The pleasures & pains of house histories

Sometimes the records can be frustratingly tantalising without ever providing the answer you want. It is at these times that the historian's task lies in a relentless pursuit through the archives looking for new paths to meander along, or bigger rocks to turn because you just never know - that next rock might be the one! And when you've gone as far as you possibly can (conveniently forgetting the agreed scope, fee and supposed number of hours) you can still tell yourself 'well, at least I've learnt something new about...' whatever the bigger story was behind this missing piece. Maybe historians need to be glass half full people?

This was the case recently when we were asked to assist with discovering the social and architectural history of a house in Brighton. Unusual features not in keeping with the rest of the house, and rate collectors less focused on their task then you would hope sent us into a cul de sac. On backing out and reorienting ourselves we would become fascinated by a particular tenant or new owner. There were several of these at one time in the life of this house and if the Sands & McDougall directories and and rate books don't match up it can be oh so confusing!

But when you come across a path you can follow for a while, picking up riches along the way, it is immensely satisfying. It can be pleasing to follow a family for a while and see the children grow and become the new owners, often with the parents still living in the house, or siblings moving no further than a nearby street. And when you read of extra rooms and changes to the land size in the rate books, or confirm a connection between the family and a longstanding business in the local high street, or discover the likely meaning behind the strange name they called their house, the story becomes populated with more than just facts. It takes on a colour and texture that gives this house a life of its' own, whether or not its a simple workers cottage or a mansion. 

We never did discover all the tantalising stories associated with this particular house, including the circumstances surrounding a fire and the purpose of an oddly shaped cellar that had been rediscovered only after a major renovation in the 1980s. But the search was fun and the story we were able to put together for the family enabled them to feel a stronger attachment to their new home, and to know the story behind some of the more interesting elements.

Oral history in the digital age

Oral History Victoria's Annual Symposium kicked off the Queen’s Birthday weekend with an engaging and topical series of presentations. From websites to apps to hard drives, this year’s Symposium explored the many opportunities and challenges facing oral historians in the digital age.

After an introduction from OHV President Al Thomson, we ventured into the world of online oral history with Judy Hughes (Monash University). Considering the sheer scale of material that oral historians collect – interview recordings, photographs, primary research – Judy advocated websites as a fantastic way to curate and present oral history projects. She demonstrated how websites and web-based applications allow oral historians to produce high-quality, accessible histories at little to no cost, and without the need for purchasing extra equipment. The following discussion, led by Rachel Goldlust (LaTrobe University), presented a complementary vision of the internet’s role in oral history. Drawing on her PhD research into homesteaders, Rachel argued the importance of face-to-face interviews and their associated reciprocal benefits.

The first half of the morning was rounded off with a presentation from Al Thomson, with two exciting developments from the Australian Generations Oral History Project: the recent publication of Australian Lives: An Intimate History, and the digitisation of its interview recordings on Trove. As a group, we listened to one interview while reading the edited version – an exercise which reinforced the dual qualities of readability and human connection in oral history.

After a short break, John Francis spoke on the changing face of technology in oral history work, as well as the finer points of location, sound quality and shot composition. John thrilled us with his personal collection of recording equipment, which ranged from a Tandberg portable tape recorder to his handy iPhone 7 Plus. This caused great excitement for those who recalled the older tech, as well as for those who had only seen them in museums! Following John, André Dao presented his new book, They Cannot Take the Sky, produced with Michael Green from the Behind the Wire project. André shared his experiences interviewing people formerly and currently in detention, highlighting the inherent risks in undertaking such a task. His discussion of political refugees detained on Manus Island was particularly moving, and emphasised the need for discretion when publishing interview content.

The Symposium ended with a fascinating talk from our keynote speaker, Mike Jones, on digital preservation (University of Melbourne and Museums Victoria). After hearing from so many amazing oral history projects – each incorporating different technologies – Mike reminded us the importance of staying ahead of the technology game. Backing up work on external hard drives, and regularly replacing those hard drives, were just a couple of his suggestions for ensuring longevity of interview recordings and accompanying digital material.

