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What if? What might have been? What could have been?

What if? What might have been? What could have been?

These are interesting questions when considering the big questions about the past.

This area of history writing involves speculation about the past and the way history is interpreted and understood.  One young historian who has addressed these questions is Wollongong independent scholar Amy Penning. She has written a critique on counterfactual history. This is a controversial area of history theory and practice. Penning has written a lively discussion that analyses a contested area of historiography.  In deciding whether to publish this essay I considered editing the text and decided against it. I feel that the essay is worth reproducing here in full.

The aim of publishing the essay on this site is to give the essay and its author a wider audience. I hope you enjoy reading this very interesting and worthwhile contribution to history theory and practice.

Counterfactural Penning 2 2020
What if? (mega)

 

What if? What could have been? Counterfactual history

Amy Penning

 Counterfactual history is the historiographical method premised on hypothetical alternatives pertaining to outcomes of the past events and circumstances which actually occurred. Through questioning and speculating upon what could have happened, the past becomes reinvigorated.  As counterfactual history allows for a deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history; as not simply a set of predetermined contingencies but rather an examination of the causation of events and the role of human agency. However, counterfactual claims without historical evidence are simply fantasying and are thus frivolous to historical study. Therefore, historians who employ a counterfactual paradigm have a scholarly responsibility to distinguish the conditions under which these ‘what if’ events are probable with accurate evidence to make these claims plausible and valid for the reconstruction of history.

 

A contested debate

As with all historiographical philosophies, counterfactual history has been subject to great debate, especially in recent years. Scottish historian Niall Ferguson a foremost proponent of counterfactual history deems virtual history as a necessity for understanding the past. He contends that through using empirical evidence, counterfactual analysis can enable a holistic and rigorous understanding of the past. Conversely, traditionalist historians, including academic Sir Richard J. Evans maintain that because counterfactuals are imaginative reconstructions, questioning the past using ‘what if’ scenarios are futile. He argues that personal speculation and curiosity is not history; that truth is truth and fact is fact.  Evans is right to insist on the primacy of facts in any historical inquiry – to do otherwise would render historical works fictitious. This does not, however, invalidate the potential merits of a counterfactual approach. By examining the conflicting views of Ferguson and Evans (among other historians) the contentions but also potential regarding counterfactual history are clearly illustrated.

 

Reconstruction of history

Counterfactual history has significant value in the reconstruction of history as it allows for a re-examination of causation, however many historians have interpreted this as a disregard of the past.  It has thus been neglected among most academic historians across time and political ideologies ‘as having little epistemic value’. [1]

 

A definitive opponent to counterfactual history is E.H Carr (an English historian and opponent of empiricism) who in his famous book What is History? (1961) responded to Isaiah Berlin’s (British- Russian philosopher) criticism of those who do not give ‘priority to the role of the individual and accident[2], thus those who neglect counterfactual history, the role of human agency (humans action) and chance.  E.H Carr responded to this by the dismissive phrase that ‘counterfactual’ historyis a mere ‘parlour game’, a ‘red herring’.[3]  This was because for Carr, an investigation of causes and to suggest that something other than what did happen, might have occurred was a violation of the historical discipline. Strangely, ‘despite (Carr’s) denial of the value of counterfactual history in the book, it remains a landmark for understanding counterfactual history’. [4]  As What is History ‘became the most influential text to examine the role of the historian…in the 1960s and is still widely read today’. [5] This is supported by the sheer amount of historians who use his definition of counterfactuals. [6]

Counterfactural Penning 2020
What if I went this way or that way? (Shutterstock)

 

The issue is that Carr’s definition of counterfactualism is not conclusive nor does it provide a true understanding of what counterfactual history is: a deeper look into causes, effects and actors through questioning the past.  It can be argued, therefore, that ‘for a long time, Carr’s criticisms made ‘what-if-history’ suspect for serious scholars’. [7] That is not to say, all historians of recent times disagree with counterfactual history as a result of Carr.  However, his basic argument that reevaluating the past as more than predetermined contingencies poses a threat to the historical discipline, unfortunately sums up the attitude of generations of historians on the subject.

