Session Report on Masterclass: Presenting

This report is provided by masterclass facilitator Clare Wright.


Lucy Maclaren, television producer

Alice Ford, television producer

Chris Masters, television writer and presenter

Mike Bluett, television producer

Iain McCalman, academic historian and television presenter

Facilitator: Clare Wright, academic historian and television presenter


The Presenting masterclass was intended to give participants the opportunity to hone their media communication skills, whether they were interested in working as a television presenter or appearing in a documentary as an expert interviewee.

Participants were asked to prepare for the masterclass by bringing an outline of a research topic they knew well.  This brief would then be used by their mentor as the basis for interview questions or to deliver a PTC (piece-to-camera).

We started the masterclass by breaking up the ‘academic architecture’ of the room (earlier in the day one speaker had pointed out the formality of the stage vs audience seating arrangement) and bringing the chairs down from the dais.  Once in close quarters, the mentors introduced themselves.  (For full biographies see here.)  I then asked them to outline their ‘golden rules’ for successful media presentation.

Lucy Maclaren kicked off by emphasizing that as as a presenter “you are not you … you are acting as a part of yourself, that part which you think will appeal to the audience”.  Presenters, like actors, have to find the character within themselves and project it out.  Lucy argued that this process requires an enormous amount of self-reflection  (which is the reason most actors are a bit nuts) and suggested that if you are not interested in “going there”, maybe presenting isn’t the best option.

Chris Masters agreed that as a presenter, you cannot just “be natural”.  You have to perform.  Whatever your natural level is, “crank it up ten times”.


Mike Bluett focused on the “preparation and trust” that has to exist between a presenter and his/her director.  Mike works closely with Iain McCalman and talked about the process the two had developed to make sure that both were comfortable with what was happening on set.  Mike argued that the basic skill of the presenter was that of the storyteller and advised participants that they must “think dramatically about material”.  He wondered whether an professional academic historian can “make the transition to storytelling”.

Iain McCalman reflected on his own experience of moving between academia and presenting his own research material on television.  He asked “what is the pay off?” and concluded that filmmaking had taught him to “think filmically”.  Writing for television had encouraged hi to “think in scenes, pictures and symbols”.


Alice Ford pointed out that the first knock on the door from a television production company is rarely because they want you as a presenter, but rather as an interviewee.  She said the most important thing for an academic being interviewed for television was to convey “naturalness with authority”.  Alice also indicated that by the time a producer comes and sets up cameras in your home or office, you have already been “screened”.  It is in the initial phone conversations that a producer will determine whether an academic has the ability to convey their subject expertise with passion and conviction: “the performance has already been given over the phone”.

Mike gave some practical advice for interviewees: always fold the interviewer’s question into the response.  He said he usually already knows what “grab” he requires from the outset, but some interviewees will need to have a long conversation to loosen up.  Others are happy to deliver a more spontaneous reflection.

Alice agreed that different interviewees require different things from the interview situation, but for all academics it was important to “stop – think about what you’re saying”.  And when in doubt about how an interview is going – whether you are performing well enough – just “go back to the passion you have for the subject matter”.

Iain agreed that a presenter has to develop a relationship with a director but in an interview situation you don’t have that luxury.

Chris said that you will always be on solid ground if it is ideas that drive your story.  If you have something to say, “you will deliver with conviction”.  Television presenters cannot be “tour guides”.  If you find you are just going through the motions, “don’t use yourself if it’s not working”.  At the same time, Chris emphasized that it’s important as a presenter or an interview to “be generous”, “stretch yourself”, “show the public something you haven’t revealed before”.  And yet, there was a tension here, because you also have to “know your limits”, “don’t be who you’re not”.  Chris argued that “everyone can be a good historian” but “camera-lovers have a poor shelf life”.  At the end of the day you “have to have something substantial driving you”.  Chris dubbed the work of the presenter “actuality performance”.


We discussed the skill involved in delivering PTC’s, particularly the question of learning lines, which actors are trained to do but historians are not.  Chris advised to learn just one word form each paragraph in the script.  Mike said you have to learn a script in order to forget it.  Iain said he always extemporized his PTCs whereas Clare had to remember her PTC’s in Utopia Girls word-for-word.

