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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Tim Sullivan is the Deputy CEO and Museums Director at the Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Ballarat, Victoria. More about Tim Sullivan

History in the new millennium or problems with history?
by Tim Sullivan

At the beginning of the new millennium, Australian history was experiencing its most important hour on the public stage since the 1988 Bicentenary. Debate on the study and uses of the subject were characterised by what is now known as the ‘History Wars’, by a review of the interpretation of Australia’s story in the National Museum of Australia’s exhibitions, and by a process to revise and reinvigorate the history curriculum in schools.

The History Wars

On Australia Day 2006 the prime minister, John Howard, announced his intention to renew the teaching of Australian history in schools, saying:

I believe the time has also come for root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history in our schools … Too often, it is taught without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented stew of ‘themes’ and ‘issues’. And too often, history, along with other subjects in the humanities, has succumbed to a post-modern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.

The announcement was met with a mixture of excitement and scepticism. It was exciting to have history in a national discussion which might lead to a much-needed transformation of Australian history teaching, and greater public awareness of the uniqueness of our history. [1] The scepticism was a product of the milieu from which the prime minister’s statement had emerged.

Prime Minister Howard viewed the history curriculum as it was being taught as having been corrupted by academic fads and fashions and politically-driven revisionism for their own sakes, and that this was distorting the ways in which a generation of Australians viewed their history. He also saw history as a parable-like narrative of human progress. For him, history existed as a singular, truthful narrative which could be translated into a nationally mandated curriculum, and which would be equally relevant for all students in every corner of our nation continent.

The announcement was inevitably seen as a continuation of combat in what has become known as the ‘History Wars’ that raged between 2002 and 2004. Similar arguments took place in the United States in the 1990s when Lynn Chaney, then Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, attacked the emerging draft of the national history curriculum. The result was abandonment of national curricula, which were left to the individual states. Historian and education writer Diane Ravitch observes that:

History should be as exciting to young people as anything on television, but their textbooks turn it into a listless parade of names, themes, wars, and nations. Among all the subjects tested by the federal government, U.S. history is the one in which American students register the worst performance, even though almost all students are required to study it. [2]

In Australia the debate emerged earlier in the context of the 1988 Bicentenary and the focus it generated on understanding the consequences of colonisation on Australia’s Indigenous people. [3] The most recent ‘History Wars’ were fought on two fronts: firstly, a renewed focus on the methodology of some historians in interpreting colonial massacres of Indigenous people; and secondly, in the 2003 review of the National Museum of Australia’s exhibitions designed to identify political and revisionist bias in the interpretation of Australia’s history, and propose an outline of content appropriate for a national museum for Australia.

In another time the review could have presented an exciting opportunity to re-imagine the intersections between the general public’s engagement with Australian history, the state of play in teaching history in our schools, and the role of museums in supporting learning about our heritage. Whilst the review of the National Museum [4] was important in revisiting the role of a national museum for Australia, the wars themselves were an ugly, personalised, and futile period of infighting within the history profession. They created an unproductive climate of cynicism in which the motivations for the review of history teaching were considered.

Starting points

The most important activities in sustaining an interest in the past are those which are personally relevant and meaningful, where there are opportunities for interaction with others, where there is the possibility of new discoveries and knowledge, where skills can be learned and applied, where there are tangible artefacts of the research, and where there is freedom to set the agenda. Personal narratives are pathways to exploring larger historical narratives.

Historians Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University and David Thelen of Indiana University, in their important study of the ways in which Americans use history in their lives, [5] found that people most often make sense of history through a very personally relevant framework – that is, through their own experiences and memories, or through stories they have been told by others they trust (typically family or extended family members). Visits to museums and historic places, movies and programs on historical subjects, books, and heritage events were recognised as much more relevant and important in sustaining an interest in history than what was taught in school. They found that those who are most strongly connected to the past are engaged in a variety of activities that interest them and others in their networks, particularly sharing photographs and memorabilia.

Australians also achieve the deepest long-term connection with the past through experiences other than their schooling. [6] Narratives relating to their families and themselves are the most powerful pathways for connecting strongly with the past. The most important areas of content for Australians are Australian history and family history, both mentioned by more than 50 per cent of respondents to an important survey by the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). The most commonly used media for connecting with those narratives are objects or artefacts that are meaningful in telling those stories; visiting places that are important in connecting to those narratives is also significant.