 

The validity of counterfactual inquiry

Further, many other influential historians have disregarded the validity of counterfactual inquiry in understanding history by dismissing it’s questioning into known historical events and causes as unhistorical practice. As counterfactual history ‘ambition to be consequential’ (aim to have important value in the historical discipline) is often misunderstood academic historians ‘(as a) distortion (of) scholarship‘. [8]

 

Therefore, questioning and reconstructing the past is threatening to some academic historians whose own study and understanding of history which have been cemented in traditional deterministic history (predestined nature of the past).[9] Historian Marxist E. P. Thompson once famously called counterfactuals ‘Geschichtswissenschlopff, unhistorical garbage’.  Furthermore, conservative philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott ‘who rarely agreed with Thompson’ (Sustein, 2014) said that the ‘distinction between essential and incidental events does not belong to historical thought at all’.  This reveals the ignorance and unwillingness of many historians to understand what counterfactual history is actually is; the assigning of the importance of events, understanding the significance of human actors and a deeper look at causation of all which are important principles of historical study.

 

Further, this demonstrates that prominent and scholarly historians of varying ideologies and beliefs have labelled counterfactual history as a historical tool unworthy of study or use. The impact of this is significant on the study and use of counterfactualism in history, as Niall Ferguson reveals when he states ‘hostile views from such disparate figures’ could explain why counterfactual inquiry ‘has been provided by writers of fiction (rather than).. historians’.[10] Therefore, revealing that academic historians who simply denounce counterfactual history as unhistorical fantasy, have failed to understand the definition of counterfactuals (as counterfactual principles do align with historical practice) and consequently have been unable to see counterfactualism’s value and use in history.

 

Contentions

The contentions surrounding the worth of counterfactual inquiry in reconstructing history have been debated by the two leading historians Richard Evans and Niall Ferguson in recent years. Sir Richard Evans a widely renowned historian agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott, as he insists that counterfactual history is ‘speculation, not history.’ Evans laments that this fantasizing ‘threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.’[11]  However what Evans neglects is Ferguson’s point, that counterfactual hypotheses are ‘only legitimate if one can show if what if your discussing is one that contemporaries seriously contemplated’ by showing evidence.’ [12] Ferguson explains this through the example of ‘what would have happened in 1948 if the entire population of Paris had suddenly sprouted wings’[13] where he argues that this offers no historical insights, as this is not a realistic conjecture.[14]  Therefore, the basis for counterfactual arguments to be valid in reconstructing history must be provable plausibility through historical evidence.

 

Another counterfactual hypothesis which demonstrates the importance of historical evidence is provided by John Keegan a British military historian who contributed an essay to the military history journal[15]  about how Hitler could have won World War II ‘In 1941, Hitler controlled the world’s biggest tank fleet, and one of the biggest air fleets, and if he had decided to use them differently…he could have won’. Therefore, revealing how with factual evidence (the number of tank and fleets Hitler had), counterfactual hypothesis can provide a greater understanding of the past; as through this inquiry, Keegan highlights the significance of the human actor in historical outcomes, particularly in military history. This is because ‘outcomes of battles were so often determined by the actions and decisions of a single leader’[16]. Therefore, through providing historical evidence counterfactual claims are plausible and are useful as they provide a deeper understanding into the significance of causation and the role of human agency on historical outcomes.

Counterfactural Penning 2 2020
What if? (mega)

 

Predetermined nature

Additionally, the predetermined nature of the past or determinism is a controversial issue for Evans and Ferguson when evaluating counterfactuals use and value in history. Ferguson sees counterfactual history as the ‘necessary antidote’ to the close- mindedness of historical determinism.  In Ferguson’s words, ‘the past does not have a predetermined end. There is no author, divine, or otherwise only characters and a great deal too many of them’.[17] Therefore, Ferguson reveals the non-deterministic and true complex contingency of the past as a result of human agency (human action and ability to alter history).

