Day in the working life of a historian: Jane Lydon

Our day in the working life of a historian series continues with Professor Jane Lydon sharing her experiences as an academic actively engaged in public history as a scholar of race, identity and visual cultures.

The day starts with the usual family chaos of breakfast, school lunches and homework, and deciding what to wear. Once I have the right outfit (today, comfortable), everything else seems easier. I race around in my ugg boots on this chilly Perth winter morning, yelling at the kids, ‘teeth!’, ‘shoes!’, in time-honoured parental fashion, and then grab everything up and run out to my bike to get to my first meeting on time. (I need to acknowledge my wonderful partner here, who does the school drop-offs and pick-ups.)

I took up a senior position in History at the University of Western Australia last year after a decade of research-intensive and part-time roles at Monash University, and I’m still feeling my way into a new departmental culture. I’m finishing off two long-term research projects, and taking on more administrative responsibility. Much as I love research and writing, this feels right to me: it is my turn.

As well as this personal newness, UWA is undergoing re-structure, so many things are changing from month to month. Although such uncertainties can sap morale, I think the best way through is to focus on core business: research, teaching, and keeping abreast of changing policy. Although some changes seem driven primarily by the desire to save money and introduce ever-closer oversight of what we do, others offer opportunities. I believe that it’s important to try to communicate the results of our research to the general public, so the increased emphasis on social impact and innovation is encouraging. In addition to traditional forms of public history, such as museum exhibitions, I find myself engaging in new avenues for showcasing research, such as blog writing.

Dr Christopher Morton of the Pitt Rivers Museum meets with Lynnette Wanganeen in Adelaide in 2013 to return photos of her great-great-grandfather James Wanganeen. ‘Returning Photos’ project.

My work day begins with a meeting in my office at UWA with my fabulous research assistant Donna to discuss progress on our big ‘Returning Photos’ project. Donna manages our database of historic photos of Aboriginal people, amalgamated from four European museums, and liaises with Aboriginal communities to share the archives with descendants. Responses to our project have been diverse. Some people are thrilled we are ‘keeping culture alive’, as an Elder from the Pilbara put it. Others are more cautious; another community – also in the Pilbara – wrote a very formal letter asking us to restrict all their images.

Ultimately, we hope that this management role will be passed over to communities. Like all relationships, ours are fluid and evolving, and take time. One challenge is that we need to be careful about who sees what, especially up north where tradition is very strong: as women, we have sometimes called on senior Aboriginal men to help us manage some categories of images.

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Visualising Human Rights: David Dare Parker. Senen, one of Jakarta’s poorest areas. Here people live in illegally erected shacks precariously near fast moving trains. ‘Cry Havoc’ series.

This morning our focus is on two exhibitions planned for December at the Perth Centre for Photography, about photography and human rights. A travelling exhibition will recreate the Paris 1949 UNESCO Human Rights exhibition. We have also decided to curate a smaller, WA-focused exhibition, based on our own project and addressing important present day issues. Both will open the same week as our Visualising Human Rights conference, so there is a long planning process and I have butterflies already!

A young Aboriginal curator joins us, who quickly understands our thinking, and agrees to take on the job of developing our smaller show about photography and Aboriginal rights. Huzzah! One way of exploring human rights visually is through showing the violation of rights using images of suffering. But we decide we want to emphasise resilience and strength, to celebrate survival. We brainstorm, and get quite excited and shouty as the ideas flow. Our meeting breaks up in a flurry of ‘to-do’ lists.

Next, as Honours coordinator, I turn to final Honours assessments. (I have already finished marking my undergraduate essays, and working out the final grades.) Honours is more complex, as each thesis, written over a year and up to 15,000 words in length, is marked by two examiners, whose marks are combined, and then added to coursework results. So much goes into the Honours year – some argue that it’s old-fashioned, but a colleague at Cambridge recently told me that the Australian Honours degree is very highly regarded in the UK and I totally see why. Each student maps out an individual pathway through coursework and their original research project, and the best students produce truly substantial and innovative work. Anyway, I tally up the marks and forward the spreadsheet to the next cog in the machine.

Anonymous, [Navy photographs, 8 October 2001], Project SafeCom, Jack H Smit. This photograph was taken by navy personnel after refugees were rescued from the sinking SIEV4 in 2001, and shows the happy and relieved familes aboard the HMS Adelaide. By contrast with the so-called 'children overboard' images, the public did not get to see these until two years later when they were anonymously donated to Project SafeCom.
Anonymous, [Navy photographs, 8 October 2001], Project SafeCom, Jack H Smit. This photograph was taken by navy personnel after refugees were rescued from the sinking SIEV4 in 2001, and shows the happy and relieved familes aboard the HMS Adelaide. By contrast with the so-called ‘children overboard’ images, the public did not get to see these until two years later when they were anonymously donated to Project SafeCom.
Time for lunch – a quick sandwich over my emails. Then research! Actually today’s pressing task is to squeeze an essay, due to be delivered as a public talk next week, into a shorter, more generalist form for an online forum. The essay is about photography and migration – not an obvious historical topic. Yet I have approached the media imagery used in the last three decades of public debate about refugees in the same way that I research colonial visual culture: Who produced these photos? Why and how have they been circulated and with what social and political effects? It became quickly apparent that as asylum-seeking became defined predominantly as an issue of border security, the Australian government increasingly restricted photography, doubtless in recognition of its power to arouse empathy. Conversely, officials have actively used images to endorse policy in a range of ways.

I find the trend towards the militarisation of refugee policy very concerning, but it is rewarding to feel that a historical perspective can reveal so clearly what is specific to our present-day debates. This is what drew me to history in the first place: the delicious sense of otherness, and simultaneously, the familiarity of the past. By 4pm I have stopped tinkering with words and have started the laborious process of obtaining image permissions by filling out online forms, making phone calls, and sending emails.

As it gets dark I ride home, muttering various alternative essay conclusions to myself along the way, and happily greet my cats, children and partner. Time for a glass of wine, dinner, and some light reading before sleep – perhaps a Ph.D. student’s chapter, or a new book from my tottering pile, such as Emma Christopher’s A Merciless Place, Alison Holland’s Just Relations, or Scott Cane’s First Footsteps. Despite the tedium of admin, and the ever-present uncertainties of academia, I am pretty lucky really.


Lydon July head&shJane Lydon holds the Wesfarmers Chair in Australian History at the University of Western Australia. Her most recent book Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire (Bloomsbury, 2016) explores the role of photography in shaping ideas about race and difference from the 1840s to the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, placing the Australian experience in a global context. She is currently involved on two ARC Discovery projects: one on magic lantern slide shows as a globalised and formative cultural experience in colonial Australia; and another addressing how anti-slavery discourse, particularly its representations in popular culture, influenced humanitarian campaigns from 1890 to the present. Jane’s research more broadly explores visual cultures in an effort to understand how images have shaped ideas and debates about rights, identity and culture that persist into the present.

Follow Jane on Twitter @LydonJane.

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