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How can museums help history teachers?

Dr Peter Stanley, National Museum of Australia, 31 March 2010

PETER STANLEY: Can I add my welcome to you to the National Museum of Australia. This is going to be a very different session to the one I thought I was going to do when David first invited me to speak. I had planned to deliver something a bit more formal, and then I realised that the size of this gathering means we can do something much more informal and I hope a bit more useful. You will notice I have come up without any notes at all, and that is because I am winging it. I don’t believe in we National Museum experts hectoring, lecturing and basically wagging our fingers at you and telling you what you should be doing; I see our role very much as supporting, advising and helping. So I am going to put the onus on you to help me along here folks. This is being recorded. Excuse the formality of me standing behind this podium but it’s being recorded, and your words too will be recorded. So I hope that between us that we might have a dialogue which will not only be of interest and enjoyment to us but might also help our colleagues who aren’t here today.

David [Arnold] has been extremely prescient in putting this up though [slide shown]. I had forgotten that Claire had interviewed me. I recall that interview now. It was the day after we had a school holiday program in the bay window where we have just eaten our lunch. There was a group of four year olds, and I did indeed elicit that insight from them. It’s true, isn’t it? Look at the last line talking about knowledge, understanding and interpretation. It’s true for four year olds but it’s also true for 16 year olds and 17 year olds, the people that you are dealing with. It’s true for us, because all of us share a fundamental interest and attitude towards the past, and that is: it’s important, it matters to us, it matters that we understand it, and it matters that we share our knowledge and particularly share our insights into it. This seems to me to be a good text for the dialogue that I hope will happen in the next half an hour.

David has structured this day very astutely because you have had a talk from Kirsten Wehner earlier today who I am sure – and I wasn’t here to hear it – talked about Australian Journeys and talked about the way in which the Museum’s collection can spark questions and exploration of Australia’s history. The focus of the Centre for Historical Research isn’t so much into the galleries or towards the collection - a bit of it is - but largely our focus is directed outwards from the Museum into what I will call the community - but a community which is divided into various sectors. We publish in academic fora. We write popular history. We get involved in all sorts of means of disseminating historical understanding. Certainly what I regard as one of the most important means is yourselves, because it seems to me the Museum, and David exemplifies this, the Museum has a very strong, legitimate and valuable role in supporting educators in bringing students to an understanding of not just what happened in history but how history happened, why it’s important and how they can take a part in generating interpretations of their own.

What I wanted to do today is to begin that dialogue and ask you what you think are our hot topics. What are the things that you and your students are interested in that we in the Museum can support you by suggesting sources or suggesting or refining questions or by being a part of that venture for you and your students. I am deliberately trying to pull back from me telling you, ‘This is what I think is important in Australian history.’ I could do that but, frankly, I don’t think that would be as valuable as you telling me and each other what you think are the hot topics, what are the burning questions, what are the areas that you’re interested in and what your students are interested in. As a reserve, I have some stories to tell you but let’s start the dialogue.

LEANNE ATKINSON, WAGGA HIGH: This may or may not answer your question but it’s a request/problem/thing that drives me nuts. My kids - I don’t know if anybody else is having the same experience - are most interested in investigating the media interpretations of historical events and the influence of the media in popular perceptions of history.

PETER STANLEY: Why does that drive you nuts? I think I know but please tell us.

LEANNE ATKINSON, WAGGA HIGH: I then end up with a really general discussion with the media or a movie or whatever and its alleged interpretation of an historical event. I was having a discussion this morning about the word ‘scholarly’. It’s trying to get my kids to realise the scholarly nature of history as a discipline that yes, there is popular history - and that is the whole extension history question of the role of history, who owns history, history and identity, and all of that. But trying to get 16, 17 and 18 year olds to understand the complexity of the term ‘popular’ and the term ‘the media’ and they are differentiated historical empathy. So as far as realising that ‘popular’ isn’t just the people and that within popular there is a dichotomy. So your job is to - I do not know how you could do it - but that concept of popular history being a magic thing to get kids to realise, to understand or to explore the dichotomy of society when they are talking about history. I have used a lot of little quote marks which also annoys me but I am using the words that they use. That’s a point for discussion.