 

However, Evans contends that the very idea of determinism is too broad, as in terms of history moving towards an end ‘counterfactuals can only cast doubt on theories of history’ but can’t ‘undermine history as a whole because we don’t know where that trajectory will end’.[18] Thus, he argues that since we already know the course of history, historical speculation on what might have occurred is pointless because it didn’t happen.  However, Evans ignores that the unpredictable nature of human actors and that chance itself can both be significant factors in historical outcomes. Therefore, although ‘what if’ questioning will always remain hypothetical, chance and human agency do play a significant role in history. Consequently, study into alternative outcomes will always remain important and relevant for deepening the reconstruction of history.

 

Reconstructed history

Furthermore, throughout time counterfactuals have been used and will be continued to be used reconstruct and understand history. This a result of the innate human desire to re-examine the past and to wonder ‘what if?’. In daily life, humans often speculate about what might have happened: ‘either grateful things worked out as they did or regretful that they did not occur differently’.[19] As Niall Ferguson explains ‘(counterfactuals) is a vital part of how we learn’, because ‘decisions about the future are usually based on weighing up consequences of alternative courses of action’.[20]  As a consequence, of counterfactual questioning being innately human, historians throughout time have employed counterfactualism in their historical inquiry: sometimes unknowingly.

 

The origins of posing counterfactual historical questions date back ‘to the beginning of Western historiography ‘when Thucydides and Livy wondered how their own societies would have been different ‘if Persians had defeated the Greeks or if Alexander the Great had waged war against Rome’.[21] In modern history, an anthology published in 1931 included an essay by Winston Churchill called ‘If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg’, which imagines a world in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War. [22]

 

A further recent example is Robert Cowley, the editor of the military history quarterly who in 1998 used the counterfactual of ‘the fog on the East River on the night of Aug. 29, 1776, which permitted Washington to escape unnoticed by the British and save the Revolution from a Dunkirk. What if no fog?’. [23]  Thus, as a consequence of counterfactual questioning being a part of human nature, it has been used and will be continued to be used throughout time, to better understand the complexity of the causation and events of the past.  The innate human quality and use of counterfactuals in history further reinforced by historian and author Aviezer Tucker specialist in philosophy of historiography and history. He reveals how to a certain extent, all historians use counterfactualism ‘when they assign cause, effects and the degree of importance to these causes’ because ‘The assignment of necessary causes assumes that had the cause not occurred, neither would the effects’.[24]  As all claims of causation, require the historian to give importance and necessity to events, people, and factors and their subsequent influence to the final outcome.  As Jon Elster (Norwegian social and political theorist) explains historians ‘have been talking counterfactually all the time without knowing it’.[25]

 

An interesting argument regarding the human quality of counterfactualism is put forward by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld a Professor of History, who uses examples of counterfactual history throughout time to reveal how ‘alternate history has consistently functioned as a means of using alternate pasts to expose the virtues and vices of the present.’ [26]  That is to say, the counterfactual questions asked throughout time reflect contemporaries fears, attitudes and beliefs.  Rosenfeld uses the example of American authors common use of the Nazis winning World War for to demonstrate this ‘For the first three decades of the postwar era most allo- historical (alternative) narratives.. depicted a Nazi wartime victory. This reflects the postwar history of the United States…(glorifying) the American decision to intervene in the war against, and ultimately defeat Nazi Germany’. Thus, (counterfactual history) ‘reflects its authors (current) hopes and fear.’ [27] This reveals that counterfactual history is extremely useful to the historical discipline, as counterfactuals are inherently presentist. Therefore, counterfactual history gives insight into the evolution of historiography which makes it very useful to historians as documents of attitudes, values, perspectives and belief systems of individuals from that particular time.