After this initial discussion, which also involved questions from the participants, we watched a number of examples of different presentational styles, including Bettany Hughes, Tony Robinson, Iain and Clare.  We then analysed the techniques employed to get the audience’s attention and keep it.  Iain and Clare gave some of the backstory about what conditions were like on set in the particular scenes shown

Following this free flowing discussion, we broke off into groups, with each mentor working closely with two participants to turn their research material into mock interviews and PTCs.


Clare roamed the room and filmed the participants on her Canon 7D camera.  Many participants remarked on how different it felt once they knew the camera was on.  Some people found they were naturals.  One participant, Damir, who was working with Chris, at first didn’t want to do a PTC.  He didn’t think it would be for him to look down the barrel of the camera.  But with a bit of coaxing he had a go, and by his own admission, discovered that he enjoyed the experience and even got a taste for it.


(Watch this space: videos of the mock interviews and PTCs will be uploaded here once a few technical issues are overcome.  Clare apologises: she is really an historian, not a DOP!)


By the end of the 2.5 hour session, it was near impossible to separate the mentors from the participants.  But with the rest of the symposium delegates beating down the door to return to the main auditorium, it was time to put the chairs back up on the dais and restore the academic architecture.  Our participants had indeed stretched themselves and with reluctance they squeezed themselves back into their audience boxes.


Thanks to all the mentors for their generosity and the participants for their courage!


Session Report on Masterclass: Pitching

This report is provided by masterclass facilitator Tanya Evans.

All the participants who signed up for the masterclass on pitching were asked to bring along a ‘pitch’ for an idea that they hoped to develop into a television or radio documentary or a book. They were asked to present their pitch in three different formats: a sentence, a paragraph and a page. We asked for the page-length version to contain more information about the sorts of elements that might make up their work including whether they would be including visuals, what form of presentation would be used, its form etc.

I started by asking our expert panellists to introduce themselves to the audience and to give their top tips for pitching proposals. I then divided up the participants and we spent most of the workshop working through their pitches according to genre and improving them in light of expert feedback.

Alex West began his career as an archaeologist. It was while working in this field he began to make films on archaeology. He joined the BBC in 1988 and worked on over 40 factual and doc series, formats and specials. He was an Executive Producer on the original BBC series of  Who Do You Think You Are? He has produced history programs for many of the world’s broadcast networks, including BBC, ABC, SBS, Nat Geographic, Discovery, Channel 4, PBS, Five, and TLC. In Australia he produced Ned Kelly Uncovered and Utopia Girls presented by Dr Clare Wright, and shortlisted for the 2013 NSW Premiers award for history in the audio-visual category. In 2011 Inside the Firestorm, the story of the black Saturday bushfires, won 3 AFI’s as best feature length documentary. In 2012 Immigration Nation was nominated for the AACTA/AFI as Best Documentary Series. It was also nominated for the Prime Minister’s prize for Australian History in 2012. In 2012 Alex produced Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia for SBS. The series was variously reviewed as ‘truly groundbreaking’ and ‘spellbinding’. He is completing two contrasting history projects for ABC. The Art of Australia presented by Edmund Capon and Bodyline: The Ultimate Test presented by writer and comedian Adam Zwar.

Michelle Rayner: has been at the ABC for over twenty years, and has worked across the organisation, largely in radio. At Radio National, she’s produced science and arts programs, and began making history features in the mid 1990s. Michelle became Executive Producer of the Hindsight program slot in 2003, after spending a year at the BBC, producing documentaries and feature programs for Radio 4. Michelle has an MA in History, and in 1999 she won the NSW Premier’s History Audio-Visual award, for a documentary about the history of the Blue Mountains.

Phillipa McGuiness: is Executive Publisher at NewSouth Publishing, where she publishes Australian History, memoir and biography, current affairs and politics. She is also working on developing various projects into television documentaries. She was formerly Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and a member of the Humanities and Creative Arts advisory committee of the Australian Research Council. She is also a member of the board of RealTime Arts magazine.