PETER STANLEY: Absolutely. Thank you for plunging in on that, because I would share that concern. It seems to me, and I would be interested in other people’s views, that asking students to address things like popular perception and media representations is starting at the very hardest end of the spectrum. It’s difficult enough for proficient people to do it, asking aspiring historians to do it strikes me as either setting them up for failure or making your lives difficult and certainly making their lives difficult and perhaps the best students might come up with some interesting insights. This morning it just happens that I spent an hour or two with a teacher from Melba Copeland High School in Canberra and an extension history student who was interested in - this sits on my shoulder and dogs me like the old man of the sea - the battle for Australia thing and she wanted to talk about popular perceptions of the battle for Australia. We were able to focus it down so that she was able to do it in a way that enabled her to do it in 2000 words for this international baccalaureate, but I was conscious of exactly that problem. It was setting her up for something that is so fluffy and imprecise that she is doing herself a disservice by doing it.

LEANNE ATKINSON, WAGGA HIGH: A kid last year wanted to submit popular perceptions of pirates versus the historical reality.

PETER STANLEY: And it’s doable, it’s a great book. But to do it for a year 12 student presumably, and you know this better than I do, how much help in focussing that question do they need?

LEANNE ATKINSON, WAGGA HIGH: Yes.

PETER STANLEY: Mind you, it is worth doing and defined in the right way and supported by - I don’t know how much support you think students deserve, get or need, but pointed in the right direction presumably it could be done. But there are so many pitfalls on either side of that very narrow ridge that you wonder whether it’s worth doing.

LEANNE ATKINSON, WAGGA HIGH: I’m also seeing some sort of display about the media and breaking that down. Even within newspapers there are tabloid newspapers and there are broadsheet newspapers, what are their agendas – they’re commercial entities. Some newspapers their objective is to pushiness, to sell units, and that gets you then back to popular, public. And then you have the TV media, so again you have commercial news and you have ABC news.

PETER STANLEY: All this we take for granted almost. We look at the Daily Telegraph and understand the agenda behind it, but it needs a degree of understanding before any given student can analyse it in the same sort of level of sophistication, doesn’t it? Thank you for that.

MAN IN AUDIENCE (BEN): You talked before about narrowing down their ideas and this year I am really struggling with having 16 kids and being able to help them on 16 fields of expertise that I am not really an expert in. It’s about trying to find mentors in the community and in cultural institutions to help these students, which is my biggest problem at the moment. When you do research you have a network of people that you touch on. These kids haven’t got that network so it is about as a teacher facilitating that network. If you have any hints or tips into how to get in touch with that network or join yourself onto a university or something just to get them started, we don’t have like a State Library or anything down where we are. I have got my librarians working really hard, but it makes it difficult.

PETER STANLEY: You are absolutely right. When I embark on a new field of research - and I have in the last year; I am writing a book about the Victorian bushfires - I am finding that I am either going to people and saying, ‘I am new to this field, can you help me?’ or they are coming to me and saying, ‘Oh you’re working on the bushfires, I have already done this,’ and you soon develop a pool of advice you can draw on. And obviously your people need the same thing. But, of course, these days we are more fortunate in that expertise is more accessible than ever before, and it is accessible by sending an email.

I would encourage all of you to encourage all of your students to write to anyone they think could help. You may get knock backs. You might get scholars who are offended by the fact that a 17-year-old kid from Ulladulla would dare to approach them, but actually I think most scholars are only too delighted, especially if the email begins, ‘I read your book and I thought it was really good.’ People fall for the most pathetic flattery - I know I do and I also indulge in it too. That seems to be a route that is open to us now that wasn’t open to us ten years ago. You don’t want any given student firing off 15 emails to the 15 people in their bibliography. They need to refine that and figure out who the most likely person, who exemplifies the argument and who is most likely to be amenable to advice. But the point is it can be done and it can eliminate that problem of distance.

