Secrets spilled as students make history

Making History student Jess Bourke presents an Indigenous story from WWI.

Students of Bendigo’s Bachelor of Arts Making History subject have given voices to those long silenced this year. A host of history projects have just been made public, online and in the campus library, airing forgotten and never-before-told tales of heartbreak, struggles and intrigue.

Archaeology and history lecturer Emma Robertson says the subject aims to introduce students to a way of presenting history that will interest people outside of the university classroom.

“That’s every historian’s aim,” Emma says. “The Making History subject takes students away from the standard academic essay.”

She says this year’s cohort has embraced the project-based work, using different mediums to tell a story, including digital, film, artefacts and posters, which can prepare them to work as historians in a range of sectors, including museum curatorship.

Grabbing the public’s attention shouldn’t be hard with topics such as Bad Girls – Secrets, shame and scandal in Australia’s past adoption practices, Who’s Afraid of Baby Francis? – Neglected and delinquent children in 19th century Victoria, Silence is Golden – The untold story of the shadows on the Victorian goldfields and The Unheard Voices of Glenrowan – The tale of six Aboriginal members of the Queensland Native Police and their involvement at Ned Kelly’s Last Stand.

These projects and more can now be read on the Making History blog.

Student Jess Bourke’s work, displayed in the library, focusses on Aboriginal Diggers of World War I

“Aboriginal history is my main area of interest,” she says. “We studied Gallipoli last semester so I thought I would continue with the war theme.

“A lot of people don’t realise there were quite so many Aboriginal soldiers in the forces during World War I, seeings they were legally not allowed to be there. And originally I thought Aboriginal people didn’t get soldier settlement land when they returned to Australia but through my research I found that some did – up to five at least.”

Jess shines a light on Douglas Grant, an Aboriginal soldier who made quite the impact in Germany.

“He was unique, with his very dark skin colour and strong Scottish accent,” she says. “He had been adopted by a Scottish taxidermist and his wife as a toddler. He was such an oddity in Germany he was studied by anthropologists and scientists and an artist sculpted a bust of him. He was one of a very small number of very dark-skinned Aboriginal people enlisted in those years.”

Sarah Austin and her display of 1950s ‘celebrity chef’ Mary Smith.

Fellow student Sarah Austin has used the story of her great grandmother Mary Smith to highlight women’s experiences post-World War II.

Sarah jokes nanna Mary was like the forerunner to Masterchef. She was a champion agricultural show exhibitor in cookery and home crafts.

“Her story tells of the competing challenges for women who were coming out of active participation in the war effort and going back into the home,” she says. “After World War II women developed aspirations to do things outside of the home as well.”

Sarah’s research uncovered a host of media clippings that were news to her and her family. “I found 20 articles I didn’t know existed in newspapers, which was really exciting,” she says. “Mary was quite a celebrity.”

The Making History project launch in the library last week was Sarah’s last La Trobe commitment after a 10-year study journey.

“I originally started out in the planning course, then through the process of electives I found myself drawn to history, so I changed to study a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Planning and History,” she says. “After ten years today I had my final class. It feels really great. I stuck at it, while raising children, working full time and pushing through to get there. I’ve really loved learning, it’s been great.”

So, history done, what does the future hold for Sarah?

“I’m thinking about doing my honours at some stage,” she says, inspired by a story she found about women at the Castlemaine Woollen Mills striking over poor working conditions while working on a WWI contract in 1914.

“I think women’s history hasn’t had the focus it deserves.”

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