Q&A with Ann McGrath: An AHA early career researchers series

The Australian Historical Association‘s network of Early Career Researchers has commenced a Q&A interview series with Australian historians. Here, we repost their interview with Australian Women’s History Network member Ann McGrath.

Ann McGrath

Professor of History and Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University

1. Why do you write history?

As a student at the University of Queensland in the mid-1970s, I hoped that writing history could help change the world. By answering some key questions, it seemed to promise greater social justice. Why was there a White Australia policy? What happened to all the many Asians and Pacific Islanders who had lived in Queensland? Why were women so discriminated against? History offered a way to expose national secrets – the lies and evasions in the present.

Influenced by the New Left historians and the civil rights campaigns of the United States, I anticipated that exposing the great injustices of the past, especially racism, would prevent discrimination and in turn lead to restitution in my own country.

Lined up on the University’s library shelves, Queensland parliamentary papers contained startling, unabashed revelations about nineteenth century racism. Primary sources put a lie to history’s omissions.

So too did interpretative writing. On one of my visits to the University of Queensland library, I recall how profoundly a particular article affected me. It was in the academic journal Historical Studies (now Australian Historical Studies). An article by Henry Reynolds, it tallied up the numbers of Aboriginal people likely killed on the Australian frontiers. This blew me away. Such topics were not spoken about amongst the people I grew up with and we had never heard of any of this in our Queensland school education. This article demonstrated the great power of the pen for local impact, enhanced by the clout of scholarly publishing. Ironically, Reynolds quickly ditched the journal article genre and went onto collecting oral history and writing bestselling books. This strategy was highly successful at spreading his findings widely and changing public consciousness, possibly even changing the law. Without work such as his, would we have had the Mabo Judgement?

So, I wanted to get to the bottom of various lies. Although the secrets of race and history were certainly held very tightly in the Queensland in which I grew up, I think ‘silence’ is too weak a word. As a child, I was curious about the past and recall asking: ‘What happened to the Aborigines?’ It seemed peculiar to me that places were named after them but that they were no longer apparently there. Indigenous names adorned most of the Sunshine Coast of Queensland where we holidayed. The most intriguing landscape features such as the awe-inspiring beast-like shape of Mount Tibrogargan, one of the Glasshouse Mountains, loomed large in the imaginative landscape of my childhood. In response to my question, I was told that the aborigines ‘simply disappeared’. Even to a child who fervently believed in magic, this was an unsatisfying explanation.

Towards my final years at the University of Queensland, I turned from Asian language and history studies to Australian history. My tutors Raymond Evans and Kay Saunders were doing breakthrough research on the history of Queensland race relations. With their guidance, I undertook my honours thesis on Asian Labourers in Colonial Queensland.

2. Who do you write for?

I prefer to write for a wider audience; journal articles are not my preferred genre as they are very much aimed at fellow professionals. However they are seen as indices of excellence and as I just explained, can present peer-reviewed, breakthrough evidence. I like to write in a way that can ‘cross over’ and that can change public perceptions about their nation, about the world.

I want to share real people’s stories from the past with diverse audiences. I feel most satisfied when someone who is not an academic tells me that a particular piece of my writing has profoundly changed their views.

Every history story is more multi-layered and operates at an intimate, emotional level and political levels too. History is not simply the story of oppression. At every turn, ordinary people have been activists, struggling to change their own futures. The synergies between particular wider trends and the wider world mean that all the worlds of history are connected; people are connected; eras are connected; places are connected and memories.

It is too easy to overlook the richness in the world when caught up in the day to day disappointments of politics or the troubling mood of ‘dark times’. Neither the threat of anti-immigration, religious discrimination or racism are new. Nor are peculiar attitudes to the climate. We engage in memory work in more professional ways.

Historians can be activists. We address social change; we study how we got to where we are now. With facts and new perspectives, we can overturn any number of ‘common sense’ narratives.

It’s not always a story of more knowledge leading to change for the better. You only have to consider the history wars and the culture wars. Australian historians thought that we had made great progress by spreading truths and facts about our national past. Whereas Aboriginal people and Asian people may have known the stories, the general public did not. More diverse people gradually entered academe, offering first hand perspectives. By the 1990s, we thought we’d made a big difference. It was out there. Many historical gaps were filled in. Then all the backlash post-Mabo, post-Bringing them Home Report (1997), and the drawn out Sorry Campaigns over the Howard era.

The National Museum, where I worked during its foundation period, endured its own History Wars. I thought those debates were so counterproductive that I attempted to avoid them altogether. They seemed to give air to rubbish arguments not founded on fact. Rather than defending what historians had done before, via our new Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University, I focused upon attempting to progress and encourage new directions for historical research. Changes to fixed national views are incremental, and bumpy. It takes sustained activism like that of the Aboriginal campaigners who have long been patient and well organized.

Although the Australian War Memorial will not include stories of massacres, at least Rover Thomas’ painting Massacre (1985) got onto its walls. An Aboriginal contingent led the Anzac day march this year and there is a memorial in the grounds near the War Memorial. Gradually things change a bit. The world turns.

The characters in my latest book Illicit Love: Interracial Sex and Marriage in the United States and Australia (2016) went through great travails. The Cherokee people were forcibly kicked off their land, enduring the terrible toll of the Trail of Tears, and afterwards having to readjust on poor land. Yet, despite resentments and great injustice meted out by the Anglo American government, Cherokee men found great love across the colonizing boundaries. In such unions, some married, had children, and reared them to become leaders and fighters. It’s inspiring. There are bright spots even in the most divisive stories of colonialism. On Australian frontiers too lovers cherished their children and some managed to rear them against the whims of an antagonistic state. I try to balance the micro with the macro, looking at people’s individual lives and also that of larger communities and nations, and then outwards transnationally and globally. There’s so much scope in history for rich narratives that reveal insights into how power operates on many different scale.

