Historians for hire, David Grant

Going Public: the Changing Face of New Zealand History
ed Bronwyn Dalley and Jock Phillips
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 186940226X

If I were an insecure sort of chap, I might be worried about what I actually do for a living. Am I a “public” historian, one who, as defined by Bronwyn Dalley, does historical work according to research priorities, agendas or funding capacities of another party, rather than being self-directed? Three of my five published books come into that category so that statement has some validity. But then I get paid for what I do, mostly – so am I a “professional” historian? In other words, I am commissioned, so does that make me a “contract” historian? Though I am funded, usually, I am out there on my own in terms of the research – and the finished product is my own product – so am I “independent” or “freelance”?

Colleague Graham Butterworth has coined the phrase “feral historian”, and that has apt connotations when I am digging around for evidence. When I am researching articles, essays or dictionary contributions for which I get paid nothing, or next to nothing, the phrase “charity historian” is apposite. At the same time, all my books are “people-rich”, much of the history “from the bottom up”, so some would argue that the term “social historian” was the most pertinent – and, if I felt strongly that I needed a definition, then this would be my preference.

All of these terms have relevancy, of course, because the definitions are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in the end, it matters little; there is no right or wrong answer to this hypothetical query. But there is little doubt that the term “public” history seems to have emerged as the catch-all for all published history writing that has emerged from outside the academy in recent years. Ideologists could call its adop-tion here cultural imperialism because “public history” is a North American term, first used in the mid-1970s to describe the work of historians beyond the university environment.


This anthology, Going Public, does show that there was much “public” history written and published previously, which happily went by other names. While the definition today is generally agreed on, international acceptance of the term has been slow. When I, along with Dalley helped to found New Zealand’s first and only public historians’ association in 1993/4, we called it PHANZA –the Professional Historians’ Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa – because the term “public history” was virtually unknown here at the time.

While the definition issue is interesting and well articu-lated by Dalley in the book’s first chapter, two more important truths emerge from this book. First, despite the recent adoption of the term, it records the surprising extent to which “public” history has been commissioned and produced over many decades. This began from the late 1930s, before which the dominant forms of published history were sporadic contributions from journalists or from amateurs of independent means – much of which was of dubious quality and accuracy. But then a significant wave of work was commissioned by the Government from professional historians: for centennial publications (1940), war histories and reference works – such as the first Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, edited by G H Scholefield and published in 1940, and editor A H McLintock’s three-volume Encyclopedia of New Zealand, produced between 1959 and 1966. The extent and importance of these new beginnings is reflected by the fact that three essays – by Chris Hilliard, Roberto Rabel and a joint one by Peter Gibbons and Jeanine Graham – cover them.

Even more importantly, the book reveals the surprising number of new voices that have emerged to encompass the term “public” history today. It is no longer just the preserve of books, articles or dictionary contributions but includes areas as diverse as heritage trail guides, publications based on oral interviews, museum exhibitions and guides, film and television scripts, policy advice, construction of family trees (“granny hunting” is a huge growth industry), reports for the Treaty Claims process, conservation plans for historic places, evidence at Waitangi Tribunal hearings, the design of stamps for New Zealand Post, tourist pamphlets, and wall notices and plaques in public buildings or at historic sites. Moreover, in the last five years in particular, with the rapid technological development in digital, computer-based forms of communication, a revolution is beginning in the presentation of historical information and ideas far removed from today’s predominant print culture.

This explosion has occurred partly because of the wish of ever-increasing numbers of New Zealanders to learn about their past. Before the 1960s, the history that was taught in schools and universities was almost entirely Eurocentric, with only passing reference to this country’s past because it was considered less important. Then a new generation of university teachers started to research, write, publish and teach New Zealand history. Concurrently, the secondary school history curriculum was rewritten to allow for much more New Zealand history to be taught, at the fifth and seventh form levels in particular. Local history also made significant inroads into social science syllabuses at junior levels. Primary school children began learning more about the country’s past beyond Maori myth and legend, which had been the stock-in-trade until the 1970s.

Contiguously, historians, and others claiming to be historians, began to produce a raft of “public” histories, some commissioned, others not, on communities, businesses, sports, social and racing clubs, as well as the ubiquitous family histories. This has been a response, at least in part, to a growing cultural nationalism as New Zealanders begin to break free of “cultural cringe” as an outpost of Empire and find a truer home within their own borders.


Such nationalism was specifically triggered, as the editors attest, by a series of anniversaries which became catalysts for public history projects. Examples are the 1990 sesquicentenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which was the raison d’être for the five-volume Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and the 1993 centenary of women’s suffrage which spawned a series of publications and television programmes. More recently the Trade Union History Project celebrated the 50th birthday of the 1951 waterfront lockout with a well-received seminar and exhibition. Indeed, birthdays are key for public historians. My recent TAB history was a 50th birthday commemoration; as is my current project funded by the Post Primary Teachers’ Association.

The biggest fillip for the engagement of public historians has come in the Treaty area. The Waitangi Tribunal, established in 1975, the Office of Treaty Settlements and the Crown Forestry Rental Trust, which came later, collectively employ close to 100 historians. The Treaty “industry”, as it is now colloquially referred to, is the subject of two significant essays in this book. Michael Belgrave discusses the Tribunal and Treaty settlement process in its historical roots. He considers the long, quasi-judicial and political history involving Maori and the Crown, which has cast a long shadow over Tribunal research, reports and settlements, and he reviews the difficulties of the complex historio-graphical processes among claimant and Crown historians alongside tribal and iwi expectations and Tribunal assessments.

