of societies are needed, including multicultural and millennials.  All members matter and should be made welcome.  A valid point may be to consider projects rather than committees. Volunteers quit because of not feeling valued, lack of leadership, lack of communication, and lack of flexibility in how things are done and by whom. Dr Liston has provided a useful checklist; it would benefit us in Queanbeyan to discuss it.

 Lee Davy

Whole Histories