The experiences that are most important in creating a connectedness with the past are family gatherings (43 per cent); museum and historic sites visits are less important, as are public commemorations which were significant for around a quarter of respondents. School studies were most important for just 12 per cent of respondents.

More generally, taking and sharing photos was the most frequent activity in engaging with the past for more than 80 per cent of respondents to the study, followed by a range of research and collecting activities (photographs, heirlooms, family history) which were considered as ‘making history’, followed by attending reunions and visits to museums and historic sites for more than 50 per cent of respondents.

The UTS survey [7] found that museums were the most trusted sources of history for 56 per cent of respondents. In second place were academic historians (33 per cent). Politicians scored the highest ranking for untrustworthy sources at 39 per cent! However, high school teachers rated seventh out of 11 as trustworthy sources: it was concluded that this could relate to whether teachers had kept-up-to-date in their knowledge and teaching practice.

Graeme Davison, now Sir John Monash Distinguished Professor at Monash University, also considered family history to be an important engagement in lifelong learning and the development of historical literacy in the community. [8] Museums intersect with this popular interest in history because of the richness of artefacts available and the contextualising narratives offered in museum interpretive programs.

The distinguished American museologist Lois Silverman, who has conducted extensive research on museum visitors, connects this understanding of how people engage with the past to the skills used by museum visitors to make sense of the history presented in museums: the use of others as sources of information; the use of life stories to connect and understand experiences; the use of objects and artefacts as evidence; the use of museum-like skills in organising the artefacts and stories of our lives; and the value of first-hand experience. [9]

This knowledge of how people develop and sustain an engagement with the past – with their uses of historical knowledge and skills – over their lifetimes is an important context in which to consider the place of learning history in schools. It is intriguing that, with so much voluntary effort in the community to sustain interest in Australian history, the linkage with what is learned in school is so weak in nurturing that interest.

The 2007 History Summit held as a result of Prime Minister Howard’s Australia Day announcement was a curious mix of the predictable and the unexpected. Predictably, there was a focus on defining the essential content for understanding Australia’s history by identifying significant events and milestones, important people and ideas that students must study. The selection or non-selection of those elements was predictably and endlessly arguable.

The surprises lay in the consensus that history is best learned through open questions – big questions that engage students and teachers in exploring multiple perspectives and debating the consequences of decisions made in the past. Narrative was identified as important in helping learners make sense of it all.

One of the key participants in the Summit, Professor Tony Taylor of Monash University, demonstrated the wide gap between the ideal and the real capability of schools to deliver on curriculum change. [10] Taylor identified the systemic causes of the poor state of history teaching in schools – particularly the impact of the subject having been buried in the wilderness of SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment) – with normative disciplines such as Social Studies and Geography. Those history-trained teachers who had survived were fighting to justify their existence, living in intellectual isolation, and lacking a community of peers to enrich their development. History was too often being taught by teachers not trained in the subject and lacking an adequate domain of historical knowledge, poor understanding of historical method, and little awareness of resources to support innovative teaching practices. The outcome for students in the classroom was predictable – boredom and disengagement.

Students are not anti-Australian history – most of them have typically never been challenged by it in their classrooms. [11] They are frustrated by the repetition of content through their school lives, and the lack of pizzazz in teaching it. They are frustrated by the passivity with which it is taught, by the lack of argument and contest, by the often narrowly parochial content, and bored with text-based approaches. They are desperate for richer experiences in the use of media, in visiting the places where history has been made to engage with the artefacts of that history, to meet people with stories to tell of their experiences in the historical events being studied, and to have memorable experiences in encountering history.

It was disappointing that the History Summit communiqué did not include museums (and other cultural institutions) as resources to support teachers and students in learning about our history. Given the extent to which people develop museum-like skills in pursuing their interests in Australian history, and the way in which constructivist learning principles have influenced the design of museum programs to connect people with larger, contextualising narratives, it is a regrettable omission. Museums are replete with the tools of engagement that students crave in learning about our history.

After the Summit there were further panels engaged to develop a narrative outline of the content in a national history curriculum, but the distance identified by Tony Taylor – between the hoped-for outcomes and the capacity of the school system to deliver them – remained as wide as ever.