 

Utilising the pre-existing conditions

Further, counterfactual claims can be valid through utilising the pre-existing conditions of the event developed over time. An example which demonstrates this, is the Greeks defeat over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. The battle ended with a Greek victory, in which the swifter and far more numerous fleet of the Persian emperor Xerxes was destroyed. ‘However, this victory was dependent a subtle manoeuvre by admiral Themistocles’. [28] A Persian win would have prevented the emerging Greek conceptions of freedom and the individual and thus ‘the great strengths of present-day Western culture is due to Themistocles September victory off Salamis’. [29] In approaching this ‘what if’ historical question one must neglect the ‘anything could follow anything’[30] mentality. As this kind of counterfactual narrative is based on speculation and is consequently problematic as to ‘extend counterfactual history speculation is to exhaust the connection between facts and realities’. [31]

Counterfactural Penning 2020
What if I went this way or that way? (Shutterstock)

 

A stronger counterfactual inquiry instead uses pre-existing conditions as it’s basis. ‘The Persians could not have been defeated in any other battle, Salamis was the Greeks only opportunity. Had Alexander not lived to build a Macedonian Empire, no one and nothing else could have replaced him. Consequently, the individualist culture that flowered in Greek city-states could not have emerged anywhere else.’[32]  In this version, the counterfactual questioning is a historical inquiry into contingency as it is grounded in the pre-existing conditions of the ‘event developing over diverse conditions across large expanses of geographical and social territory’ [33]. Thus, through the utilising existing circumstances and conditions, counterfactual hypothesis can be valid in historical practice.

 

A deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history

In conclusion, a deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history can be achieved through speculation into the ‘what if’ questions of the past. The contentions and potential regarding counterfactual history are illustrated by examining the conflicting views of historians Ferguson (argues is necessary for holistic understanding) and Evans (argues it is imaginary and thus futile). Furthermore, influential historians such as E.H Carr dismissal of counterfactualism as unhistorical fantasy makes evident that counterfactual history’s definition has been skewed; as assigning importance to cause and effect are important historical practices. Through Evans and Ferguson arguments, it can be deduced that although counterfactuals claims will always be hypothetical in nature, they can be valid with historical evidence. These plausible counterfactual scenarios can then provide a deeper understanding into history. Historian John Keegan demonstrates through the counterfactual that ‘Hitler could have won World War II by acting differently’ the significance of human agency on historical outcomes. Moreover, counterfactual questioning and has been used by historians throughout time (e.g Thucydides, Livy, and Churchill) as it is inherently human. Consequently, counterfactual claims give insight into the memory and belief systems of individuals throughout time.  Finally, through utilising existing circumstances and conditions counterfactual hypothesis can be valid historical practice.  Therefore, counterfactual history has important value in the reconstruction of history, as questioning and rethinking the past reinvigorates and opens history; to not simply a set of predetermined contingencies but rather an examination of the causation of events and the role of human agency.

 

Author Biography

Amy Penning is an independent scholar based in Wollongong, NSW. She is interested in the philosophical nature of history.

Amy Penning can be contacted by email amypenning@y7mail.com

Counterfactual Amy Penning Portrait 2020
Amy Penning, Independent Scholar

 

References

[1] Maar, A., 2014, ‘Possible Uses of counterfactual thought experiments in History’, Principia vol.18, no.1, pp. 103-103, accessed 25 March 2019, State Library of New South Wales.

[2] Talbot, A., 2009, ‘Chance and Necessity in History: E.H. Carr and Leon Trotsky Compared’, Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 88-96 accessed 10 May 2019, JSTOR.

[3] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals p.4

[4] Rodwell, G., 2013, ‘Counterfactual Histories and the Nature of History’, Whose History?: Engaging History Students through Historical Fiction, pp. 83, accessed 29 Jun. 2019 University of Adelaide Press, South Australia, JSTOR.