I am deeply sympathetic to people who don’t live in Canberra for all sorts of reasons, not least because we have access to collections and to people that simply isn’t available to 95 per cent of Australia. Even in Sydney, if you live on the North Shore, going to the Mitchell Library is something that that family may never have done before so it is not necessarily something that anyone can just do. But you guys are in a position where you can say to the students that you know, ‘Why don’t you go and look and find out who these people are.’ These kids can find people’s email addresses like that. They may need to run the email message past you so that you know they are not going to put their foot in it, but it seems to me that that is feasible. Do you think it is feasible or is even that a burden given that you have 16 extension history students?

MAN IN AUDIENCE: My advice is to email and to try to find someone, but then again as a person in your position, how much time do you have a kid to do any sort of research?

PETER STANLEY: I think that’s what we are paid to do. I don’t turn down requests from secondary students. I have never been in a position where I have had so many that I couldn’t deal with them. No secondary student that you have whose message you have looked at will ask this person to do their research for them. They are not asking for knowledge; they are asking for advice. ‘What do you think I should read,’ they will say, or ‘Geoffrey Blainey’s Tyranny of Distance, do you think that is still relevant? It was published when my grandfather was alive,’ that kind of advice which can help to nudge them in one direction or another. That sort of response doesn’t require work because the scholar is right across the topic, it just requires them to sit down and write back for five minutes. Yet that five-minute message could make a huge difference to a kid in Ulladulla who really needs to know which 15 books they should read. I would imagine that’s the kind of support that you guys need more than anything.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I just wanted to say that is absolutely feasible. One of my kids emailed Simon Schama [British historian] and ended up in a dialogue with him. It was brilliant.

PETER STANLEY: Deserves an A for sheer cheek – spot on.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: My kid wrote to Lindy Chamberlain.

PETER STANLEY: Did she get a reply?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Yes, it said ‘I can’t help at this stage.’ She included the letter in her essay and the reply to say I am unable to assist at this stage. She wanted a comment on the display and on what Lindy Chamberlain actually thought of having become part of popular culture. She said, ‘Thanks for your letter. I am not prepared to assist at this stage.’ At least she got a reply.

ROWAN HENDERSON: I was just going to respond from the point of view of a curator, which is what I am. Places like the National Museum have systems and here it is called duty curator - so it is curator@nma.gov.au - I used to work here; I don’t any more – and you get requests like that all the time from uni students, from other academics, from school students. The most valuable advice I can give from having been in the position of someone who receives those emails is to make sure that they have an idea of what they want to know. We get so many emails going basically, ‘Can you do my research for me?’ You are more likely to get a really good, considered response if they have thought it out thoroughly, but of course it’s a real priority for all museums of all sizes to help.

PETER STANLEY: As public institutions.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: A major problem is going from a topic to a refined question. You have so many kids in the class. I can’t go into all the reasons for every topic. That is the difficulty.

[inaudible]

PETER STANLEY: Make sure they couch their approach in standard formal English. The text generation which uses abbreviations all the time is all right for talking to their friends, but it creates a very bad impression if you approach somebody and, for example, don’t include any capital letters in the message. It’s a simple thing but it’s that kind of courtesy thing which is the sort of stuff that students ought to be learning anyway. I would agree that framing the question is a real challenge. Mind you, can I suggest there might be tricks here: as I think I said to someone this morning, there is hardly any question that hasn’t been asked before. Although we want students to develop their own questions and pursue them in their own way, the chances are somebody has asked the same sort of question before. You have a national curriculum that identifies issues, questions and themes. It could well be that a question that works for a European history project this year will work very well with different nouns for an Australian history project next year.

