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Working together to tell the story of South Australia

To ensure younger generations know their past, we really need to be decisive now, argues Dr Kiera Lindsey.

Mar 13, 2024, updated Mar 13, 2024
The South Australian Stories Survey Initiative invites anyone with a passion for South Australia’s past to tell the History Trust more about what they are doing and why.

The South Australian Stories Survey Initiative invites anyone with a passion for South Australia’s past to tell the History Trust more about what they are doing and why.

Last week I met with a group of enthusiasts to explore the challenges of generational renewal among the state’s historical societies.

Typically, these societies hold local records and objects relating to a specific region and are run by volunteers who have dedicated decades to caring for these community collections so they can be handed to future generations.

“There’s juicy stuff in there, for sure,” said one spritely gentleman who grinned when I asked what he did and why.

“We have stories about eccentrics and salt of the earth sorts who did something really interesting with their lives. You get such a sense of place, but these days everyone is so busy on their phones…” he petered out.

“We are running out of time too,” a well-groomed woman chimed in. “But who do we pass this onto and how?”

It was a sobering conversation, and as a small fan tried to cool the forty or so people jammed into a hot but well-cared-for room I found myself worrying about the future of history.

I felt a little angry too, I confess, for the hard work of these history enthusiasts deserves to be respected.

Keen to turn the conversation to something positive, I asked if there was any good news.

“We love South Australian history,” my host, a dapper figure in his sixties, piped up before his son described a recent visit to a large interstate museum, ostensibly dedicated to Australian history.

“I couldn’t believe it – there was hardly anything about South Australia. Nothing about our political reforms, not even the female vote. It was as if we didn’t exist. I mean, how can you tell the nation’s story when you’re missing such a big piece of the jigsaw?” he asked.

How indeed, I agreed, as others expressed their exasperation at the deeply ingrained east-coast orientation of Australian history.

Having taught Australian history in universities for over 20 years and regularly compared South Australia to other states and territories, I believe there is something distinctive about the state’s story.

Although historians like to cite exceptions to popular notions such as “South Australian Exceptionalism”, even Professor Wilfrid Prest, co-editor of the Wakefield Companion to South Australian History, observes: “it is hard to refute the state’s track record in cultural, political and social innovation, scientific and technological inventiveness”.

So why is the state’s rich history not better known by South Australians, let alone the rest of Australia?

I have been wrestling with these questions since commencing as History Advocate in late 2022 while also exploring how we can work together to “Give the Past a Future, Now” – to quote the tagline of the History Trust, where I work.

The matter is becoming increasingly pressing as the number of full-time history positions in Australian universities has almost halved since the late 1980s, explaining why the nation’s peak history body, the Australian Historical Association, now describes history as “a discipline in crisis”.

To ensure younger generations know their past, we really need to be decisive, for another recent report has also concluded that there is insufficient history training for teachers nationwide.

Hope nonetheless abides, for as my host asserted: South Australians do love their history.

For example, South Australia is the only Australian state to have preserved its social history in legislation. It also hosts the largest month-long history festival in the world, which in 2023 recorded well over 180,000 attendances at some 500 events across the state.

However, to work through these challenges together, we urgently need to join the dots between organisations and individuals, enthusiasts and experts.

To that end, the History Trust has launched SASSi, the South Australian Stories Survey Initiative, inviting anyone with a passion for South Australia’s past to tell us more about what they are doing and why.

By connecting volunteers in history or heritage organisations with those working as archaeologists, academics or in the creative industries, we hope to develop sustainable answers to these pressing questions.

Together we can slot our missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle back into the national story.

Dr Kiera Lindsey is South Australias History Advocate and works at the History Trust of South Australia.

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