History without limits: A review of the 2018 AHA conference

Elmari Whyte reflects on the experience of this year’s AHA conference held in Canberra.

The 37th Annual Conference of the Australian Historical Association (AHA) was held at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra from 2 to 6 July 2018. The conference theme, “The Scale of History”, was reflected not only in the content, but also in the size and presentation of the 5-day long event. In content, the conference offered streams in religious, medical, sports, mining, environmental, economic, Indigenous and war history, as well as the GLAM sector. In size, the programme consisted of 5 keynote addresses, 17 roundtables, and 124 sessions, featuring 370 individual papers. In presentation, the conference set itself apart in the finer details – from the name tags that departed from the use of conventional lanyards to history-themed baked goods for morning tea. Every day, delegates were taken “Back in Time for Morning Tea”, with a menu including Indian Pound Cake (a North American recipe, not South Asian, as some assumed), medieval Gynger Brede, and 1918 War Cake (a “thrifty” fruit cake rather to the taste of non-fruit cake lovers). All sessions were accommodated in three adjacent buildings, making a large conference feel small.

Conference attendees were treated to historical recipes for morning tea.

The burgeoning interdisciplinary field of Big or Deep History was embedded in the conference theme and featured noticeably in the programme. With the commencement of Ann McGrath’s ARC Laureate Fellowship on “Rediscovering the Deep Human Past”, and the success of recent books on the topic, for example Billy Griffiths’ maiden monograph, Deep Time Dreaming, it was a timely showcasing of this rapidly expanding approach to studying our past. Launching the conference, outgoing AHA president Lynette Russell gave a deep, varied and comprehensive presidential address that made a “Plea for Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching” as the way forward for Australian History. The theme continued with the second day’s opening plenary panel, chaired by Ann McGrath, addressing “The Right Scale for Our Times”. A further roundtable discussion focused on “Knowledges of the Deep Human Past”, with a number of individual sessions dealing with the topic broadly or specifically.

The keynote addresses showcased the diversity and depth of expertise in the discipline. Mark McKenna’s exposition on Canberra and thirty years of New Parliament House was simultaneously poignant and humorous, and a fitting keynote for the location. He skilfully posited Canberra’s “peculiar sense of unreality”, and Australia’s attempt to create a national architecture through the design and construction of a new home for the federal government.

As a conference for both Australian history and its historians, the AHA provided a discussion space for current challenges facing the discipline – inside and outside the academy – from the GLAM sector and digital history to advice for historians seeking non-academic work. The tone of the roundtable discussion on the casualisation of academic history in Australia, chaired by Margaret Hutchison, reflected the frustration experienced by those working towards a career as an academic historian. The speakers, Hannah Forsyth, Evan Smith, Melanie Oppenheimer and Lyndon Megarrity offered insights and practical advice for navigating the difficult terrain many students and early career researchers face.

Conference name tags by Welcome House supported young women who had been trafficked in the sex industry.

With papers covering such a breadth of topics, choosing which sessions to attend was no mean feat. Highlights include Patty O’Brien’s fascinating and somewhat disturbing paper on the trial of Australian-born Hollywood star, Errol Flynn, on sexual assault charges. The interplay of celebrity and gender in his trial helps explain the development of a culture in the entertainment industry, one in which the protection of perpetrators of sexual crimes became endemic.

Shirleene Robinson’s paper addressed the experiences of lesbian women in Australian military service in the 1960s to 1980s – explored more comprehensively in her most recent co-authored book, Serving in Silence. The military considered lesbian servicewomen’s sexual orientation as placing them at greater risk for blackmail, positioning their loyalty and sexuality as at odds.

Stephen Foster challenged more historians to cross the space between microhistory and fiction. He cited increasing numbers of academic historians doing so successfully, especially biographers, and used his own Zoffany’s Daughter as an example. He advocated encouraging historians to write in voices other than or in addition to their own.

Exciting new work from research higher degree students was also on display. Shan Windscript’s thesis adds to a growing body of literature considering “everyday life” in totalitarian regimes, with her paper showing the degree to which diary-writers adhered to or departed from government-issued guidelines for diary-writing in Maoist China. Jane Connory is completing her PhD by practice. Her paper illustrated the use of her graphic design skills to reproduce the works of two of Australia’s first women in graphic design, Ruby Lindsay and Eirene Mort.

The organisers did an exceptional job of pulling together such a varied programme, with a large number of presenters and even larger number of delegates. Being in the nation’s capital, one felt immediately immersed in Australia’s modern history as a nation-state. However, within the conference there was the overwhelming sense of the ancient history of Australia’s First Peoples as central to the ever-evolving definition of Australian history and how it is presented on the global stage. Far more than its organisational success, which was resounding, this subtle yet discernible normative shift is where the true triumph of the conference lay.


Elmari Whyte is a PhD candidate at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland. Her thesis considers domestic service in Australia and Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.

Follow Elmari on Twitter @elwhyte88.


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