We have already used some of those words: perceptions, for example. We have agreed that going near the media is a bit of a problem but the idea of arguments, issues and contested interpretations are things that are perennial through history. The student may be hearing it for the first time but you may be saying it for the fifteenth time, you may be inclining them towards a question which you know works but you have never seen it work for this particular topic before. But if it worked for Federation last year, it might just work for the origins of the First World War this year.

I have to say by way of intermission that I admire you guys. I started as a student teacher in fact at Melba high school where this student was this morning in 1978 and I never worked as a teacher. So I have a small insight into what you do but only enough to know that I could never do it. This is very much a counsel of perfection by somebody who isn’t a practitioner. Anything else, I am really interested to know what you think are topics that people want to pursue.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Only just that discussion about contacting people - probably the best response I ever had when I was in schools was when we were looking into Göbekli Tepe [archaeological site] in Turkey. I can’t remember the archaeologist’s name, but the students ended up having a conversation with him from site via skype. He’s sitting there at a dusty table on a laptop with the backdrop talking to students about what they are uncovering, and quite happily did that and no dramas at all.

PETER STANLEY: People are flattered if you take an interest in them.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Hi, I am Marie. One of the things the students really struggle with is how historians work, how does history get constructed. They can’t seem to see that that’s a real thing that a working historian does and is still doing. I think it would be really good for them to hear from people going through that historical process, hearing about the variety of ways that it can happen as well, and making that real to them instead of just reading in a text that this is how someone did 100 years. That would be valuable

PETER STANLEY: How do you think we could do that? Although we talk to individual students and supervisors, and part of that discussion often relates to why you are interested in something. This morning, just to draw on the most recent example, we were talking about the emotions that underlie people’s belief in or non-acceptance of the idea of a battle for Australia, and in doing that I obviously talked about the emotions of people who thought there was a battle for Australia in 1942 but I also talked about the reason - I have a belief in the opposite. It is not just a rational evidence-based view, it’s rooted in an emotion about, to put it bluntly, the evils of Nazism. That sounds a bit round about, but the point is it was talking about the emotional basis. I can do that individually, but how do you think we could do that not the industrial scale you are working on. But if you have 16 students, as you say, you can’t do it for each one of them. Is there a way we can do that?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I think what they need to be linked with is a working historian. Maybe you could run a session where two people in dialogue with each other talk about how they are doing their work and then allow the students to interact with questions perhaps just so they can hear about the process, how long it took, who helps me to do it, what financial support - they need to understand how history happens or is recorded.

PETER STANLEY: Could I make an offer here, and David is a great medium for making this happen: if you wanted to raise up a group of either teachers or students or both to do exactly that on an informal basis - if you come from Ulladulla it is going to cost you money but if you come from the other side of Canberra it won’t - I think that would be the least service we could provide.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: That would be a really valuable thing for them to be part of.

PETER STANLEY: For both of us, to be honest. When you talk about your work, you have to explain it, and when you explain it you realise things about it. So that would be of mutual benefit. So there’s a promise.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Leonie. Perhaps podcasts - or preferably vodcasts as being more visual - of working historians, perhaps interviews based on the extension history questions about who are the historians, how do historians work, what do you see as being the role of the historian. So a series of currently working historians in Australia who the kids might even - my case study is women convicts in New South Wales. Obviously a lot of those historians are easily accessible. If it was within your budgetary plan for 2000 whatever to look at doing that and putting them on your website. So we could go to your website, click on the link, there’s a little video of Sean Reeves or whoever going chat, chat, blah, blah specifically structured to those sorts of questions but without being too New South Wales presented. The general questions are: what is the role of the historian, how does a historian work, the things that you were asking about before. So if you can’t get to whatever session, that information was there for years to come.

PETER STANLEY: That’s a great idea.

DAVE ARNOLD: Does that exist anywhere at the moment as background material?