3. Is history a science, an art or a craft?

I think it’s more of an art. To be honest, I choose this option because I love art and understand it better than science. In art, you can be evocative. You don’t have to spell everything out; art can be poetic, embodied, visceral. People can feel its raw emotion, its direct message without its having to explicitly spell out every argument. In history, you can learn from people’s stories, from rich descriptions, from anecdotes and metaphors. There’s room for the reader to use their own imagination and to draw their own conclusions. That’s not the case in science journals – the key science publication medium. Their data has to be presented very simply – almost clinically, and the conclusions must be clearly spelt out. (Albeit popular science writing is a different genre again; it can be riveting and full of useful analogies and stories, but is often written by journalists.) We teach students techniques, there’s training and skill just like for artists. Not everyone has the skills of an academic historian.

Trained historians too, have to keep adjusting to a changing world. There’s much craft in it. (Even footnotes remind me of knitting or perhaps dentistry – filling in holes.) I’m always re-editing, sometimes this doesn’t feel terribly creative but it can lead to a nice finish. A good polished sheen.

Of course there are many different kinds of history books, journals and non-text based history genres – film, museum exhibitions, radio, digital history, heritage sites and the list goes on.

4. What role does the imagination play in history-writing?

Everything. You enter the world of your historical characters. You share their experiences. You get to know them. You are living with them for quite a while. Then, your duty is to tell the world about them. You owe it to them to do it as well as you can. We don’t report. We don’t share data. Rather, we try to learn as much as possible about what happened in their lives, then we creatively immerse ourselves in another world. You can’t do this if you don’t try to imagine that world – consciously or unconsciously. Then you need to think of imaginative ways to tell the story. And to make it work as both narrative and analysis. There’s no simple technique. Empathy is just as important to me as imagination.

5. How do you think history in general, and Australian history in particular, have changed in your life times?

I am amazed by how much it has changed. In my Honours year, in the first seminar, the Professor running the Australian history honours course said that he hoped no-one would pick the essay topic of women. He informed us that one person had done that last year and that he’d had enough of it.

Indeed, history used to be written as the story of the great men of empire – the great events – political and legislative. Australian labor history brought in the working men and the radicals. The women turned up in history much later, after second wave feminism and after women themselves burst into the academy. It may be hard to believe now, but in most general Australian history texts, Aboriginal Australians were virtually absent. It was as if the convict era expunged them. Their history and the relational history between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians cannot be ignored anymore. So historians have successfully exposed many of our national secrets.

6. Tell us about what you’re now working on.

I am trying to tell something of the story of Lady Mungo, an Aboriginal woman who lived 40,000 years ago in south-eastern Australia. However I am increasingly realizing that it will be more a story of relationships of people over the last few decades. She has disturbed the surface of the present and changed people’s lives. Those around her continue to create a drama of nation and of wider humanity. History needs to continually reinvent itself and hopefully she will help us do so. For she challenges what history actually is.

7. What advice would you give to Early Career Researchers about making a career as an historian?

On this, I’ll paraphrase the advice of my dear friend and colleague the late Mickey Dewar, a highly respected historian of the Northern Territory:  “Just do the next fun project, and in 20 years’ time you’ll look back and you will have had a wonderful career.” Mickey Dewar was an amazing history communicator, teaching, working in museums, in heritage, in libraries and archives, and also publishing many articles and prize-winning books. To that brilliant advice I would add that you should not take any notice of elder historians who claim that a new trend or media for conveying history is a “passing fad”. Trends in history often respond to important issues that require urgent address in our society. If one of these comes calling, follow it. Always take up the topics that you think are important now and that mean something to you. And do not avoid working in new media.

See the original post and find out more about the Australian Historical Association’s network of Early Career Researchers here.


Ann McGrathAnn McGrath‘s main interests are gender, colonialism, the history of Indigenous relations and intermarriage in Australia and North America, and the themes of deep history, spatial history and scale. Her publications include Illicit Love: Interracial Sex and Marriage in the United States and Australia (University of Nebraska, 2015) and Born in the Cattle (Allen & Unwin 1987). Ann is interested in presenting scholarly history in a range of genres. Exhibitions curated include one on Women and Childbirth during the Federation era and one on International Outlaws as national heroes. Ann produced the film A Frontier Conversation (Wonderland Productions, Ronin distributors, 2006) and with Andrew Pike, co-directed and produced the prize-winning Message from Mungo (Ronin, 2014). Ann has worked as an advisor on various television and film projects. Her consultancy and outreach work has included co-ordinating the history project of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, working as an expert witness in the Gunner and Cubillo case, and on various Northern Territory land claims.

Ann was accepted as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to history, especially Indigenous history. Her work has also been recognised by the award of the Inaugural W.K. Hancock prize, the Human Rights Award for non-fiction, the John Barrett Prize, the Archibald Hannah Junior Fellowship at the Beinecke Library, Yale, Membership of the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham and Membership of the School of Social Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarly Residency at Bellagio and an Honorary Doctorate at Linneaus University, Sweden.

Follow Ann on Twitter @AnnMcGrath5.

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