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8 February 2016

Statement by National Museum of Australia director, Dr Mathew Trinca

Dr John Hirst, the renowned Australian historian who passed away last week, made a remarkable contribution to the National Museum of Australia over many years.

Dr Hirst believed that understanding the past helps us make sense of our present and future, and that we are all the better for having a keen-eyed historical view.

It was a view he championed as an early advocate for the National Museum and the institution bears witness to this philosophy today.

Dr Hirst was one of the leading historians advising the Museum in the years preceding its opening at Acton in 2001.

He went on to become a member of the Museum’s Governing Council between 2003 and 2009.

In the years following, he remained closely engaged with the organisation and its program. In particular, he reviewed historical manuscripts and served as one of the eminent historians advising the Museum on its Defining Moments in Australian History project.

Dr Hirst was one of this nation’s finest historians, and was wholly independent in his views. Over many years, he published books and papers that changed the way we think about the nation. He was unafraid and courageous in tackling issues of all kinds, and placed little store in accepted wisdom.

His studies of convict society and the birth of colonial democracy in New South Wales were ground-breaking works that are required reading for any student of history. In The Sentimental Nation he set out to overturn the conventional view that Australian nationhood was founded in pragmatism. Instead, he argued, the march to Federation had been driven by the heart, as much as the head.

Sense and Nonsense in Australian History incorporated some of his best shorter writing that represented his very great capacity for incisive thinking and intellectual clarity. John brought that same precise thinking to his support of the National Museum, its collecting practices and its exhibition program.

Generations of students were inspired and encouraged by his work, and his personal encouragement. He was also a great supporter of the staff of the Museum, and keenly interested in seeing their development and growth over time.

As Director of the National Museum, I count myself among those fortunate enough to have known Dr Hirst and to have benefited from his academic rigour and friendship.

As all of us at the National Museum of Australia mourn his passing, we also celebrate the force of his intellect and are eternally grateful for his generosity of spirit.

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