Phillipa kicked us off by saying that those who planned to pitch their ideas should be able to describe their project in one pithy sentence. It was important not to undersell your work and to present it with as much freshness and original focus as possible. She also suggested that timing was an important factor to address: pitchers should be able to state why a story is important and why it should be told now. If writers were academics it was less important to state their academic credentials than it was to tell a story. Nonetheless, they need authority and gravitas in order to sell their story.

Alex followed by saying how few television projects get funded per year. About 95% of the projects pitched to the ABC are rejected per annum. He told us that he has a success rate of about 1 to 25/30. Pitchers needed to prepare themselves for rejection and to learn to constantly re-write their ideas. Writers and producers should be aware of cycles and to try to grasp the zeitgeist in order to get their programs made. He also suggested that pitches need to be contextualised in a package. Questions that need addressing include: why should a program be made now, what information will inform it and how will it be made? He also reiterated that a writer’s relationship with a producer is really important. These relationships take time to nurture and flourish. The audience was told that subjects do not need to be deeply researched before being pitched. An initial pitch does not need intricate detail but bullet point propositions should be clear, punchy and direct.

Michelle told the audience that she welcomes pitches at all stages with open arms. Typically Hindsight receives a steady flow from historians and she is emailed frequently with program ideas. She said that it is important that those pitching ideas for programs are as clear as possible about what they want to do. Advice about clarity and clear communication skills was repeated throughout the afternoon. Unlike television, radio’s budgets are miniscule so pitchers need, to some degree, to be able to make their own program. They should be prepared to write up and possibly present their own work. She suggested that writing for radio is finely crafted and a skill that is rarely talked or written about. It paid to listen to as many programs as possible in order to learn the craft.

Initial questions from the participants concerned funding and how historians could get in touch with production companies. Alex suggested consulting the listings provided by Film Victorian, Screen NSW, Tasmania and other states. Other suggestions included:

Development funding information:

Screen NSW also contains a link to these top tips for pitching films:

A question was asked about whether pitchers should be worried about people stealing their ideas. Alex responded by saying that he couldn’t work with someone who was secretive about their ideas at the pitching stage. How could he know how best to make a program about a subject that remained hidden? Secrecy was important when programs were in production but not before.

Participants were divided into groups depending upon the genre within which they wanted to work.

Michelle worked with participants keen to make a radio documentary including Lisa Murray, Katrina Gulliver and Dave Earl.

Alex worked with those hoping to pitch television program ideas including Mike, John, Ian, Belinda, Janet, Dick and others.

Phillipa worked with Lynette, Richard and Cassie Mercer who all hoped to write a book based upon their research.

All those participating were encouraged to make their writing and presentation as bright and sharp as possible. They were advised to grab people’s attention with their ideas and to think carefully about the historical sources they would reveal and use to present their story. They needed to limit their ambition and to stake their claim to their knowledge and expertise. All participants were advised to make their stories as engaging as possible, to craft their narratives, no matter what genre they were planning to work in.

Session Report on Television Panel

This session report is provided by Mike Nugent.

I walked away convinced of the power of historical drama and its place in public history.

The second panel of the Presenting the Past symposium was television history. Sitting on the panel were:

Lucy McClaren, Producer at Renegade Films.

Alice Ford, producer/writer at WTFN Entertainement.

Alan Erson, head of factual at Essential Media and Entertainment

Alex West, executive producer at Serendipity West Productions.

Chairperson: Dr Michelle Arrow, Associate Professor in the Department of Modern History, Policis and International Relations at Macquarie University.

IMG_5679Alan Erson and Alice Ford

“Despite the frustrations and challenges of turning historical research into meaningful programs, when we get it right I believe there’s nothing like television to bring a piece of television truly alive.” – Alice Ford

History on television is not something that just happens. As Lucy McClaren jokingly said to the historians in the audience, “We can’t write history, and you can’t make films.” Historical television is the result of collaborations between historians and television producers. What the four panelists all showed through their talks was that presenting history on television is a challenging, fragile, but rewarding process.

“Australians like history stories, and we as much as possible try to tell Australian and international history stories in a way that reaches audiences.” – Alan Erson

This shows the fundamental question of using television as a tool for public history; Australians like history, but then how does one reach and then engage with that audience? In an age where an audience member has possibly hundreds of television channels, how can history find its place?