It was a captivating and inspiring day for all who attended, and testimony to the generosity and passion of the oral history community. 

Museo Italiano in Carlton. Image from http://www.museoitaliano.com.au

Museo Italiano in Carlton. Image from http://www.museoitaliano.com.au

"Who are we now?" - Victorian Faculty Dermatology Oral History Project

Since my last post on the Australasian College of Dermatologist's Victorian Faculty 'Who are we now?' project we have conducted two Witness Seminars; published them both as eBooks; developed a third oral history story - 'The change in these years' Culture and community in Victorian dermatology; and built a website to showcase the Victorian Faculty's 'Who are we now?' oral history project - https://acdvicfaculty.wordpress.com

Witness Seminars are oral history interviews with multiple people who have been 'witnesses' to a significant development, achievement or occasion. The first was for Fellows of the Faculty who began training with the College in the years after it was established in 1969. They continued the work of shaping and driving Victorian dermatology from their seniors, who had been interviewed individually in the first stage of this project. Witness Seminar 2 was for the next cohort of Fellows up to the mid 1990s. 

So far one-third of the Victorian dermatological community have been involved in the 'Who are we now?' oral history project. The plan is to continue until all Victorian Fellows have had a chance to participate and explore the development and characteristics of this profession and its community, including asking how it will be shaped into the future by the most recent cohort of Fellows.

This project has been engaging for everyone involved and a fabulous opportunity to combine oral history with community history. Because of this I was so pleased when it was Highly Commended by Oral History Victoria in their Community Innovation Awards in October 2016!  

Freemasons Victoria

Our latest Significance Assessment – for the fascinating Freemasons Victoria collection – has opened our eyes to the tradition, ritual, ceremony and symbolism of the organisation. Freemasonry in Victoria is almost as old as Melbourne itself, with the first meeting to propose forming a lodge held in 1839, just four years after the settlement was founded. However, its origins date much earlier. Most commonly traced to medieval English stonemasons’ guilds, modern Freemasonry was officially established in London in 1717, and from the formation of the Grand Lodge of England it spread first across Europe and then around the globe.

The Freemasons Victoria collection is particularly rich in material relating to the development of the fraternal organisation in Victoria, documenting the earliest meetings to create the Lodge of Australia Felix and the growth of subsequent lodges, the consolidation of the English, Irish and Scottish Constitutions, and the successful formation of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria. It also holds important early European material – from bibles to Masonic regalia (the collar, jewel, apron and gauntlets [cuffs] worn by Freemasons) – that enable investigation into the adaption of Masonic traditions in Australia alongside its spread from Europe to the new British colonies.

Many objects intrigued us, revealing as they did the centuries-long use of symbolism from the stonemason’s square and compass – the symbol of Freemasonry worldwide – to the architectural motifs and natural elements (stars, clouds, the sun and the moon) found on a variety of objects and regalia. Others surprised us, such as the collection of Masonic philately depicting members of lodges around the world. On others still we admired artistic skill, including the beautifully-worked ceremonial trowels, jewels (the badges worn by office bearers) and hand-painted Masonic aprons. It’s a collection that will continue to surprise and delight, but also to reveal knowledge, ideas, stories and memories central to Freemasonry.

'War can last forever...' History@Work's contribution to Oral History Victoria's first oral history exhibition

In the mid 1990s Dr Allan Gregory conducted a series of interviews with doctors, surgeons, administrators and others while researching for his book The Ever Open Door; a history of the Royal Melbourne Hospital (1998). The interviews were recorded on cassette tapes, and nearly twenty years later I was engaged to digitise the tapes and write interview logs to enable access to their content beyond what was in the book. I was fascinated by these interviews for two reasons:

I don't often get a chance to interview people who’s strength of memory stretches as far back as the 1940s, who were forging careers, creating families, and really playing a part in their broader social and professional worlds alongside the tumult of World War 2. Most of the people I interview were too young or not yet alive then.

