In this month’s instalment of our Q&A Series, Libby Stewart talks about the excitement and the challenges of public history in Australia.
Libby Stewart is the Senior Historian at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Canberra. She previously worked as a historian at the Australian War Memorial. She has curated exhibitions and published in the areas of the representation of women leaders in museums, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and Australian nurses in the First World War.
1. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?
I always enjoyed high school history (Ancient Rome — so much drama!) and did a history major at secondary college (an ACT thing), and then enjoyed it so much at uni that when offered the chance to do honours I took it. I made a conscious decision to preference history over languages, because I felt a greater affinity with it— about what the study of history could tell me about where I’d come from and where I fitted in.
2. Why did you become a public historian?
I was never really interested in working as an academic — I just didn’t feel that it was right for me. But I still wanted to work in the history field if possible. I worked as a research assistant for various academics at ANU for a while before getting a research position at the Australian War Memorial. I worked there in a research position for many years, before moving slowly into working as a curator, writer and collection development specialist, especially in the area of the Vietnam war. I had worked in a house museum before starting my MA so I knew that museum work was something that appealed to me. I gained valuable skills during some temporary work placements with the National Museum of Australia, and my love of curating and collecting continued to grow.
3. Is there a theme or a burning question that inspires your historical work?
My desire as a museum professional is always to make history accessible to members of the public, whether online or onsite. It drives everything I do — from object acquisition and interpretation, to exhibition development, to developing online content and so on. I want to be able to tell great stories and have people relate to the wonderful material culture held by museums and galleries around the country.
4. How has public history changed since you began your career?
When I started there was a large gap between academic and public historians, which has slowly narrowed over the years. I’ve found more academics willing to view material culture as a valid and valuable source for research, and an acceptance that public historians can and do play an important role in conveying historical ideas and stories to Australians and others. The other major change is in the type of training undertaken by people now entering the museum sector, which is more likely to be specific to museums rather than a general history degree such as mine.
5. What is your favourite thing about being a public historian?
Reaching people and seeing them really engage in a great story or a great object, seeing them realize that history isn’t a dry and boring subject that they learned a long time ago at school. Rather they come to see it as something that relates to their lives. I’ve loved seeing people moved to tears by a display, a story or an object, and it’s been incredibly rewarding touching people’s lives. This was a huge factor in my work as a historian and curator at the AWM. And now in my work at MoAD I get enormous satisfaction in the objects we acquire, in developing a small but unique collection into something really meaningful, that is keeping valuable and important items for all Australians and other visitors into the future.
6. Your least favourite thing?
My least favourite thing is working in a sector that in recent years has been subject to relentless funding cuts, meaning the curtailing of important projects and events. It has also meant significant staffing cuts, making the work even busier and frenetic, so therefore quite exhausting at times. There is very little time to focus on any particular subject in depth, and I am envious of academics who are able to do this and who have the time to think and write.
7. Do you have any intellectual heroes? Which historians have had the greatest influence on the way you work?
For many years while I worked at the AWM my historical focus was the Vietnam war, so the major influences on me were the scholars working in that area: Ian McNeill, Ashley Ekins, Jeff Grey, Peter Edwards, as well as international scholars. Since my work has broadened out to encompass social and political history, major influences have been John Hirst, Anne Summers, Ann Curthoys, and many others. Those who have influenced the way I work the most have been great curators and scholars in their own right. It would be unfair to single out just a few, there have been many.
8. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?
At the AWM I had absolutely wonderful mentors — often former military men who knew how to lead and mentor, were generous with their time and knowledge and were just great people to know. At MoAD I’ve also had strong leaders, willing to help me further my interests and encourage me to go in the directions I have wanted to go. I would include several museum directors in this list. Mentors are critical to a successful museum career as they open up opportunities, make resources available and provide constant encouragement.
9. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?
My advice would be to follow your heart. You’re working for a long time (generally) so you need to be doing something you love. Seek advice on the best way to achieve your goals, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and actively seek out good mentors.