Most intriguingly, McClaren stated at one point that there is no difference between documentary and drama. As the other three panelists had all stated, the historical programs with which they had been involved all utilised various dramatic techniques in order to tell their stories. This included creating likeable characters for the audience to befriend, but also to create a sense of heroism and villainy. These dramatic devices would therefore make it possible for an audience to engage with and absorb new material.

However, there are also certain challenges with presenting history on television. As Alex West outlined, one of the biggest problems is that of audience expectation. While an academic audience would expect a new or novel approach to an existing story, television is built on the idea of the familiar and thus anything too different runs a high risk of losing viewers. Furthermore, the use of talking heads and black & white archives create similar barriers to wide appeal.

I realised that a great example of that has been the recent historical drama Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War. A critical and ratings success, the story of media mogul Kerry Packer and his attempts to revolutionise televised cricket definitively found an audience, relying heavily on the screen presence of the well known personality of Packer, and an Australian love of cricket to draw audiences in and keep them engaged. Its usage of archive footage was limited to establishing shots of 1970s vistas. This showed that not only can these shows work, but they can work in a Sunday night time slot, one of the most important on Australian television.

This leads to one key question; As historians, how do we then regard and use television as a means of relating history? It represents an ability to reach an unparalleled amount of people in their homes, but it also requires historical content to be seen through its specific lens. No matter how academic one tries to makes a documentary, some information will always have to be left out due to the practical concerns.

After this panel I walked away convinced of the power of historical drama and its place in public history. A well made historical drama can successfully tell a story better than a documentary, and to a wider audience. While a common concern is that the historical material will need to be “dumbed down” for a wider audience, a skilled television producer should be able to adapt material in such a way that it does not lose its intellectual content. There will be a constant struggle between the historical material and the practicalities of television as a medium, but ultimately the promises outweigh the pitfalls.

I would like to finish this post by thanking the organisers of the symposium, those panelists who imparted their knowledge, and everyone else who helped in making it such an enlightening two days.

IMG_5680Alex West and Lucy Maclaren


Session Report on Broadcasting Panel

This session report is provided by Jennifer McLaren.

Some key words which emerged during the session were collaborationopinionatedcomplexinnovative, entertaining.

The opening session of Presenting the Past set the tone for the first day of the symposium—practical, challenging and optimistic. The broadcasting panelists dispensed pragmatic advice to historians seeking to understand the documentary-making process, and also set some challenges for historians to consider. Some key words which emerged during the session were collaboration, opinionated, complex, innovative, entertaining. The Panel featured representatives from the government’s public funding body Screen Australia, and Australia’s two public broadcasters, SBS and the ABC (screen and radio).

Mary Ellen Mullane, Investment Development Manager at Screen Australia, provided what she described as a ‘field guide’ to making history documentaries in Australia—beginning with where the money comes from. Throughout her presentation and during the panel discussion, Mullane emphasized the collaborative nature of documentary production and the complexity of funding these often long-term projects. She explained SA’s role in operating a series of documentary funding programs—including national, international and development funds—and how SA works with producers. A key aspect of a producer’s role is to co-ordinate funding from SA as well as a number of other parties. These alternative sources of funding might include television broadcasters and online platforms, philanthropic grants, research institutions or other cultural agencies such as museums or libraries.

This collaborative aspect which commences at the funding stage, is a feature of documentary making, and was one of Mullane’s ‘take homes’ for historians interested in learning about how documentaries come together. The team effort involved in making a documentary was raised in most discussions on the Broadcasting Panel.

Mullane also emphasized that documentary making is a lengthy process, using the example of Croker Island Exodus, a documentary which was ten years in the making:

Mullane concluded by noting that the Who, What, How and Why are all equally important in pitching a documentary project. Broadcasters, financiers and producers need to understand the documentary’s story, but just as crucial the questions of how the story will be conveyed, why it should be told, who’s in the team, and why the story should be told now.

Joseph Maxwell, Commissioning Editor (Documentaries) at SBS followed Mullane. He explained that only 10% of SBS’ factual suite is commissioned content, but that these programs rate twice as well as the remaining 90% of content which is acquired. The 10% is commissioned specifically to bring an Australian voice onto SBS programming—in accordance with the SBS charter.

