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Private Lives, Public History
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Private Lives, Public History
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Private Lives, Public History
Anna Clark, Melbourne University Press, 2016
Paperback, 180 pp.


The past is consumed on a grand scale: popularised by television programs, enjoyed by reading groups, walking groups, historical societies and heritage tours, and supported by unprecedented digital access to archival records. Yet our history has also become the subject of heated political debate.

In this book, historian Anna Clark explores how our personal pasts intersect with broader historical questions. Drawing on interviews with Australians from five communities around the country, she uncovers how we think about the past in the context of our local and intimate stories, and the role that history plays in our lives.

Title Reviews

In "Private Lives, Public History," Anna Clark aims to ‘populate public and political discussions about national history with the voices of ordinary people’. She draws on research that involved interviews with people in five different communities around Australia to explore how personal pasts and attitudes towards history relate to broader historical questions and the more formal practice of history.

Clark described her research methodology as a form of ‘oral historiography’ that was motivated by an interest in historical consciousness and a desire to ‘investigate different readings of the past beyond the conventional spheres of academic or public debate’. What emerged was evidence of a widespread interest in history, or ‘past-mindedness’, that contrasts with anxiety about the health of history in schools and universities or the political reaction when surveys appear to reveal ignorance about events or personalities deemed significant in the national story. Interest in and engagement with history is in fact quite healthy, especially when gauged according to Clark’s inclusive definition:

history is what happened, and it’s something we do. History is learned, studied and critiqued. It’s also gossiped, chattered, whispered, imagined and laughed. We do it at home, at school and at university, as well as in the media, in libraries, in politics and in public.

One of the strengths of this book is the effective way in which Clark blends the results of her own research with numerous observations drawn from a wide range of sources. While these well-documented references add to the richness of the insights, they are also a great bonus for other researchers, including History Extension students, who will be able to profitably mine this book for their own purposes.

I particularly like the apparent endorsement for a number of things that I have always suspected (and often suggested in History Extension lectures), such as:

‘people tend to become more interested in history as they get older’,
‘historical consciousness is much more likely to be piqued and shaped by family and community attachments than any official national narrative learned in school or gleaned from public ad campaigns’,
‘historical consciousness came across as a need for the past, a need to see ourselves as part of a longer, and larger, historical narrative’.

At a time when there is a good deal of misunderstanding amongst academics about the place of the Anzac story in school history, I find Clark’s balanced approach heartening. Eschewing the adversarial stance that too often produces fruitless polarisation, she recognises the Anzac legend as occupying a complex place in Australian history. Just as the original commemoration was motivated by enormous grief in the aftermath of World War I, ongoing commemoration has deep community roots that can easily be overlooked by academic historians who are too intent on demonstrating a critical approach. There are alternatives to choosing between the black arm band and red bandana extremes when it comes to Anzac and commemoration – as Clark observes, ‘people’s responses to the commemorative space don’t fit on a linear continuum, with connection on one side and critique on the other’. A similarly nuanced view is demonstrated in a quote from Michelle Arrow:

If we only look at national commemorations and popular histories in terms of the ways they are deployed in political debate, then we are in danger of missing their personal and affective dimensions.

This relatively slim volume is accessible, interesting and relevant. Drawing on a wide range of reading as well as the author’s own interviews, it will be useful to anyone researching in the area. At the same time, both the subject matter and the way in which it is presented will appeal to anyone with an interest in Australian history, the debates around it and the increasingly interesting focus on the relationship between academic and public history. For all these reasons, it can be highly recommended to History Extension teachers and students.
Paul Kiem


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