Contemporary Histories

Contemporary Histories refers to the history that is still 'with us', or the unfinished business of the past. This means that we are focused primarily, but not exclusively, on twentieth century history, and we are interested especially in historical episodes, life stories and interpretations that reverberate in the present, for public debate and policy. What, for example, are some of today's legacies of colonial history in the Pacific? How are wars, acts of rebellion, stories of migration remembered in ways that have popular appeal or political implications? How have political contests changed since the 1960s? And how do stories from the frontier of white settler encounters with Australian Aborigines assist in understanding and reconciliation today?

We draw especially on Deakin's teaching and research strengths in histories of war and peace, modernisation and social change, frontier encounters, colonialism and decolonisation, nationalism and internationalism, as relating to Australia and the Pacific, the United States, France and Germany, and modern world history in general. We also draw on other disciplines, acknowledging that lived history is felt and investigated in multiple ways.

We hold regular seminars on contemporary histories, supervise honours and doctoral students, and encourage history major internships with our group. We support the work of the Australian Policy and History network, and we promote the study of contemporary histories and collaborate with groups in Australia and overseas.

We also have a number of projects focused on making connections with the Asia-Pacific region and we are founders of the Australian Policy and History network.

For further information contact Exectutive Leaders: Dr Christopher Waters or Professor David Lowe (former Director of the Alfred Deakin Research Institute).

View our projects below.


Our Projects

Wise Guys: The Changing Role of the Public Intellectual.

A current work by Dr Cassandra Atherton on American public intellectuals in academe spans two books and a series of articles. The first is a book of interviews with American public intellectuals including Noam Chomsky, Todd Gitlin, Kenneth T. Jackson and Howard Zinn (forthcoming from Australian Scholarly Press).  These interviews explore the advantages and disadvantages of the contemporary American public intellectual working in the so-called ivory tower.  The interview with Howard Zinn won the University of California's Mary Schroeder award.  In progress is a second book, Wise Guys, a critical monograph on the changing role and responsibility of the American public intellectual in academe.   

Minutes of Evidence Project: Promoting New and Collaborative Ways of Understanding Australia's Past and Engaging with Structural Justice

This groundbreaking collaboration between researchers, leading Indigenous theatre performers and nine Industry Partners will produce a series of unique verbatim-theatre public performances based on archival texts, which invoke both the authority of oral Indigenous accounts and the power of the written archive, offering the Australian community an unprecedented insight into the nation’s past. The project promotes new ways of conceptualising injustice, develops curriculum materials for schools, offers training for Indigenous policymakers, an Indigenous PhD scholarship, school workshops, public forums, a website and a range of scholarly publications, allowing the project's presence to span several media, including theatre, print and internet. This project is led by the University of Melbourne and funded by the Australian Research Council and a number of research partners.

Ann Bon and the Women of Coranderrk

This research project is Dr Joanna Cruickshank's primary research task within the broader ARC Linkage Project LP110200054 described above. It examines the role of women in the 1881 Victorian Commission of Inquiry into the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve, when Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people campaigned for the rights of Coranderrk residents. The first part of the project is an analysis of the role of Aboriginal women who spoke out during the Inquiry, calling for justice for themselves and their families. It draws on both archival sources and oral history to tell their story. The second part of the project is a biography of Ann Bon, an ally of the Coranderrk residents and the only woman appointed to the Victorian Board of Protection. This project draws attention to the way in which issues of gender were central to both oppressive and co-operative relations between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people.

Women of Faith: Missions, Gender and Colonialism in Australia

This project explores the role of women in Protestant missions in Australia, from the early decades of the nineteenth century to the 1920s. It examines the circumstances that made cross-cultural exchanges of faith, learning, family and work on Australian missions distinctive. This project is being undertaken in collaboration with Professor Pat Grimshaw of Melbourne University. Dr Joanna Cruickshank and Professor Grimshaw are currently co-writing a monograph, due for completion in July 2013, which traces the role of Protestant women missionaries through a series of chronological, inter-related case studies of missions, female missionaries and Indigenous women from 1800 to c1930.

Sermons in Colonial Australia

This project is the first examination of preaching and sermons in colonial Australia, from colonisation until c1870. When Christian preachers arrived in the new colonies of Australia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they brought with them a long-established and highly-theorised homiletic tradition. In the particular conditions of colonial life, this tradition was continued, critiqued and adapted. In the colonial environment, British preachers faced new pastoral, ethical and theological questions, which they addressed in and through their sermons: geography changed these preachers and their preaching. As a publishing industry began to develop in Australia, some of these sermons were published and widely distributed among the settler population. Common themes in these sermons provide evidence of the social and theological preoccupations of colonial religious leaders. The ways in which the genre of sermon was transformed in this context can tell us much about the transmission of Christianity to Australia and the place of religion in colonial life.

Finding Kin: The Writing of Kamilaroi and Kurnai
Dr Helen Gardner

This study of missionary anthropology in the 1870s and 1880s in the Australian colonies and the South Pacific has already resulted in a number of articles and chapters. The final task is to complete the book of the above title. It is being written in partnership with anthropologist Dr Patrick McConvell from the Australian National University. Half of the book has been completed with drafts of the other chapters in various stages.

