Day in the working life of a historian: Maria Quirk

VIDA’s day in the life of a historian series continues with Maria Quirk providing some insights into the working day of an early career historian the first year out from a Ph.D.

6:30am: My work week and weekends both start the same way: I wake up when my cat, Yotam Ottolenghi, jumps on my face demanding food and attention. Over coffee, with the cat now on my lap, I check emails and social media (including the relevant #academicswithcats). Twitter has been a fantastic tool for finding and interacting with historians with similar research interests. When I began my PhD at the University of Queensland in 2012 there was no one in my peer group working on a similar topic (nineteenth-century women and art) and I envied friends who found communities of like-minded researchers to discuss ideas with. Now, I’ve found that community with women from around the world on Twitter and Instagram. It’s rewarding to feel a part of a larger movement.

The All Hallows Convent c. 1910. Adderton/Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation Collection.

8:30am: I work as a curator at an historic convent in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, where my office is a former nun’s cell with a sweeping view of the Story Bridge. I began working here six months ago as part of a small team managing a renovation and rejuvenation project of the site. The convent was the first home of the Sisters of Mercy in Queensland and remains the symbolic heart of the Mercy story today. In early 2018 it will open to the public as a multi use arts and ideas precinct called ‘Adderton’, the original name of the building when it was built as a private home in 1858.

My role as historian and curator at Adderton is to research the people, events and culture associated with this place and communicate those stories to visitors in engaging and thought-provoking ways. This morning I am writing rationales for my exhibition plan for approval by the Adderton Board of Trustees. I have been given a lot of freedom to develop unconventional methods of story telling and interpretation. Object-focused displays and chronological text panels are not what is wanted here. Instead, I’m working with young female artists to develop installations and site-specific art works that respond to the building and its history.

The view from the author’s office window. Photo by Greg Henderson. Adderton/Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation Collection.

When I was doing my PhD I never thought I would work as a public historian, let alone a curator. I had a purist, simplistic vision of what success looked like for someone with my skills: a post-doctoral fellowship or a lecturing position at a university. Although I continue to publish in academic journals and am working on a book for an academic publisher, in the past year I have discovered how fulfilling it is to produce work for a broader audience. I feel lucky to be working at a distinctly female place that is intent on telling women’s stories. I have also had the opportunity to learn new skills, such as commissioning artists, installing and de-installing displays, developing exhibition themes, planning budgets and cataloguing. Yesterday I catalogued artworks by Clare Connolly, a Brisbane Sister of Mercy who developed a distinctive naïve style, and who had works purchased by the National Gallery of Australia during her lifetime. Next week I will be conducting oral histories with former students of the St Ann’s Industrial School, a building next door to the convent where the Sisters taught embroidery and dressmaking until the 1940s. At Adderton no two days are the same.

11:30am: I hop on a bus to the State Library of Queensland on Brisbane’s Southbank for a progress meeting with the Q ANZAC 100 Fellowships coordinator. As a Q ANZAC 100 fellow for 2016/2017 I am researching Queensland women poets and their response to the First World War. When I began the project I expected the poets’ treatment of the war to be jingoistic and celebratory but instead I have discovered a wide range of responses, ranging from apathy to repulsion, and a diversity of styles. The anger, disenchantment and grief conveyed in Brisbane poet Zora Cross’s Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy, for example, is startling. I have also found crossovers with my work at Adderton – the poet Paula Fitzgerald went to school at the All Hallows’ Convent and had strong family connections to the Sisters of Mercy and the Catholic community in Queensland. Like Cross, Fitzgerald wrote a moving memorial to her brother who died in 1918. My goal is to produce an anthology of Queensland women’s poetry of World War One.

Taking on the fellowship in addition to my full-time job was ambitious, maybe even naïve, but as an early career historian I think it is important to embrace as many opportunities as possible. It’s been fantastic to work with the State Library and pursue a new research interest. My meeting goes well, but I leave worrying about how I can find more time to devote to the project.

The Adderton hair sculpture. Photo by Greg Henderson. Adderton/Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation Collection.

2:30pm: Back at Adderton I meet with the architect we are working with for the re-development project, and we give a tour of the site to a prospective heritage architect. I love showing the site to new people and seeing their reaction to the building and its surrounds. Although situated right in the centre of Brisbane most people have never seen Adderton or its magnificent view of the Brisbane River. Later I work on the latest in a series of digital stories I am writing for the Adderton website on different aspects of the site’s history. The story I am finishing is about one of my favourite objects in our collection: a late nineteenth-century hair sculpture made by a Sister of Mercy from her own hair, which was ritualistically shaved when she was professed as a novice Sister. By situating the sculpture within the tradition of Victorian hair art I am hoping readers and visitors will see it in a new light, as a piece of art with rich symbolic meaning.

4:30pm: As I am packing up my desk for the day I receive an email from a professor for whom I’ve worked as a tutor in the past. They ask if I would be interested in tutoring the same subject – Global History – in 2017. I feel torn; I enjoy tutoring and would like to keep a connection with the university, but with a full-time job, the fellowship and various writing projects on the go I worry about taking on too much, not being able to deliver my best work and burning out. I flag the email to reply to next week and head to the gym on the way home. I started exercising regularly in the first year of my PhD and it continues to be an invaluable stress reliever.

7:00pm: Sitting on the couch with my laptop on my knees I quickly write a post for the blog of the Journal of Victorian Culture. The editor requested I write something to accompany an article published in the June issue, and I try to return to the mindset I had when writing the article over a year ago to find inspiration. Before putting my laptop away for the night I try to work out a schedule for preparing the next two chapters of my book manuscript, which is based on my PhD thesis. Although I am incredibly excited at the prospect of publishing my first book, it’s difficult to find motivation to work on the manuscript in the evenings and on weekends.

In many ways my first year as a feminist historian post-PhD has unfolded better than I could have expected. I have found an inspiring and fulfilling job, a supportive boss and colleagues, research support through my fellowship and new publishing opportunities. On a more personal level, I have also bought my first home with my partner and acquired a cat.

Yet I struggle with the feeling that I should be doing more in every aspect of my life and work. I thought that my weekends and holidays would be free from the ‘I should be writing’ guilt when I finished by PhD, but instead I feel more pressure than ever to fill my time with productive work, to achieve more, to do more. I often find myself lying awake at night worrying about deadlines and timeframes. I wish I could end with an inspirational lesson about finding balance and fulfilment in life and work, but for me it’s still a work in progress. Despite the anxieties and insecurities that seem inevitable for an early career historian, I feel so privileged to work in a field I feel passionate about. There isn’t anything in the world I would rather do.


screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-2-08-59-pmMaria Quirk is Curator of History and Digital at Adderton and an historian of art and women’s history. A former University of Queensland Writing Fellow and recipient of the State Library of Queensland’s Q ANZAC 100 fellowship, Maria has previously worked on the casual teaching staff at the University of Queensland and at the Queensland Supreme Court and Fryer Libraries. Her research on women and art has been published in The Journal of Victorian Culture, Visual Culture in Britain and Woman’s Art Journal.

Follow Maria on Twitter @maria_quirk.

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