[5] Godfrey, K ‘BBC Radio 3 – The Essay’, What Is History, Today?, Episode 1, BBC, 2011, accessed 29 June 2019  <https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b017575t&gt;.

[6] For example, Martin Bunzl a professor of philosophy article ‘Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide’, Richard Evans in his book Altered Pasts and Professor of history Peter J Beck in Presenting History: Past and Present all refer to and use Carr’s definition.

[7] Hekster. O., 2016, ‘The Size of History: Coincidence, Counterfactuality and Questions of Scale in History The Challenge of Chance Springer’, pp. 215-232, accessed 28 June 2019, Springer, Cham.

[8]  Gallagher, C., 2018, Telling It Like it Wasn’t, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[9] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals

[10] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals p.7

[11]  Sustein, CR., ‘What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?’, The New Republic, 21 September 2014, accessed 27 February 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein&gt; .

[12]  University of California Television (UCTV) 2004, Conversations with History: Niall Ferguson, online video, 15 February 2008, accessed 10 November 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtEwupxygBo&gt;.

[13] Ferguson, N., Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals1997 p.83

[14] B FitzSimons., ‘How do Ned Kelly’s murderous intentions at the Siege of Glenrowan support this statement?’, Teaching History, pp.37

[15] Cowley, R., (ed.) 2001, What If Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been?, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

[16] Honan, H.W., ‘Historians Warming To Games Of What If’, The New York Times, 7 Jan 1998, accessed 13 June 2019, <https://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/07/us/historians-warming-to-games-of-what-if.html >.

[17] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, p.68

[18] Evans, R., 2014, Altered Pasts Counterfactuals in History, p.58

[19] Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[20] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, p.68

[21]  Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[22] Sustein, CR., ‘What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?’, The New Republic, 21 September 2014, accessed 27 February 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein&gt; .

[23] Honan, H.W., ‘Historians Warming To Games Of What If’, The New York Times, 7 Jan 1998, accessed 13 June 2019, <https://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/07/us/historians-warming-to-games-of-what-if.html >.

[24]  Tucker, A., 1999, ‘Historiographical Counterfactuals and Historical Contingency’, History and Theory, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 264-276, accessed 3 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[25] Sustein, CR., ‘What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?’, The New Republic, 21 September 2014, accessed 27 February 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein&gt; .

[26] Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[27]Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[28]  Laibman, D., 2008, ‘What if? The Pleasures and Perils of Counterfactural History’, Science & Society, vol.72, no. 2, pp.131-135 accessed 12 November 2018, ProQuest, State Library New South Wales.

[29] Cowley, R., (ed.) 2001, What If Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been?, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

[30]  Robinson, R., 2002, The Years of Rice and Salt, Bantam Books, United States.

[31] Woolf, D., 2016, ‘Concerning Altered Pasts: Reflections of an Early Modern Historian’, Journal of Philosophy of History, vol. 10, no.3, pp. 418-428, accessed on 18 February 2019, JSTOR.

[32]  Laibman, D., 2008, ‘What if? The Pleasures and Perils of Counterfactural History’, Science & Society, vol.72, no.2, pp.131-135, accessed 12 November 2018, ProQuest, State Library New South Wales.

[33] Laibman, D., 2008, ‘What if? The Pleasures and Perils of Counterfactural History’, Science & Society, vol.72, no.2, pp.131-135, accessed 12 November 2018, ProQuest, State Library New South Wales.

 

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Shooting the history breeze for local tourism

Storytelling and a Camden history film

On a balmy late spring afternoon in central Camden a group of local people were conducting a photoshoot.

The late afternoon provided a deep even light that was ideal for the whole venture.

None were professional filmmakers. But that did not stop anyone.

The filming dodged pedestrians and was occasionally drowned out by local buses.