Personally, I became very conscious of the way this War, although just a few years in a very full life, was so much a part of these people. It came, it went, and they were bigger than it; their largely successful and long-lived personal and professional lives encapsulated so much more then World War 2. Yet somehow, even when the War was far from the topic under discussion, it crept into the conversation in numerous ways some fifty years after it had ended. Those few years remained with every one of these people, and their families, in a palpable way.

Also, although I never met any of these people I began to get a glimpse of an Australian culture that hardly exists today, just through listening to their voices and words.

Oral History Victoria's inaugural exhibition was held in The Good Room in Brunswick East over November and December 2016. In the midst of our commemoration of World War One it seemed a good opportunity to allow these doctors, surgeons and academics who are also World War 2 veterans to speak to us about their war.

Some speakers are pictured below courtesy of The Royal Melbourne Hospital Archive. Others in the audio include Lady Joy Frew, Dr Ron Rome and Dr Tom Steel.

Light Horse & Field Artillery Museum (and my 3 seconds of fame!)

Earlier this year I did a cultural heritage significance assessment of an absolutely fabulous collection hidden out in Nar Nar Goon in south-eastern Melbourne. It began life as a representation of Bernie Dingle's growing passion and education in all things ANZAC, beginning with his uncle's stories when Bernie himself was a little boy. He is now well and truly a grown man and in the intervening years has built an amazing collection that not only interprets the many facets of ANZAC experience over the last hundred years, especially in World War One, but it also has an unusual focus on animals in war. As a mostly now retired blacksmith, wheelwright and milk deliverer Bernie has worked with horses all his life and has a huge respect for the contribution domesticated animals make to human society, particularly in war, that is evident, and indeed palpable, in his museum.

You cannot help but be affected by this museum and so I was very happy to oblige when Channel Nine News rang to say they were doing a story on the Light Horse and Field Artillery Museum and could they interview me! (A bit nervous too, but it was fun). You can watch the clip here, but I urge you to visit the museum at 200 Bessie Creek Road, Nar Nar Goon. 

History Detectives@ Wattleview Primary School

The Grade 1 / 2 students put in a fabulous effort to understand historical concepts expected of them by the Victorian Curriculum. What kind of evidence do historians use: "All sorts" "Asking questions" "Maps" "The things we see!"  The old (c1960s) paper map of Victoria caused much discussion in an age group more familiar with google maps. Student 1: "It's so big, it can't be just Victoria." Student 2: "No, I think it's the whole world". The chamber pot wasn't a surprise of course, what self-respecting primary school kid isn't amused by a good toilet? Chronology led to a collection of words and phrases to describe time in the past. And when it came to perspective there was some careful thinking about "what it was like to live with..." Living with no electricity would make you "nervous because you might fall down the stairs", candles could make "the whole house burn down" and it would be "hard to read". 

Their enthusiasm for learning how to do history was infectious so it was an easy decision to recruit them into History Detectives@Work. With their HD name badges in place it was time for lunch but I was told afterwards there was a lot of history detecting going on in the playground. 

After lunch it was time to put their new skills to work in solving the local history mystery. I won't say much about this or it will spoil those being planned for Term 4, but with their new skills and discovery of a past era "all of this reminds me of Back to the Future". By the end of the incursion they were able to report on their Local History Mystery for History Detective Internet Radio. 

Good work Wattleview History Detectives!

** For a (cute) rendition of the skills needed and questions History Detectives ask you can listen to the short piece of audio below 

** If you would like to see the 5 minute audio-visual summary of the History Mystery Incursion please contact me.

History Detectives@Work

After the successful local history detective work at Fairfield Primary School and Tallarook Primary School it has been a lot of fun developing a History Detectives@Work incursion to bring local history into primary schools right across Victoria.

