My name is Gemmia Burden (most of the people in my life call me Gemma). I started a PhD at the University of Queensland in 2010 and after 7 years (finally) finished earlier this year. I’m currently working two jobs, full time as a cultural heritage consultant at Australian Heritage Specialists, and as a casual research assistant for Associate Professor Anna Johnston at UQ’s Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities.
1. Describe your PhD research.
My thesis explored the Queensland Museum’s collection, interpretation and display of Aboriginal cultural items, including material culture and ancestral remains, over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I was interested in researching how the collections came to be at the Museum, and I really wanted to unpack how they were used once they became ‘museum objects’. The institutional construction of Aboriginality and how that was disseminated to the visiting public was my focus, which I traced through the collections. My key argument was that the Museum’s development of Aboriginality was aligned with the realities of frontier and post-frontier colonial society, and that as an arm of the colonial state, it was complicit in the violent dispossession of Aboriginal people.
2. Why did you decide to do a history PhD?
This is a surprisingly tough question to answer! I like to think my research has relevance in contemporary Australia, and of course that was a motivating factor. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an element of wanting to achieve a PhD for the sake of achieving it, and more pertinently, because that’s ‘what you do’. Like many history students, I had visions of moving straight through undergrad and honours, knocking out a PhD thesis in 3.5 years and then landing a fabulous ongoing academic position. I forged ahead with this goal without really considering what I wanted to do, or facing the fact that this trajectory was entirely untenable. But in saying that, now that it’s done, I’m incredibly glad I did it, and while a PhD isn’t essential in my area of work, it is highly regarded, and it will no doubt be beneficial to any future endeavors. And I do still think that it has value.
3. Tell us about your work as an historian at Australian Heritage Specialists.
I work in both European and Aboriginal heritage on a wide range of projects. My first jobs were preparing the historical research for buildings, and my first big project was researching and writing the historical context of a state listed early twentieth century convent. Researching and writing the historical context for a varying range of reports relating to heritage is probably what I do most, and I work with architects, planners, designers, archaeologists and anthropologists. And it’s not just buildings, also wider sites, landscapes, council areas and archaeological places. That’s one thing I love about this job, the variety of places, things and people I get to explore. I also get to be a bit creative and apply historical research outside of traditional prose. I recently finished overseeing the research and production of a visual timeline of extreme weather events for a Queensland coastal region as part of a bigger climate change project, with the timeline used in their community consultation programs.
I also get to sit around the table with Traditional Owners on all sorts of projects, from cultural heritage to native title to stolen wages. It’s challenging and confronting, but most of all incredibly humbling. One of the stand out projects I’ve been lucky to be involved in, albeit peripherally, was 2016’s ‘Bunya to the Bay’. Run by Stanley River Environmental Education Centre, this program sent a selection of senior high school students on a bicycle / kayak journey from the upper reaches of the Brisbane River to its mouth in Moreton Bay. They wanted to make Aboriginal heritage the focus, so we facilitated engagement with the four Traditional Owner groups on whose country the voyage passed through. Seeing the kids at the end of their journey and being on Country with the Traditional Owners was extraordinarily special.
4. What do you love about your job?
Being on Country with Traditional Owners! I studied Aboriginal history as I had that altruistic motivation of wanting to make a difference, and now I’m in a position where I actually can. This is by far the most rewarding aspect of my job. I also love the variety of projects I get to work on. Outside of Aboriginal cultural heritage, I’ve done assessments on dilapidated heritage and character buildings, state listed buildings, whole of council studies, assessed landmarks such as the Big Pineapple, and seen parts of my hometown and region I never would have made it to if not for work. I also love seeing my research make a difference on the ground. Whether it’s contributing to the protection or identification of a heritage place, assisting to build better processes for negotiating Aboriginal cultural heritage, or providing advice on the management of sites, the impacts of my research and writing can be immediately tangible.
Aside from the rewards of my actual work, the promise of job security and not worrying about grant applications or contracts is a huge benefit. With my RA work I have a foot in the academic door, and my colleagues at AHS are incredibly supportive of my academic pursuits. Achievements in academia, whether it’s a degree, publication or prize, are valued and respected in the professional world. So while I don’t get the work week for my own research and publications, I do have space and support to pursue my interests without the pressures of academic life.
5. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
Another difficult question! I’d have to say 1960s Australia so that I could participate in the land rights protests. If I could take my current knowledge with me, nineteenth century London or New York would be fascinating. I love learning and am intrigued by most aspects of the past, so I’d be happy for the DeLorean to be set to random. Although I am an Outlander tragic so eighteenth century Scotland looks good to me.
6. What advice do you have for other history PhD graduates who are looking to work as professional historians?
There are plenty of opportunities for historians outside Academia. I think sometimes professional history is viewed as a plan B or fallback option, and it definitely is a different way of ‘doing’ history. However, it’s equally as rewarding and can often be more (and immediately) impactful. So I’d say the first step would be considering applied history and heritage as an equally viable career option.
A key part of successful heritage consultancy is the ability to work with people from varying backgrounds as well as different stakeholder groups. So while research, analysis and writing skills are essential, so too is ability to navigate in (I hate to say it) the “real world”. It’s important to sell transferable skills and highlight non-academic qualifications. My boss often talks about how he’d rather see a CV with customer service experience from a high school job at KFC than a university medal or Dean’s commendation.
Overall, I think there is a good balance between applied history and academia. They go hand in hand and draw on each other, so academic research and writing will always be encouraged and supported in the professional world. In fact, I feel like my research interests have expanded enormously with the experience I’ve gained, and I’m thinking more about a wider cross section of platforms to engage with (journals, conferences etc). Which takes me back to the point above, professional history really shouldn’t be a plan B!