Camden &amp; Laura Jane &amp; Debbie photoshoot epicure store History Videos CRET 2019[1] lowres
Storyteller Laura Jane adlibing for a short tourist promo for Tiffin Cottage.  Camera operate Debbie is issuing instructions and generally supervising the rest of the crew. Tiffin Cottage was occupied by auctioneer Captain Larkin who conducted stock sales at the saleyards which were formerly in the Larkin Place carpark (I Willis)

Historic John Street precinct

The project centred around the historic John Street precinct.

The film venture involved storytelling, great yarns, interesting characters, old buildings and lots of making do.

The location provided a rich collection of old buildings that speak about the past for those who want to listen. History enthusiasts can immerse themselves in the past in the present by walking the  ground – the same streets as local identities and characters have done for decades.

Camden &amp; Laura Jane photoshoot police station History Videos CRET 2019[1]lowres
Camera operator Debbie filming LJ walking across the verandah of the former Camden Police Station. The station was centre of a large police district stretching from the Burragorang Valley to the Nepean River at Menangle and south to include Picton. It is currently vacant. (I Willis)

Filmmaker Rachel Perkins (2019) has stated

The past is always with us and it has created the present. The past is all around us within us all the time. The past lives with us in the present.

Storytelling touches something within us. It touches the soul.

Filmmakers and storytellers

The key storyteller was Laura Jane Aulsebrook, who has been described at Camden’s own Miss Honey (for the uninitiated from Matilda) and her happy ways. All dressed up in purple for the occasion.

The key camera operator, director and chief of production was Debbie Roberts,  (EO of CRET), ably assisted by her roadie husband Peter.

History material was provided from the Camden Heritage Walking Brochure and chief history boffin UOW historian Dr Ian Willis, ably assisted by his PA Marilyn.

This motley group wandered around a number of Camden’s old buildings – Laura Jane acted as storyteller for the 1-2 minutes historic grabs. LJ was full of passion in her completely ad lib performances. Ian listened for any gaffs – which were few and far between.

Camden &amp; Laura Jane photoshoot library History Videos CRET 2019 (2)[1] lowres
Roadie Peter is reviewing the position of the shoot and PA Marilyn is offering advice. The location is out the front of the former 1866 School of Arts now Camden Museum Library complex. The building is also the home of the Camden Museum, Camden Area Family History Society and a shop front for Camden Council (I Willis)

Debbie followed Laura Jane around with her handheld – tripod held – iphone camera. If she was lucky a bus didn’t drown LJ’s monologue. The roadies held all the bits and pieces – then reviewed the take and ably provided all sorts of advice – most it wisely ignored by the camera operator and storyteller.

The most challenging story was that of Henry Thompson’s Macaria from the 1870s, the ghosts and Henry’s 16 children. This is next door to the 1840s Sarah Tiffin’s cottage, one of the oldest buildings in the local area and one time lockup.

Camden &amp; Laura Jane photoshoot epicure store History Videos CRET 2019[1] lowres
The 1940s Tiffin Cottage is now the Epicure Store selling local produce and cheeses. The cottage was the home of Captain Larkin in the early 20th century. Larkin was an auctioneer at the saleyards which were located in Larkin Place until the late 1940s until they were moved to their current site. (I Willis)

The Cawdor court house ended up in Camden in 1841 much to chagrin of Picton and Campbelltown which missed out. Next door is the 1878 police barracks which was always a site of plenty of action where miscreants were locked up in the cells to cool off.

The 1916 fire station which was really opened in 1917 was an improvement from the pig-sty in Hill Street. Next door is the modern library once the centre of learning and speeches in the town as the 1866 Camden School of Arts set up by James Macarthur.

Our storyteller and camera operator filmed a street walk outside the 1936 Bank of New South Wales building and its neighbor the 1937 banking chamber for the Rural Bank – interwar masterpieces.

This was followed by a chit-chat about the long running Camden Show out the front of the lovely 1937 architect designed brick frontage to the 1890s Camden Rifles drill hall, now the show pavilion.

Camden festivals

This intrepid troupe were making short film clips as a promo for local tourist and a local spring festival – the Camden Jacaranda Festival.