SBS commissions documentaries which will attract attention, provoke debate and push boundaries. Historians should be pleased to hear that Maxwell would “love to have more opinionated historians to front documentaries” and that SBS is not afraid of thesis-led documentaries.

Maxwell showed a clip from Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta (, which was an enormously successful documentary series for SBS. He explained that in its history programming, SBS seeks fault-lines, issues that will create noise, particularly those which intersect with multiculturalism in the way that Cabramatta did. The series drew deliberately on sensationalism (guns, crime, gangs…) to attract an audience, but then used these flashpoints to explore themes such as racism and the new migrant experience, which are core to SBS.

The Cabramatta series also illustrated Joseph’s other message, which was  that the form the documentary will take is a crucial conversation, one which should take place at the outset of discussions about a new commission. A great story means little without the right form. Maxwell showed a clip from Who Do You Think You Are?  ( to emphasize the importance of thinking about how form can be used to tell a story.  The very personal and emotive nature of the stories in WDYTYA provide a connection with the audience, and a way into explaining often complex historical content.

Phil Craig, Head of Factual at the ABC also raised the importance of  innovation in documentary form. In commissioning for the ABC, he looks for history that works in prime time, that people want to watch, rather than feel they should watch—history that isn’t homework. Entertainment is important, so history which engages the audience emotionally as well as intellectually will rate well. Craig noted that the History Channel has conducted studies which demonstrate that as soon as black and white footage appears in a documentary, people switch off, and as soon an historian/expert appears on screen, people also switch off. An American documentary series The Story of Us was made with the specific brief that the program contain no archival footage, no black and white shots, and no experts!

Craig made this point not to undermine the position (and confidence!) of historians, rather to demonstrate that there are many different approaches to making history for TV, and the importance of thinking about who the audience is, and how best to reach them.

Craig showed a clip from Desert War (, a drama-led documentary which attracted a younger and larger audience for the ABC than is usual for military history. The form played a crucial role in the program’s success—weaving together realistic dramatization and powerful, emotive narration from veterans. Another successful and award-winning ABC program, the recent First Footprints used experts on screen, and was on a traditionally difficult subject (Australia 10,000 years ago), but the form the documentary took made the subject accessible.

Craig finished on the point that no matter how entertaining, you can’t retro-fit purpose, that is, the documentary needs to start with a strong story to convey.

Michelle Rayner, Executive Producer for Hindsight, on the ABC’s Radio National highlighted radio’s recent renaissance with the advent of the podcast, which has changed how people approach audio.  In comparison with history on screen, Rayner explained that an historian who wants to successfully bring a story to radio needs to be prepared with some complex and nuanced skills. She described the radio documentary-process as “artisinal” as it requires the historian to be much more hands-on, guiding the project through the writing, production and creative stages personally. Rayner’s team will work with the proposer through the project, and will bring a supervising director and sound engineer on board, but generally, the remainder is up to the historian. In this respect radio is very different from screen as there is less collaboration from start to finish.

The most successful history programs on radio start with an engaging, provocative story, which offers something different. The story also needs to be strongly argued; according to Rayner the mistake historians often make is to produce an illustrated essay on radio, which does not make for great programming! The difficult thing for historians can be compromising on some elements of their argument—not every point in an argument can be brought into the program, so some points need to be elided to create a better story arc for the listener.


Where to start? Where does an historian take their great, entertaining, thesis-led idea?

SBS and the ABC recommended either sending a couple of paragraphs of their idea to them, or even better, talking to a production company to. SA will only deal with producers, so the historian needs to team up with someone early on in the process. Radio National will take the great idea “with open arms” and will deal with the historian rather than a production company.

How do broadcasters imagine their audience for history programs?

The ABC is attracted by ideas which will grab the broad audience. SBS knows they attract a bigger audience with Australian commissions. They are mindful of retaining their core 55+ audience, but are always looking for programming which will draw in a broader audience too. Radio National is “very exercised” by the age of their audience, which is generally 35+, but  podcasting is changing that.

At what stage is the form the documentary discussed?