MAN IN AUDIENCE: No. [inaudible discussion]

ROWAN HENDERSON: Speaking as a curator here again, I think that sort of thing is available but maybe just people aren’t aware of it and maybe it is not labelled as a podcast talking about what historians do. But one thing that the National Museum is particularly good at in general is curators talking about what they do. There is a lot of information out there on the Internet where people talk about specific exhibitions that they have put together and how they go about that, research into particular collections and objects. If students are encouraged to look at the publications related to particular museums, the Powerhouse and Historic Houses of Sydney are really good at having blogs where curators and historians actually talk about the works they are currently doing and how they are going about it and the surprises they have. I think that material is out there, but maybe just people aren’t aware of it.

PETER STANLEY: That relates to my question because I wondered: does it have to be topic specific?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: No. The kids have to understand historical process.

PETER STANLEY: So the method regardless of topic without being dry about it, because dry is death.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: I think that would be particularly useful, because my kids are struggling with the same thing in just working out what question to ask or what series of questions to ask. They know they love the French revolution but that’s where it stops for them, or they have one larger question and they don’t know how to break it down. Something like that would be fantastic. I know there is some stuff available if you look on iTunesU, the unis have got so much stuff out there and I find that really useful. But may I suggest for people like me who are in Sydney where it’s probably not feasible to bring four kids down here to see a lecture or discussion forum that maybe if we could get a video conference set up via skype, or whichever way you care to do it. Even if it’s just one school in Sydney or maybe one of the unis or museums in Sydney - and I guess maybe HTA [History Teachers Association] can open that up in some sense - and that then makes it easier and accessible for us.

PETER STANLEY: There is already the structure of HTTNSW [Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales] which has that annual conference, doesn’t it? I am not suggesting there isn’t any structure at the moment.

DAVE ARNOLD: If I can follow up on that very specific point that we have video conference facilities here. We don’t have to have everyone physically here. We can talk about that at the end.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: From the HTA point of view, we are looking at how to use what in New South Wales are connected classrooms – ACT people may not know. We have facility to use that which we could link up with video conferencing and then beam to all schools simultaneously at one time. So that is certainly possible.

PETER STANLEY: Other strands of concern or things you desperately want people to help on?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: You asked the question before about being topic specific, and I think because of the diversity of topics that our kids do as their research project and then because of the diversity of case studies that we all do, that work we were asking about with the historian’s work and those more general sort of concepts about historiography would be the most valuable and the most widely accessed, because you are not focussing on let’s just look at this particular aspect of Australian history. One child might choose to do that for a project, 20,000 others might not.

PETER STANLEY: There are principles, methods and concepts that run right through so if it doesn’t have to be limited -

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Pools of historical thought, so post-modernism, your post-post-modernism, your pre-post modernism.

PETER STANLEY: Can I ask whether you think it’s worth while exposing students to that degree of theory?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: You have to. It is in the syllabus. They have to be able to talk about - others might disagree but I like to prepare my kids with four schools of historical thought. So I do the Enlightenment historians, the post-modernist historians, depending on kids’ interests we might do Christian historians and usually one other thrown in there so they can talk about the progression. It’s highly theoretical, and that’s the stuff that our kids do grapple with.

PETER STANLEY: That’s a course I would fail.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It is pretty heavy going.

PETER STANLEY: This is what worries me. I am not suggesting that they ought to do something really basic to begin with, because bright kids will cotton on to quite advanced things given enthusiasm, native intelligence, example and so on. But I would be really wary of exposing any year 12 student to post-modernism.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: You don’t do it too early. I tend to do it in about term 3 - you don’t want to freak them out too soon.

PETER STANLEY: Quite - or put them off, more to the point.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I am just commenting on the fact they will do those concepts in English and art, so you are just building on some knowledge they may already have. They have to have that understanding to be able to argue conceptually when they are writing in their essays. They have to demonstrate it.

PETER STANLEY: My younger daughter is doing year 12 at the moment, and I am often astonished at the level she is expected to work at, which is far and away above fifth year matric in South Australia in 1974 - it is just primitive by comparison. But again that puts more expectations on to you as well as on to them. I think it’s a terribly tough act to pull off.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: But this is a course that introduces them to first year university. They are really well prepared for historiography when they get there. We get that feedback from lecturers all the time.