The aim of the 2019 Camden Jacaranda Festival is to

The specific intention in designing and delivering the “Camden Jacaranda Festival” is to showcase both our fabulous town and the people that comprise the fabric of it.

Camden CBC Bank 2019 Jacarandas IW lowres
The Jacaranda Festival is held in late in November 2019 as a spring festival to celebrate the town and its community. This images is the 1878 Commercial Banking Company at the corner of John Street and Argyle Street Camden. The Jacaranda tree is in the front yard providing a colourful presentation with the Victorian banking chamber. (I Willis)

 

The Jacaranda festival is just one of many that have been held in the local area.

English village sports days

The festival draws on a rich history of community festivals in the local area going back into the 1800s. The heritage of festivals is drawn from the English tradition of the village fair that came with the European settlers.

The origins of these festivals, according to Peter Hampson Ditchfield’s Old English Sports (2007), lies in ancient Saxon customs, particularly in Devonshire and Sussex, associated with ‘wassailing’ (carousing and health-drinking) to ensure the thriving of orchard trees (mainly apples) and exchanging presents.

On New Years Day village youths undertook indoor and outdoor sport to keep out the cold by ‘wholesome exercise and recreative games’. Sports  included bat-and-ball, wrestling, skittles, blind-man’s-bluff, hunt the slipper, sword dancing and mumming (play acting).

Festivals, fetes and fairs encourage lots of visitors to the local area as tourists.

Tourism, cultural heritage and history

What is the connection between local history and tourism?

Quite a lot.

Tourism Australia says

In the financial year 2017–18 Australia generated $57.3 billion in direct tourism GDP representing growth of 7 percent over the previous year – three times the national GDP growth of 2.3%. Tourism also directly employed 646,000 Australians (1 in 19) making up 5.2% of Australia’s workforce.

More than this Arts New South Wales says

In Australia and around the world, cultural tourism is growing. In 2015 NSW hosted over 11.4 million ‘cultural and heritage visitors’,1 both international and domestic, who spent an estimated $11.2 billion in the state, an increase of 15.4% on the previous year.

The Australia Council says of arts tourism:

Arts tourist numbers grew by 47% between 2013 and 2017, a higher growth rate than for international tourist numbers overall (37%).

Camden &amp; Laura Jane photoshoot show hall pavilion History Videos CRET 2019 (2)[1] lowres
Debbie and Laura Jane out the front of the 1936 brick extensions to the 1890s drill hall. Designed by Sydney architect Aaron Bolot the frontage is the same design as the adjacent commemorative gates. LJ was telling the story of the Camden Show which has been going for over 130 years. (I Willis)

Tourism can create jobs, drive economic growth and encourage local development.

 

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A new Macarthur regional masthead

Smarter Macarthur Magazine

Another free bi-annual colour magazine has recently come to my attention called Smarter Macarthur. While it has been present for a few editions this newspaper nerd did not notice it, probably because it is a ‘business-to-business’ publication in the  local media landscape.

Smarter Macarthur Magazine2 2019
The Smarter Macarthur magazine is a new glossy colour publication in the Macarthur region of NSW. The print edition was originally published in 2014. (I Willis)

 

The publication is yet another masthead that has appeared in the region in recent decades as the region grows as part of Sydney’s rural-urban fringe. While others have sort out the general reader this magazine is targeting a different audience. This is the first time that a Macarthur regional publication has pitched itself solely at the business readership.

The masthead is published by Smarter Media with a circulation of 5000 copies. It is letter-boxed to businesses across the region,  dropped in professional premises and eateries, and distributed to advertisers and local networking groups.

Smarter Macarthur was originally published in 2014 and is produced with 200gsm Gloss Artboard cover and internal pages of 113gsm Gloss Artpaper, which gives the full colour magazine a quality feel and presentation. The publisher stays local by employing local photographers Brett Atkins and Nick Diomis.