It should form part of the first email or initial pitch, which is why talking to a production company before approaching the broadcasters is helpful, as they are expert at thinking about form.

Is there any truth in the statement that history programming is only for the 55+ male audience? how seriously do the broadcasters and SA take the notion of the point of view of women in programming?

Craig said there is a general perception that men like military history, women like family stories, but that seems to be changing. Clare Wright commented that at the outset, she and her production team had to work hard to convince the ABC that Utopia Girls was not a story about women, rather that it was “a great Australian story.”

How ratings-driven is history programming? The ABC and SBS responded that ratings are important, hence the need to entertain, but neither broadcaster believes they ‘sell out’ to ratings. Carig said that ABC does not just commission on ratings; they consider a range of criteria when assessing whether a program has been successful, a key question being whether the program started a conversation. An aim the ABC shares with SBS in Australia.



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.

Australian History Now launched at HistMedia13


Australian History Now, edited by Anna Clark and Paul Ashton (NewSouth, 2013)

We were thrilled to be able to host the launch of Australian History Now at the Symposium on Tuesday 10 September in the Mitchell Library.

HistMedia13 delegates and speakers joined with other well-wishers to celebrate the publication of this wonderful new book.  Containing amusing, enlightening and often moving essays by 17 of Australia’s most prominent and emerging historians (including several who spoke at the symposium), Australia History Now is anything but a textbook read. Editors Anna Clark and Paul Ashton have coaxed their contributors into providing heartfelt and revealing accounts of historians practising their craft.

A chapter outline is here.

ImageAustralian history has changed drastically over the last fifty years and has found itself at the centre of heated and consuming public debates. 

So how do historians themselves read this history? Where do they see themselves in these momentous shifts in historical reading and writing? With contributions from prominent historians including Marilyn Lake, Tom Griffiths, Peter Stanley and Ann Curthoys, Australian History Nowoffers revealing and refreshing accounts of the ways Australian historians think about the nation’s past.

Australian History Now is an engaging and often surprising introduction to the ways we understand and write our history in academic, popular and school books, argue about it in the media, present it in museums and watch it on television. At its heart it shows that the way we remember our past reflects how we see ourselves in the present.

UTS historian Mary Spongberg navigated a panel discussion with Anna Clark, Paul Ashton and NewSouth publisher Phillipa McGuinness.

IMG_1956 IMG_1959 IMG_1958 IMG_1957 IMG_1960

You can order a copy of Australian History Now here.


A Few of the Faces at HistMedia13

Here are just some of the people who generously gave of their time and expertise to make the Presenting the Past symposium so stimulating and enjoyable.


Essential Media’s Head of Factual Alan Erson and producer Alice Ford from WTFN on the Television Panel.



Professor Iain McCalman speaks his mind.

“We cannot keep on writing books or journal articles in the same way and expect to get an audience.”

Iain McCalman




Co-convenor Dr Tanya Evans introduces Professor Ann Curthoys.

“Tell your own story. Be aware of others’ stories.”

Ann Curthoys




Chris Masters workshops intensively with delegates in the Presenting Masterclass.



Head of Documentaries at SBS, Joseph Maxwell, talks to delegates at morning tea.






Professor Ann Curthoys and journalist Ray Cassin reflect during the final plenary, ‘What is the  Future for Presenting the Past?’

“The good news is there is huge interest out there for history.  The bad news is how to bust the myths.”

Ray Cassin




Radio National’s Michelle Raynor chairs the Radio panel.

“Radio is such a wonderful medium for empathy.”

Dr Tom Murray




Award-winning radio documentary maker Dr Siobhan McHugh.



Academic historians and film makers on the Crossing Over panel, chaired by television producer Alex West.

“The future is good if you want to take risks and grim if you don’t”. Rachel Landers




Producers Mike Bluett (Northern Dogs) and Lucy Maclaren (Renegade Films) workshop the skill of performance.

“Can a professional academic historian make the transition to storytelling?”

Mike Bluett




Social and Digital Media panellists, chaired by The Conversation’s Sunanda Creagh.

“Historians – you need to have a publicity plan and you need to have it now, no matter what stage of research you are.”

Yvonne Perkins