Accuracy and reality in historical interpretation – a reflection on ideas of inclusion, representation and relevance

I can still clearly recall my excitement when I travelled to Melbourne, from my job teaching in Katherine (NT), for my second interview at the State Library of Victoria, where I was to be offered the position of Education Officer – Medieval Programs.  I had met a range of interesting and inspiring future colleagues, I had been taken through the amazing maze of buildings that made up the Library and I had even handled a Medici Manuscript.  Before I had even begun, I was completely sold on this new professional path I had taken.

I have a great personal interest in Medieval History and I was delighted to be able to spend my working hours playing the role of storyteller to others.  I loved finding the fascinating, obscure and shocking stories and capturing children’s interest by retelling them with as much drama and intrigue as I could muster.  What’s more, this role opened to me a new avenue to use my skills in Education and open the minds of children to new ideas, an idea that had romantically motivated me to enter the teaching profession in the first place.

At the conclusion of the State Library’s Medieval Manuscripts exhibition, my role became more focused on Victorian and Australian history, and other programs relevant to the Library’s collection and services.  I was enthusiastic in delivering the mission to make students feel like it was their library: relevant, useful and accessible to them.  I also considered myself progressive and willing to share the difficult and uncomfortable stories as well as the fun and happy ones.

But since those first months working in the cultural sector I have travelled a path of my own personal and professional learning and now, 11 years on, while I still love and believe in the sector I work in, I have a more complex and less romantic idea as to my role, responsibility and influence.

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Community Events – The Penny Farthing Festival

Penny Farthing Festival 2012 by Robin Jennings

penny-farthing-festival-parade-rob-jennings
Penny Farthing Festival 2012

Every year in the last week of February, the historic and picturesque town of Evandale Tasmania comes alive for the annual Evandale Village Fair and National Penny Farthing Championships. Starting in 1983, the festival has been growing in popularity ever since.

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Valuing Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction – making history fun

Working in history education is great fun, especially at a place like Sovereign Hill.  I ended up working in this field, I believe, largely because of my love of reading and watching historical fiction.  I have not trained as a historian or a conservator, but I like to think of myself as having a little bit of both inside.  But I’m not a purist.  I love history for the fun, fascinating stories about the past.  I find the most pleasure in the creative imagination that comes from thinking about history’s people and their deeds.

Sure, evidence is important (and archaelogy is cool, especially when it involves Tony Robinson!) and teaching kids to read and understand sources is a necessary part of history teaching.  But it’s the stories that make it amazing and joyful.

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Museums Australia Conference – Reflections from Day 1

This week I’m fortunate enough to be attending the Museums Australia and Interpretation Australia Conference – At The Frontier – in Perth.  I am enjoying taking the time-out to think broadly, be inspired, meet new people and collect new ideas and understandings.

The day started with a very moving Welcome to Country by two local indigenous men Richard and Trevor.  It was presented bilingually and made the delegates feel truly welcome.  I found it very uplifting and a great way to start the conference.

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Passion and community

Today I visited the Maryborough Flour Mill Gallery in the small country town of the same name. This museum/gallery includes an antique shop, a local art gallery, a vast sewing machine museum, and apparently, a resident ghost. The Sewing Museum: “Sew What” has a very impressive collection of sewing machines, over 300, from almost 100 […]

Jamtli – Sweden

Five hours on the exceptional comfortable X2000 from Stockholm sits the picturesque town of Östersund, home to the impressive museum JamtliI found the train journey actually became part of the magic of the experience.  It whisks you through stunning countryside, showing you glimpses of Sweden’s agricultural past and present.  It is a marvellous introduction to the immersive history experience.

Picture from the X2000 Train

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Skansen – Stockholm

Skansen is a large outdoor museum, the first in the world in fact.  It covers a vast range of eras and interests – from 1860’s farming to 1930’s businesses, a Zoo, rides… and more!  They have an annual visitation of about 1.4m and receive some government funding, but rely heavily on ticket sales.  The entry price of 100kr (approximately $15) is very reasonable, because you could easily get a whole day’s entertainment out of it.

Entrance to Skansen

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History and Literacy – A Grammar Lesson with Ned Kelly

When I worked at the State Library of Victoria I was often reading and discussing Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter with students. It is such a colourful and fascinating insight into the man who still elicits such powerful, yet opposing, feelings. The language is a hoot and the explanations he offers for his actions are an eclectic combination of passionate justifications and childish excuses. Students loved it, and I loved using it.

One of the letter’s amusing features is its poor grammar. While it is remarkable that Ned was literate at all, the letter’s distinct lack of punctuation makes it somewhat difficult to read. Generally believed to be dictated by Ned and written by his friend Joe Byrne, the letter definitely reads like spoken rather than written language. Because of this, I had always thought that it would make a fun literacy activity to try and correct his grammar. Today, I gave it a bash…

I was teaching in a Year 5/6 classroom in Darwin and had limited time to think of some activities, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to call on Ned to help me out. We started the lesson with a bit of a revision of sentence features and structures. The students had some prior knowledge in this area, but hadn’t done much grammar-specific editing. They knew next to nothing about Ned Kelly (a shocking realisation to a Victorian!), so we also did a little introduction to his life.

Then I let them have a go at editing the first 5 pages of the Jerilderie letter – the transcript, not the original! – which I took from the SLV website. They started off well and gave it a good go, but as the language became increasingly more difficult and his story more confusing, they started losing motivation and concentration. At that point I started reading through it with them. As we had limited time, I had them edit it direct on the page, but with more time it would definitely be worth actually re-writing it.

When we went through it together they enjoyed it more, which I think was mainly because I was able to add a bit of emotion into reading it. I also translated some of the language into modern slang, which they enjoyed. For example, I explained to them “when he says:

my fist came in collision with McCormack’s nose and caused him to loose his equillibrium and fall postrate

What he means is:

I accidentally punched him in the nose and he fell flat on his face.”

Once we finished editing it we re-read sections of it and the students were able to get a bit more of a picture of what he was trying to say.

Overall the lesson went well, and with a few adjustments I think it would be a very worthwhile activity for teachers to run. The main improvement I would make would be to integrate it into the historical study of Ned Kelly or bushrangers. This would have given some context for the students and greater motivation for them to interpret the letter – most students I have come across thoroughly enjoy learning about Ned Kelly. The second change would be to provide more scaffolding in editing and grammar. As this was a one off, it was quite a challenging task for the students. If the students had more background skills it would have been much easier for them.

Also, I would think it would be a quicker (and possibly more fun) activity for secondary students.

Not all students like learning or practising their grammar, but with a bit of Ned’s charm and charisma, they might even find it fun! If anyone gives it a go, or has in the past, please let me know how it went.

(Picture from the State Library of Victoria – Manuscripts Collection).