Giselle Byrnes, who, like Belgrave, was formerly a Waitangi Tribunal historian, addresses the role of historians in the Treaty Claims process. She wonders whether they operate as “hired guns” for the Crown and can be independent and critical in their assessments within the adversarial judicial context of Treaty claims research. She concludes that Treaty claims historians should acknowledge the positions from which they write, consider the larger historical picture within which they work, and not take the highly problematic concepts of truth, objectivity and fact at face value.

This, I would argue, is a truism for all public historians. Every history, no matter how small the set boundaries, has a wider social, political, economic, and/or religious context into which the practitioner must delve. This gives a broader relevancy to what he or she is saying – and makes the book more accessible to a wider audience, thus “turning on” more New Zealanders to read, watch or “walk through” their country’s history.


While the essays in this anthology are uniformly thoughtful, some are more stimulating than others. A few, such as those by Graham and Gibbons and Tom Brooking, recount a history with less assessment than I would have liked. Brooking’s essay is an interesting and comprehensive survey of the nature and content of the books produced under the auspices of the Historical Branch (now the History Group of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage). But he does not really come to grips with his own question of whether the resulting body of work is State propaganda or balanced histories. This is a key question that remains contentious: whether a commissioned historian is genuinely independent or has a responsibility to the funder to express a point of view that might reflect the latter’s values, even subliminally. In my view, it is unanswerable.

Gavin McLean’s account of the development of “historic heritage” comes with the assurance of a practitioner who has long been immersed in the area. Susan Butterworth’s frank portrayal of the highlights and pitfalls in her experiences as a freelance public historian was invigorating to read. Anne Else broadens the parameters, arguing that all encounters with the past – from personal records to images and objects we buy – are public history. But she warns of the dangers of blind acceptance of reconstructed pasts. Because New Zealand is one of the very few countries where national history is not mandatory in schools, both marketeers and politicians have a freer hand to reshape history “in their own image”. The changes in perception towards the welfare state since 1984 are one infuriating example of this.

Alongside, the ignorance of our young people on recent events that my generation considered seminal – the Vietnam War, the 1981 Springbok Tour and its consequences, and the anti-nuclear debate, to name just three – is galling. This ignorance gives adolescents a superficial or distorted perception of who they are, where they come from, and what is shaping them as New Zealanders. Like Else, I argue that history, with a vigorous New Zealand component, should be a compulsory subject for all secondary school students. This would help to balance the insidious and overweening influences of consumer-based, American popular culture.

Jock Phillips’ essay on “History and the New Media” shows that histories on television and film are fraught with new challenges for historians. Commercial imperatives are the motivating force, so the subject matter is chosen by the film-maker, not the historian. Editing, often crucial to the accuracy of the final portrayal, is also usually outside the historians’ control. In this restricted but increasingly important working environment, the historian is best used as part of a team.

This does not always happen. The Communicado programme New Zealand at War had very little professional historical input. Thus there were unacceptable levels of error and distortions of emphasis. In contrast, Ninox Films’ Our People Our Century employed historians directly in the background and checking processes. Errors were minimalised though not totally extinguished. The problem with this series, according to Phillips, was that the film-makers insisted that key themes in New Zealand’s 20th-century history be presented through the medium of families and their experiences, leading to a presentation more akin to soap opera than analytical history. I believe Phillips is too rigid in this assessment. Family stories in this context attracted a healthy viewership, just as biographies do. The feedback that I received, both as researcher and participant in this series, was overwhelmingly positive. If we, as historians, are responsible for promoting the history of our country to the widest possible audience, then Our People Our Century was a success, no matter what the imperfections – so long as they were minor.


I have one quibble. The editors state that there are up to 40 independent freelance historians not associated with organisations earning their living in the public history community. That is misleading. Only a handful of freelancers are able to earn a decent income solely from public history production. Many have other work, such as policy analysis or teaching. For a few, there is a living but it is a tenuous one, unworthy of their skills. Others rely on spousal support. Still more produce good works in their spare time. Jessie Munro, for example, winner of the 1997 Montana Book Award for The Story of Suzanne Aubert, is a full-time teacher at the Correspondence School. Slowly, as word spreads of the worthiness of organisations having their history recorded, more trained historians will be able to make a satisfying living from the calling. PHANZA’s forthcoming publication of a scale of fees for hiring public historians, based on their experience and qualifications, is a welcome step in this direction.

That takes nothing away from the worth of this book. The authors feel passionately about their topics and have written with clarity, expertise and insight. To the surprise and delight of both the editors, and this reviewer, this book has sold remarkably well since it was published in June, attaining a non-fiction bestselling status in bookshops in Wellington and Auckland. That in itself is a welcome sign that New Zealanders are becoming more interested in not only this country’s history but also its historiography.


Wellington public historian David Grant’s last book, Thoroughbreds, Trainers, Toffs and Tic Tac Men; A Cartoon History of Horse Racing in New Zealand, was published in August. He is currently researching a history of secondary education in New Zealand.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction
Search the archive
Search by category