The two-hour incursion includes a detective training program, after which the students will become History Detectives@Work Associates and help me solve a local history mystery. 

Follow this tag to see more Victorian primary school History Detectives discovering local history story stories that really matter. We'll be visiting Wattleview Primary School next on 13 September.

Illustration by Scarlet Sykes-Hesterman

Illustration by Scarlet Sykes-Hesterman

The Great Tallarook History Project & Website

Some time ago I wrote about the beginnings of a digital history project with the Tallarook Mechanics Institute. Well, this morphed into an exciting project with the main users of the hall for over 100 years - the Tallarook Primary School. It was completed towards the end of December 2015 with the launch of the tallarookhistoryproject.website.

After much enthusiasm from TPS Principal Lynette Robberts and the teachers (thank you!) we drew up a program to include the exploration of Tallarook's local and community history in the curriculum. My first visit to the school confirmed my suspicions that this could be a lot of fun! The interest from the children was heartening, and the knowledge (especially of family history) and willingness to pass it on was enormous. One child inadvertently came up with a fabulous expression I quickly scribbled down determined to use somewhere (it's one of the pages in the website); when I asked if they knew much about the Mechanics Institute he was quick to put his hand up to tell me "It's the elder building of Tallarook".

So using archival material and photographs gathered by the Tallarook Mechanics Institute during a previous historical celebration of that building's refurbishment, oral history interviews with their families to consider changes and continuity in the local area and in ways of family life, and drawing family trees and local history timelines from their research, a series of posters were developed explaining the history of this community. You can see these posters and read more on the website's "About this Project" page.

The children finished their work off with a History Day in the Mechanics Institute Hall, a poster exhibition and a whole school rendition of Jack O'Hagan's famous song "Things is crook, in Tallarook" (you can hear this in the website's blog page). I finished my involvement by writing a slightly more fulsome history of the building and community, and designing a website using Mechanics Institute colours to put all our historical material together. The blog page is there for the children to add to as they continue with this fabulous local and community history study in 2016 and into the future.

'I came across your page while researching my family history and would like to congratulate everyone involved in developing The Great Tallarook History Project. My family moved to the Tallarook area about 1870 and I have found this resource very helpful in understanding what their lives might have been like. Well done.' Bev Wilson, 4 May 2017

Thank you Bev! We're very glad to have been of help.

"Who are we now?" - Dermatology Oral History Stories

Having done several interviews for the Australasian College of Dermatologists Victorian Faculty a couple of years ago it was very exciting when the Faculty decided to build on these and embark on a "Who are we now?" history project.

History@Work was given the go-ahead to turn these interviews into something more engaging then a set of transcripts and full length recordings. Two themes were developed from the interview material and two oral history stories produced: "Get out of your own backyard - Training in dermatology" and "Coming of age - Transitions in Victorian dermatology". These were launched at the Victorian Faculty's annual dinner at Matteo's Restaurant on October 16th with two of the original interviewees in attendance. The voices and discussion amongst all seven were listened too with much affection, interest and amusement as, between them, they had mentored, trained, and worked with many of the over one hundred people in the room.

This project is also a great example of community history, supported by a professional community who recognise the unifying, educative and strengthening value of such endeavours. The stories have been placed on the Skin and Cancer Foundation website where they are available for a broader audience then the College members to enjoy. The Victorian Faculty have appointed History@Work as Historian-in-Residence and we will build on the "Who are we now?" project over the next year or so with more interviews, more audio stories and a Witness Seminar.

