Session Report on Ann Curthoy’s keynote address

This session report has been provided by Chelsea Barnett.

The second day of the Presenting the Past symposium opened with a keynote address from Professor Ann Curthoys. Curthoys, recent recipient of the NSW History Council’s Annual Citation for 2013, informed the room that at first she declined the offer to give the address, initially believing that she did not consider herself having much to say on the relationship between history and the media. However, despite admitting that many of the media interviews she has done have ultimately been left on the cutting-room floor, Curthoys reconsidered, stating that the relationship between history and the media can be of benefit to historians – not only does it encourage public engagement with historical work, but it can also prompt new ways of thinking about the past, and bring up questions of historical truth. As the first day of the symposium featured a variety of media professionals, Curthoys’ timely address reiterated the benefits for historians in seeking to present their work to wider audiences through various forms of media.

Beginning with the idea of forms, Curthoys stated that truths are influenced by the forms in which they are produced. Although academic historians can often feel a sense of tension to public/popular forms of history for their general failure to acknowledge multiple perspectives and/or academic research, academic historians must acknowledge their own role in accepting or rejecting material, a process which shapes their own truth. Furthermore, although the emphases of academic and popular histories are different and thus the source of tension (academics prioritise originality while public historians prioritise communication), ultimately they share the same concerns. Academic historians, Curthoys declared, could even learn something from popular forms of history: films, for example, with their need for strong narrative, could help historians to think about how they write history, and how to maintain a strong sense of narrative while still providing contextual material and background information. Drawing on her own work, Curthoys recalled that she and John Docker used a quote from Casablanca to open their book Is History Fiction?, emphasising the power of point of view in historical narration. Such recognition, she stated, went against Leopold von Ranke’s recommendation that history be a science, and instead aligned with the views of Thomas Macauley, and Ken Burns more recently, who advocated efforts to keep history’s literary qualities and maintain a sense of accessibility.

In an interesting look at how historical interests change over time, Curthoys also recounted the trends that have occurred over the past twenty years in the public/popular representations of history. In the 1990s, for example, she stated that media requests for her historical input and opinion were framed around questions of national identity, Anzac day, and changing conceptions of Australian history. In the 2000s, this changed to requests for information regarding the death of Rosa Parks, the Freedom Rides, and the relationship between Prime Minister John Howard and history. More recently, there has been attention placed on the Howard years themselves, as well as popular culture. Providing explanation for increasing public interest in history, Curthoys explained that Australia’s televisual historical landscape was influenced by the United Kingdom, where history and public engagement with history had become increasingly popular. In May 2003, the ABC held a symposium on historical television, hoping to mirror amongst Australian audiences the historical interest that Britain held. From this, there was an increase in Australian historical television production, with shows such as Rewind and Outback House exemplifying this trend.

Although advocating popular history as potentially useful for academics, Curthoys admitted that visual media does offer constraints: namely, that academics are often not in control, and more likely to be consultants or interviewees rather than producers. Drawing on her own experiences, Curthoys recounted the difficulties that existed between academic historians and commissioners in the 1980s, and the lack of respect that historians faced through stories of her own involvement with the media. Her work in radio began with a review of Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police in 1975, one week after the dismissal of the Whitlam government, while her involvement with film began while at UTS, working with people passionate about the media, and whose Marxist influences saw the importance of mass communication. Contact with people such as these had a profound impact on her thinking regarding history and the question of audience: who is history for? However, there are differences between written academic history and media involvements that historians may engage in. Curthoys discussed the fear of saying something wrong: unlike writing, in which the scholar is able to check names and dates against sources, there is the expectation when doing media interviews that everything you say is accurate. This has taken on more importance in recent years with the rise of podcasting and thus the ability for a listener to repeatedly access an interview. Curthoys also discussed the possibility of getting caught in the interviewer’s own agenda, and the potential that they might wish to tell a certain narrative that may not align with the historian’s views.

Further outlining the constraints that academic historians can face when seeking to publicly communicate their work, Curthoys turned to the work of Michelle Arrow, previously a presenter on ABC’s Rewind and recent producer of Public Intimacies: the Royal Commission on Human Relationships on Radio National’s Hindsight, as well as Clare Wright, writer and presenter of documentary Utopia Girls: How Women Won the Vote and former panellist on ABC quiz show The Einstein Factor. Through the experiences of both Arrow and Wright, Curthoys emphasised the limitations in working with or in a medium such as television. The medium favours a single interpretation rather than multiple arguments; Arrow argues that there must be a way to present multiplicity. While Wright did not have to make many sacrifices during the production of Utopia Girls, historians are bound by the level of control they have in the production. Making an historical television program is a gruelling, time consuming experience that garners little academic acknowledgement; those who take on the experience must be driven by a desire to communicate.

Despite these constraints, there is successful public history: in the wake of the rise of an increasing interest in the history of emotions and the senses, groundwork was laid for new academic and public histories. Curthoys praised the SBS series Who Do You Think You Are?, a successful television format that, she said, managed to combine both an intellectual and an emotional relationship with history, and values historians for their expertise rather than scorns them. Further, the show emphasises the connection between the past and the present; that is, present anxieties and concerns stimulates an interest in the past. Most interestingly, however, the show challenges the division between ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ history. Previous panels during the symposium had declared that audiences for military or war film and television histories are men, while women predominantly engage with family histories. Curthoys, however, asserted that history cannot be separated in this way, and a strength of Who Do You Think You Are? was that it showed that a history of war is also a history of the family. According to Curthoys, great history breaks down these barriers, revealing how the lives of men and women intersect. The success of Who Do You Think You Are?, then, speaks to the possibility and potential for public history to be great history.

Ultimately, Curthoys was an advocate for the public dissemination of historical insight, but stressed that the relationship between the media and historians was a two way street. Historians working in the media must acknowledge the different forms and their conventions, however those in the media must also adapt to media-savvy historians as well. There should be, overall, collaboration and a sense of equality between the two sides for, despite the different emphases, the two share a range of similar concerns. Stories, said Curthoys, do not go away, but rather leave their residue for succeeding generations. Both those who work in the media and academic historians need to be aware of their audience, as history looks different to whomever is telling it. Also, plot development and character (for example) are not exclusive concerns for film and documentary, but are applicable to academic historians too. For both academic and public/popular historians, however, history works best when the past is connected to the present while respecting the integrity of both.

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