PETER STANLEY: I got introduced to first year history in first year history. From the point of view of people who practice within institutions who have much more leisure, time, facilities and resources to pursue research abundantly, never feel bad at approaching somebody who is paid off the public purse to get your share of them. I may be setting a rod for my own back here, but really it’s no trouble to share the expertise that we have. As Rowan said, curators do this as a matter of course and good historians do it as a matter of course too. If I don’t leave you any substantive ideas, I would like to leave you with an impression of openness.

DAVE ARNOLD: I am just wondering, without it becoming something you feel you have to rattle off - I don’t know how other people feel but I think it would be great to get more of a sense of why a Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum, the Museum started without one, and maybe a little bit of a snapshot of the breadth of work going on and perhaps relating that again to the stuff that is happening here.

PETER STANLEY: Sure that’s good. I hadn’t thought of an advert, but that’s a great way to put it. The Museum, as you know, has been going for 30 years this year in the sense that its Act was passed in 1980, and it’s been on this site since 2001 so it’s nine years old this month. By the time it had been going for six or seven years it was pretty clear that this Museum was a great success, it was building a collection; it had opened a building; it had very active collecting and exhibition policies, it had tremendous public programs and education policies - everything seemed to be in place.

In 2006 though Craddock Morton - our late director, he left last week - looked around and asked the question: what does a great museum do? He ticked off the boxes and almost everything a great museum did the National Museum was doing. The one thing it wasn’t doing and didn’t have time or resources to do was deep research. There was lots of research being done to develop, acquire and display the collection but, as Rowan will testify, that didn’t leave much time for much else.

So in 2006 the Museum resolved to set up a Centre for Historical Research which brought in - whether or not this was the right decision I am still uncertain of - to the Museum a number of researchers in different ways. For example, we did a deal with ANU and got two academics in six months about so there were ways of building up expertise rapidly and relatively cheaply in the sense we didn’t have to pay for two academics’ brains full time. We built up a staff of about ten in this new Centre for Historical Research, some of whom were existing members of staff, a couple of curators came in; some of whom were appointed from outside like me; some of whom were appointed on contract like Maria Nugent, an Indigenous studies specialist, Jenny Newell, a Pacific specialist, and Darrell Lewis to finish the trio, a pastoral north specialist. These people began to research and they were specifically not asked to develop and display collections, which meant they could focus on their scholarly expertise and on disseminating insights from the Museum to the broader community. That actually wasn’t the right way to go, and we have modified practice since. For example, the centre brings in curators into the centre now who work on projects that relieve them from their curatorial duties and who work on books or substantial products so it’s developing a research culture within the museum. There is a lot more interchange than there was when the centre began.

But the range of expertise that those people exhibit really reflects on the breadth of the Museum’s interests. Starting in no special order we have Mike Smith, whose idea the centre was, who is an archaeologist of deep time. So the next time somebody tells you that Aborigines have inhabited this continent for 60,000 years, it was down to Mike Smith to do that fundamental dating work to establish that sort of benchmark. Mike is doing a big history of human occupation of the Australian desert at the moment. There will be a big book coming out probably next year.

We had Indigenous specialists, we had Maria Nugent and Shino Konishi, who were both poached by the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, which at least tells us we recruited the right people, but they have gone off so we don’t have very strong expertise within the centre in Indigenous history. The only survivor of that is Margo Neale who is of the centre but she doesn’t work within it. So Indigenous history, which was going to be one of our strong strands when we began, is now less strong.

What’s taken its place really is environmental history, and virtually everybody in the centre is interested in either straight environmental history or in environmental and social history, so that bushfire project that I am doing is principally social history because it is looking at the people affected by the fire in February last year in one tiny bit of Victoria, but it is also environmental because it clearly relates to a recurrent environmental disaster that strikes the south-east of this continent regularly.