The Decolonisation of Melanesia
Dr Helen Gardner (with Dr Chris Waters)

This is a broad investigation of the decolonisation of Melanesia from both a local and international perspective. The project has so far produced two workshops and a special issue for the Journal of Pacific History edited by Helen Gardner and Christopher Waters. The project has recently expanded to other academics in Australia in preparation for the Pacific History Association Conference in Wellington this coming December. Associate Professor Fiona Paisley and Dr Geoff Gray have joined the team for a panel on internationalism and decolonisation in the Pacific.

Australian Politicians and the Uses of History: From Federation to the Present
Professor David Lowe

While competing interpretations of Australian history occasionally attract controversy, there is a need for a comprehensive analysis, over time, of the significance of histories and history-making for Australian politicians. In taking the longer view of Australian political speech and thought since the Federation, this study will provide a stronger foundation for both political engagement with historical themes and public appreciation of the continuing role of history in contemporary policy debates. It will add depth to public understanding of political dialogue and how it is informed by national and international histories. This project is funded by the Australian Research Council.

Life Stories and Leadership in Papua New Guinea
Dr Jonathan Ritchie

This project will record and retell the life experiences of a diverse group of Papua New Guinean men and women, for the benefit of current and future generations of PNG’s leaders. Through a collaboration between among other institutions Deakin University, the PNG National Research Institute, the University of PNG, and the Pacific Adventist University, the project will see Papua New Guinean and Australian researchers recording ‘whole of life’ oral history interviews with prominent Papua New Guineans, many of whom are now of advanced age and will not be available to be interviewed for much longer; if not recorded soon, their memories will be permanently lost to the nation.  The resulting material will permanently retained in appropriate repositories and drawn on for use in biographies, radio and television programs, internet applications and educational curricula for schools and leadership programs.  It will promote the values of historical research and scholarship among Papua New Guineans through the provision of scholarships and fellowships and will be the embodiment of the exhortation displayed on a Port Moresby street sign: ‘think about the past to shape the future’.

Exploring the Middle Ground: New Histories of Cross Cultural Encounters in Australian Maritime and Land Exploration
Dr Tiffany Shellam

This project proposes the concept of the middle ground to describe and represent the nature of cross-cultural encounters and relations within the history of Australian maritime and land exploration. Through a series of detailed cross-cultural historical studies of key exploration expeditions, the study seeks to re-establish the critical importance of exploration as a site in which relations between Indigenous people and others developed, including in ways that were influential in shaping later race relations within the context of occupation and settlement. In this way, the concept of the middle ground is also presented as a means by which to unsettle Australian history's conventional periodisation into pre-settlement and settlement phases. This project is funded by the Australian Research Council and is led by the Australian National University.

A History of the Colonisation of Australia’s Indigenous People, 1750-1911

Dr Tiffany Shellam

This project aims to research and write a new history of the colonisation of Australia and the Indigenous response to colonisation. The proposed research will cover the period from mid 18thC to 1911 and will narrate the history of the interactions between the Indigenous inhabitants and the colonists. By asking new research questions in a framework of conceptual re-thinking and methodological innovation, this study will reframe the narrative of colonisation in the following ways:

  • Rather than a ‘domestic narrative’, the colonisation of Australia will be conceived as a transnational story involving a three-way political relationship: between Indigenous peoples, the colonists in Australia and influential political and religious authorities, of diverse opinion, outside Australia
  • Recast the narrative of colonisation through new research that will illuminate the complexities and diverse experiences of colonisation. Fine grained ethnographic case studies of both iconic and less well known colonial encounters will be produced using fresh archival materials to reveal neglected or underutilised histories. A particular objective of these case studies will be to infer Indigenous experiences of colonisation and to illuminate moments of hesitation and indecision within the structures of the colonial encounter
  • Geographically re-navigate the narrative of colonisation by offering new case studies from WA, SA and the north of Australia, in order to balance the usual concentration on the eastern colonies
  • Re-periodise the narrative of colonisation in two ways: (a) to trace some pre-settlement encounters, treating the period before 1788 as an important foundational period in this history; and (b) to conclude the ‘long 19th century’ in 1911, when the federal government, by taking on ‘Aboriginal policy’ in the Northern Territory, initiated an unprecedented inter-governmental politics of Indigenous policy. A transnational approach will take seriously the ways in which Britain gradually withdrew its oversight of colonial affairs, in deference to settler-colonial liberalisms.

The Decolonisation of Melanesia
Dr Chris Waters (with Dr Helen Gardner)

This is a broad investigation of the decolonisation of Melanesia from both a local and international perspective. The project has so far produced two workshops and a special issue for the Journal of Pacific History edited by Helen Gardner and Christopher Waters. The project has recently expanded to other academics in Australia in preparation for the Pacific History Association Conference in Wellington this coming December. Associate Professor Fiona Paisley and Dr Geoff Gray have joined the team for a panel on internationalism and decolonisation in the Pacific.

The Culture of War: Private Life and Sentiment in Australia 1914-18
Dr Bart Ziino

The social and political outlines of Australia's First World War are clear, yet the emotional world, or 'culture of war', in which Australians lived the war is only partially appreciated. This project examines the lived experience and agency of civilians in making war between 1914 and 1918. Engaging with current international debates about the cultural history of the First World War, it investigates the extent to which ordinary Australians' everyday attitudes, feelings and activities made and sustained the war. Redressing the privileging of soldiers' voices in Australian war historiography, it provides an innovative reconceptualisation of the Australian experience of war. This project is funded by the Australian Research Council.

Deakin University acknowledges the traditional land owners of present campus sites.

14th July 2015