Sovereign Hill

In 2001 Sovereign Hill began consultations with teachers to follow up on Professor Taylor’s report. We found his assessment of the circumstances in which history-trained teachers found themselves was accurate. The history teaching environment is far from being manhandled by relativists, post-modernists, post-structuralists, Maoists, Bolsheviks or Jacobins – it is inherently conservative! If there is an unsatisfactory stew of ‘themes’ and ‘issues’, it relates more to the capability of teachers and the resources available to them than to a politically driven subversive agenda.

We began by seeking discussion on ways to support teachers as fellow history professionals within a community of practice. The teachers told us to focus on outcomes for the students who have a passion for the subject – to help them sustain and extend their interest.

As a result, we have run programs with teams of students and their teachers researching exhibitions on local history themes, using our collections, discussing ideas, and producing exhibitions which are a part of our public program. Student ownership and involvement has been high and the exhibitions have been excellent.

But we have also learned that we were talking initially with teachers trained in history and for whom it is a passion. Over time, we have seen the desperate need of teachers beginning their history teaching careers – newly-graduated teachers and those shoehorned into history from a range of other disciplines – who need help in developing imaginative teaching strategies, and in building awareness of ways to use museums, galleries, libraries and archives as a part of their teaching.

It’s an important linkage with the visit. Museums can do so much to enrich the learning of Australia’s history by telling stories well – using the arts of theatre and film, sound and music, images and texts and artefacts to tell powerful stories with drama that engages the mind and emotions as well as the hands.

We have a wonderful chapter of Australia’s national story to interpret for our visitors at Sovereign Hill. [12] We focus our interpretation on aspects of life on the Ballarat goldfields between 1851–61 – the high tide of Ballarat’s heyday as the boisterous, energetic expression of that first gold rush generation’s aspirations to make something of themselves. Every dimension of our colonial life – social, cultural, political, economic, technological – was utterly changed by the wealth generated by gold mining.

There are patterns of change in that tumultuous period that resonate today. Driven by a tenfold increase in the population in the decade after the discovery of gold in 1851, Melbourne grew from a small town to become ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ – one of the great cities of the British Empire. Ballarat itself developed almost incredibly from a rude goldfields encampment of bark and canvas and bush poles into something that rivalled Melbourne’s claim to marvels.

It was a time when the fabric of a pastorally-based colonial life was unravelled and rewoven into something new and exciting. An intriguing liberal-conservative tradition of political and social reform emerged: the secret ballot, a form of universal male suffrage, the 8-Hour Day, a new Constitution, a new Legislative Assembly – all were achieved in that first golden decade.

The mass migration to Victoria was an immense human drama fuelled by expectation and hope of life-changing discoveries. There was bloodshed: the Eureka Uprising in Ballarat in the summer of 1854 shocked everyone. The changes that flowed from the inquiry that followed created a fairer and more efficient regulation of mining and gave mining communities a voice in the running of their affairs.

It also planted the seeds of governmental restrictions on Chinese migration and racially discriminatory taxation. A review of the historiography of the Chinese experience has informed the redevelopment of our Chinese Camp. The government sought to herd thousands of migrating Chinese miners into camps where their interactions with the European mining community could be managed.

It was a period in which the Indigenous people of the goldfields were dispossessed of their traditional lands. New work is showing that some Indigenous people sought ways to participate in aspects of the exotic new life around them, others left their country for good, others took up jobs on pastoral stations abandoned by gold seekers, many were left with nothing and nowhere to go. [13]

Bringing these new research perspectives to our interpretation in the Outdoor Museum has required the model of ‘authentic’ recreation to shift incrementally. Thematic interpretation, issues-based interpretive theatre techniques, and a wider portfolio of storytelling are powerful tools for us because they are built on an understanding of the nature of learning in good interpretation [14] – they are an ‘ideal strategy for realising the “constructivist museum”, an environment where visitors of all ages and backgrounds are encouraged to … find the place, the intersection, between the familiar and the unknown, where genuine learning occurs’. [15]