We have other people within the centre who are primarily environmental historians: Libby Robin, one of those ANU people, is one of the prime environmental historians in the country; and we have Nick Brown who basically does everything but he is really interested in environmental history too.

We have spread our expertise not in every single area. For example, colonial social history is not very prominent in our program and we are mostly doing colonial social history through the unpaid associates who come to us. Now people come to us and say, ‘We would like to work with you.’ We say ‘Yes, of course, we will give you a desk.’ They get the desk and we get the benefit of their brain, if you like, so it’s a fair trade. Some of them are working in colonial social history. We can’t work in every field but what we can do is work across the main areas of the Museum’s interests, with the significant exception of Indigenous history, but our curatorial colleagues in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program are strong in that area so we don’t feel that the Museum as a whole is deficient. It is just where that expertise falls.

The hallmark of the work we do - we are very much seeing ourselves as public historians, which is why I am saying to you contact me by all means. Although we are all academically trained or academically oriented, because we are public historians working in a public history museum, there is a very strong sense of engagement with the wider community in all sorts of ways. So it’s a kind of a hybrid within the Museum. But the benefits of it can be seen not just in the books we produce but also in the contacts we make through the academic, the publishing and the popular, the media community and also in this education sphere. Is that a fair enough span?

DAVE ARNOLD: Is there anything coming out of that description that you want to ask about? Do you have student placements?

PETER STANLEY: Yes, we do actually. We have an internship program, which is principally carried out through the ANU’s museums and collections course, but we also have opportunities for what we call private interns. If someone can get themselves to Canberra for a month or whatever, we are very happy to find a spot. We coordinate internships within the Museum. We sometimes have secondary work experience students but to be honest they are not much use. Sometimes year 12 girls are really good in the sense they are disciplined, focused and they have sufficient historical skill to be useful; year 11 boys are absolutely hopeless - you know that. We do have placements and if there are education students we can sometimes find placements for them. Internships are hard to organise because you have to convince somebody else to give up time to supervise them. Invariably they don’t work within the centre, but I am open to that too. If any students want to work in historical research, we can find a spot for you. Basically we are here as a facilitator of that kind of experience.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I was just interested in what you were saying about the research on the bushfires. Does that mean eventually there will be a display in the Museum as a consequence?

PETER STANLEY: There already has been. Our curatorial colleagues are simultaneously collecting in a relatively small way because the Victorian bushfires - there has been a bit of a concordat between Museum Victoria and the National Museum. It is recognised as being essentially a Victorian event, so Museum Victoria has put a lot of energy into collecting and documenting that disaster last year. We put a relatively small amount of energy into it but we did collect stuff and there was a display in the Hall on the first anniversary - not very big. This is where the beauty of the curatorial and the historical research duality comes in, because the way in which we got involved in the bushfire research was that a community group in Steels Creek, which is north of Yarra Glen, contacted one of our colleagues at ANU in the Centre for Environmental History who now has a formal relationship with our centre and invited us down to help them recover from the fire. They saw recovery not just in physical terms - restoring creek banks, trees and fences - they saw recovery in intangible terms, in understanding the history of the community and understanding what had happened to them on 7 February 2009. So the Museum is reaching out from Canberra in a way than isn’t connected to collecting. When I go down to Steels Creek, I don’t root around people’s back yards and come back with charred bits of stuff and say, ‘Here, see what I brought you curator,’ the curators have their own program for that. What I come back with is tape recordings, documents and understanding so I can write a book which interprets that environmental social event as a manifestation of the recent history of modern Australia. I think it is working in a really useful complementary way. I have forgotten what the question was but it seemed like a really good answer.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It was a fantastic answer, thank you.

PETER STANLEY: Can I just say thank you: I admire the work you do and I am really happy to help, and that promise of us doing something to talk about methodology in some form is a genuine one.

DAVE ARNOLD: Thank you for winging it. [applause]

Date published: 26 July 2010