The 52pp print edition for Winter/Spring 2019 is supported by an online presence.  There is a Facebook page and a website , both appearing in 2014, with the website including a directory of advertisers.

Editor Lyndall Lee Arnold maintains that:

Our aim to produce quality content, to showcase local businesses within the area.

The print magazine carries news articles of local interest, stories of local businesses and advice pages on leadership, technology and health. The editorial approach of the magazine is to stress the local.

The editorial policy and the presence of the magazine strengthens regional identity and the construction of place by telling the stories of the local businesses and their owners.

Smarter Macarthur Magazine Screenshot 2019-08-07

This is a screenshot of the website established in 2014  for the Smarter Macarthur bi-annual glossy free colour magazine. (I Willis)

 

On the website there is a testimonial page where local business owners where Garth & Christian Muller from Ultimate Karting Sydney maintain:

Being on the front cover of Smarter Macarthur along with our business story being featured inside the last issue has been so positive!

Macarthur businesses seem to want to support a new addition to the local media landscape.

On the Facebook page the editor maintains that she is looking to the future and the growth of the regional market place with the construction of the Western Sydney Airport, apply named Nancy Bird-Walton Airport, at Badgerys Creek.

The success of the publication will add to community sustainability by strengthening the local economy,  job creation and economic growth.

It will be interesting to see if the Macarthur region’s competitive market place continues to support this masthead.

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History is nice, but…

What is the value of history?

A group of American historians asked this question in 2012. They were concerned about the profile of history in the USA and its branding.
Camp Admin block Narellan Military Camp 1942
Camp Admin block Narellan Military Camp 1942 (A Bailey)

 

What resulted was the Value of History statement which is a statement of 7 principles on how history is essential to contemporary life. It provides a common language for making the argument that history should be part of contemporary life. They are seeking the support of US historical institutions and provide a tool kit for the implementation of the statement.

The American campaign is centred around this impact statement: “People will value history for its relevance to modern life and use historical thinking skills to actively engage with and address contemporary issues.”  They are convinced that history is relevant to contemporary communities.

I would argue that the 7 principles are just as relevant in Australia as they are in the USA. The principles are centred around 3 themes.

  1. To ourselves (a) identity (b) critical skills
  2. To our communities (a) vital places to live and work (b) economic development
  3. To our future (a) engaged citizens (b) leadership (c) legacy.

While the Value of History statement is written for an American audience it has just as much relevance in Australia.

Princess Mary Christmas Gift Tin 1914
A Princess Mary Christmas Gift Tin 1914 that was on loan at Camden Museum in 2015 (I Wills)

 

The supporters of the US campaign want to change the perception that while history is nice is not essential.

There is certainly support for history in Australia as Dr Anna Clark has shown in her book Private Lives Public History that there is general support for history in Australia. But as American historians have found history is ‘nice but not essential’.

 Value of History statement

The Americans who are leading this campaign are seeking the development of a ‘set of metrics’ for assessing the impact of historical projects and thus prove their worth. It is their view that ‘funders ought to view history, historical thinking, and history organizations as critical to nearly all contemporary conversations’.

The US promoters of ‘Advancing the History Relevance Campaign’ maintain that the disparate nature of historical work means that there is the lack of a unified voice for the value of history.

Australian historians need to similarly speak with one voice from the many corners of the discipline. From local community history, to scholarly work in academia, to commissioned work, to work in archives, museums and galleries as well the heritage industry.

Camelot House early 1900s Camden Images
Camelot House early 1900s at Kirkham NSW (Camden Images)

 

Australian historian could learn a thing or two from their American colleagues. The statement of 7 principles of the Value of History statement has as much relevance in Australia as the US. Similarly the US desire for a set of assessible metrics would be a useful part of the Australian toolkit for historians of all ilks and backgrounds.

History is consumed on a vast scale in Australia. The American Relevance of History project has much merit and would be very useful in Australia.