In recent years, our interpretive theatre program has become more issue-based rather than re-enactments of known events. Technology has enabled us to tell the story of the Eureka Uprising using the entire Outdoor Museum by night in Blood on the Southern Cross; of the protests by Chinese miners in one of the Protectorate camps in Ballarat against the racially-based taxation imposed on them; of one of Ballarat’s unique deep lead mines – the Red Hill Mine – where the massive Welcome Stranger nugget was discovered and changed the lives of 22 hard-working and determined Cornish miners. In the Quartz Mine, video technology has enabled mine guides to show visitors otherwise inaccessible historic underground workings created by nineteenth-century miners. Two chambers are used to tell stories of the Chinese experience of gold mining and are delivered in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. One, Woah Hawp Canton Gold, tells the story of a quartz mine in Ballarat owned and operated by Chinese entrepreneurs and miners, an unusual scenario when the conventional historiography of the Chinese experience is focused on their involvement in alluvial mining (also interpreted in The Secret Chamber). [16]

The Outdoor Museum is an immersive stage upon which stories can be told and shared. [17] It includes the Red Hill Gully Diggings; businesses (shops, trades, manufactories present in Ballarat in the period); domestic dwellings interpreting the diversity of economic success of their inhabitants from small weatherboard cottages to elegant brick bungalows; kitchen and ornamental gardens and orchards; an extensive horse-drawn vehicle collection and carriages built in our on-site coachbuilding manufactory operating in the streets; and one of the largest operating heritage steam plants in the world.

The use of primary source materials from our collections is writ large in building the Outdoor Museum. The illustrations of ST Gill, François Cogné, Thomas Ham, David Tulloch, Samuel Huyghue, Thomas Strutt, Eugene von Guérard and technical drawings and town planning documents, commercial directories and business archives and more have been invaluable resources on which much of the built form of the Outdoor Museum is based. They enrich the diversity of private accounts, journals, and books about gold rush experiences which have informed our interpretive strategies.

The work of many academic historians, [18] and the specialised expertise and experience of local historians and others with deep knowledge of the heritage of our region, have been invaluable in developing programs to interpret the significance of the gold rushes and the profound impact they have had on our national development.

In 2004 the University of Melbourne held a symposium to discuss the significance of Eureka 150 years after the event. The University of Ballarat likewise held an international symposium to discuss perspectives on Eureka and its relevance in Australia’s history, its democracy, and international perspectives on protest. New perspectives on the development of mining unions are particularly interesting in understanding the emergence of the Labor Party. The complexity of the Chinese experience on the goldfields is emerging through new scholarship that will reinterpret the role and significance of the Chinese as miners, not simply as artefacts of the development of White Australia.

This new work has promoted what Melbourne University historian David Goodman has described as ‘edgy’ interpretations of goldfields history – a ‘need to recover a sense of the gold rushes as dangerous, edgy events with unpredictable outcomes’. [19]

The first decade on the Victorian goldfields was a ferment of political ideas, of new opportunities. It is so interesting because there was so much change in so many dimensions simultaneously. It was dangerous, edgy and unpredictable. But so are the times in which we live now. Democracy still cannot be taken for granted.

These new perspectives fill in some of the gaps in our understanding, they flesh out what has been poorly understood, and they enrich the field for interpreting this dramatic period in our history. Museums around Australia are engaged in thoughtful processes of researching our heritage and communicating its significance for contemporary audiences. They are engaged in looking outward to relate events in our national development with what is happening elsewhere in the world – engaged in the flow of ideas and issues and the exchange of knowledge that is characteristic of the best in civic institutions.

Concluding comments

It is the peculiar task of museums to bring scholarship together with material artefacts and strategies for communication in our interpretation that will engage the senses, the mind and the soul. The deepest learning moments are achieved when the head and the heart are moved together, when our visitors can see something of themselves and their story in the larger narratives we tell.

In November 2003, the Contest and Contemporary Society symposium at Sydney University explored the ways in which museum visitors react to controversial topics. The research work for the project reinforced the trust visitors have in museums as sources of information and knowledge. Visitors are not afraid of controversial material, but are sceptical of attempts to court publicity through contrived controversy, and dislike a polemical style. They expect that museums will provide authoritative scholarship and a variety of perspectives or voices in their interpretation.

A root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history in schools could well begin with an awareness of the journey a citizen will take over a lifetime, of the ways in which an interest is sustained beyond the school years, and the importance of museums as resources in lifelong learning about our history. A national curriculum in schools may help to overcome the issues that so frustrate students, but only if that curriculum responds to the stages of learning for young people over their school lives, respects the diversity of learning styles and stages in their intellectual development as learners, and provides them with the skills to be thinking, thoughtful citizens.