Some lovely responses after the launch of the oral history stories:

"I have to say the night was a ripping success...What I think it has done is generate real interest and an understanding of what we are about now and what we are trying to achieve." - Belinda Welsh

"I wanted to pass on my thanks for the amazing work you have done on the history project. The audio clips were put together so artfully to tell their story." - Lauren Young

"I have no doubt that the dinner itself will go down in the history of the Faculty as a seminal event! Everyone I spoke to was both impressed by your presentation and moved and intrigued by the content. You have certainly shown that history can come to life in a most entertaining way!" - Adrian Mar

"Thank you for all the work you have put into the presentation on Friday night. It came together beautifully and was wonderful to hear." - Fiona Bruce

Victorian Treasures

What a year for History@Work and cultural heritage this has been! Having worked with collections managed by Ambulance Victoria, Deaf Children Australia, RMITV, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria manuscript collection, the Railway Historical Society's Victorian collection of photographs, AND the Benella Historical Society's costume collection [yes, 6 in all] I never cease to be astonished at the work put in by the valiant volunteers who look after our precious cultural heritage. 

In collections all around Victoria [some of which you can read about in my other blog posts under 'Significance'] there are stories aplenty to tickle your fancy. Did you know, for example, that between the Great Depression and World War 2 the Department of Agriculture in Victoria established a Better Farming Train, an 'agricultural college on wheels' to travel the state and provide advice and educational displays in the carriages on all things farming [nurturing soil, caring for farm machinery, improving crop production...]. If RMITV had existed at the time [it was the first community television station in Australia but had its start in 1987] the Better Farming Train would have been fodder for a fabulous community TV program. But RMITV have had plenty of subjects to tickle their fancy and have an enviable archive of award winning television shows [Under Melbourne Tonight, The Loft Live, In Pit Lane, Salam Cafe...] and a long list of stars who cut their teeth in the RMITV studios [Waleed Aly, Hamish Blake, Andy Lee, Rove McManus, Corinne Grant and Peter Hellier amongst others]. But take a step back in time [and only a few blocks west] and you can be immersed in a room of 19th and 20th century unpublished manuscripts of the homespun kind - journals, diaries, letters home, reminiscences and personal research endeavours inspired by a passion for art or local history or genealogy [even public transport has inspired a two volume treatise by a longtime senior employee]. These donations to the RHSV were written by immigrants, farmers, settlers, miners, families, workers and travellers. While RHSV's collection represents the 'ordinary' people and the stuff of their lives, the Benella Historical Society's costume collection represents the sartorial choices these people have made over the last 150 years. From working clothes to furs, ballroom gowns, sporting attire, 'after 5' wear, wedding dresses, day and evening wear, 'At Homes' - how these people chose to present themselves, and the art and craft of their fine dressmaking can be fully appreciated in this museum's beautiful displays. Not to be outdone, the Ambulance Historical Society also has a large number of uniforms, but they specialise in ambulances and have an extraordinary collection of registered and drivable vehicles, except for the 19th century Ashford Litter which had huge wheels and was pulled by hand. They are also rightly proud of their training history. Having begun life as drivers and tradesmen with a first aid certificate and on-the-job training, the most junior Ambulance Officer must now have a three-year degree and Ambulance Victoria houses a Research and Evaluation Department for clinical research. Education and training has also been a very strong thread in the history of deaf children in Victoria and the stately heritage listed building on the corner of St Kilda Road and High Street in Melbourne has been a home, school and welfare organisation for deaf children for over 150 years. The collection in this building represents the many trials, errors and successes in the history of deaf education, deaf welfare, deaf culture and the relationship between the deaf and non-deaf community.

Writing your life story

History@Work was recently asked to contribute to an article called 'How to create an engaging family history' for an American company with many baby boomer clients. This has been made so much easier now that we have moved into a new digital era that does not rely on writing and publishing books to share your story. The most exciting thing about digital historytelling is its versatility - your story can incorporate photographs, videos and audio. This means that tangible objects - a worn photograph, silk wedding dress, well-loved toy, or a collection of postcards for example - that go a long way to bringing these stories to life can be photographed or scanned and easily included, as can the old videos of the children learning to crawl or the family holidays. There will always be someone in your family who will find in the stories you write and illustrate a connection to their lives or something of great interest, and they will thank you for your efforts.