Museums sit at a unique intersection of interests in the study of Australia’s history. The public is engaged with Australia’s history when it takes forms that are useful to them in their diversity of learning styles and knowledge. Like any good storytelling, interpretation of history is best when the audience can see something of themselves in the story. That’s our constant task, that’s the continuing challenge of relevance in our work with a contemporary and changing audience.


1 T Sullivan, ‘Breaking Ground: evolving Australian socio/political values on the Victorian goldfields‘, plenary session, Proceedings of the Museums Australia Inc. Conference, Canberra, May 2007.

2 Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System – how testing and choice are undermining education, Basic Books, New York, 2010.

3 Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2003; I Clendinnen, ‘The History Question: who owns the past?’ Quarterly Essay, 23, 2006.

4 Review of the National Museum of Australia Its Exhibitions and Public Programs: report to the Council of the National Museum of Australia, Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Canberra, 2003.

5 R Rosenzweig and D Thelen, The Presence of the Past, Columbia University Press, New York, 2000.

6 P Hamilton and P Nash, ‘At home with the past: initial findings from the survey’, Australian Cultural History, Vol. 22, 2003.

7 Ibid.

8 G Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2000.

9 Lois Silverman, ‘Personalising the past: a review of literature with implications for historical interpretation’, Journal of Interpretation Research, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1997, pp. 1–12.

10 Tony Taylor, The Future of the Past: final report of the national inquiry into school history, Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.

11 Anna Clark, History’s Children: history wars in the classroom, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2008; ‘History’s Children’, Perspective, ABC Radio National, 18 March 2008.

12 T Sullivan, ‘Breaking Ground: evolving Australian socio/political values on the Victorian goldfields‘, Plenary Session, Proceedings of the Museums Australia Inc. Conference, Canberra, May 2007; T Sullivan, ‘Sovereign Hill, Blood on the Southern Cross and telling the story of Eureka’, in A Mayne (ed.), Eureka: reappraising an Australian legend, Network Books, Perth, 2006.

13 F Cahir, ‘Black Gold’, PhD dissertation, University of Ballarat, Ballarat, 2007.

14 C Hughes, Museum Theatre: communicating with visitors through drama, Heinemann, Portsmouth, 1998; C Hughes, ‘Theatre and controversy in museums’, in Too Hot to Handle: museums and controversy, HA Hess and M McConnell (eds), Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2000; C Hughes and L Maloney, Case Studies in Museum, Zoos and Aquarium Theatre, AAM, Washington, DC, 1999; C Hughes, ‘Raising the curtain on museum theatre’, keynote address, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2002; C Cameron and J Gatewood, ‘Excursions into the un-remembered past: what people want from visits to historic sites’, The Public Historian, Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000; M Csikszentmihalyi and K Hermanson, ‘Intrinsic motivation in museums: why does one want to learn?’, in J Falk and L Dierking (eds), Public Institutions for Personal Learning, AAM, Washington, DC, 1995; D Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Bantam, New York, 1998; D Schaller, S Allison-Brunnell, M. Borun and M Chambers, ‘How do you like to learn?’, Visitor Studies Today, Vol. 11, 2002.

15 L Bedford, ‘Storytelling: the real work of museums’, Curator, The Museum Journal, Vol. 44, No. 1,  2001, p. 33.

16 A Kyi, ‘Unravelling the Mystery of the Woah Hawp Canton Quartz Mining Company, Ballarat’, Journal of Australian Colonial History: Active voices, hidden histories – the Chinese in colonial history, special issue, 6, 2004; A Kyi, ‘Changing Perceptions of Democracy on the Goldfields’, Proceedings of the Museums Australia Inc. Conference, Canberra, May 2007.

17 M Hollick and T Sullivan, ‘Browsers and seekers: understanding the nature of free-choice learning in outdoor museums’, ICOM Triennial Meeting, Vienna, October 2007 (ms in preparation).

18 Particularly the work of G Serle, The Golden Age, Melbourne University Press, 1963, and The Rush to be Rich, Melbourne University Press, 1971; and W Bate, Lucky City, Melbourne University Press, 1978.

19 David Goodman, ‘Making an Edgier History of Gold’, in Iain McCalman and Andrew Reeves (eds), Tailings: forgotten histories and lost artefacts of Australian gold, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001, pp. 23–36.

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Cite as: T Sullivan, 2011, 'History in the new millennium or problems with history?', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at
ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6