NT Prize Update: Awkward moment or second thoughts?
IN WHAT SEEMED to be a last minute aboutface, the 2010 NT Chief Minister’s History award went ahead in mid May.
Judges disqualified five of the six entries. The remaining entry—An Awkward Truth—was given the prize. Read on for more …
MEDIA RELEASE 11 May 2010
Australia’s History Wars could be breaking out on a new front, with the controversial decision of an academic judging panel to hold back this year’s NT Chief Minister’s History Book Award.
Days before the advertised presentation, one of the judges has told Halstead Press publisher, Matthew Richardson, that every book entered was ruled out by the judges’ “classical interpretation of historical research”.
The judges refuse to consider Halstead’s entry Wild Cattle, Wild Country, by Anne Marie Ingham. Richardson has been told that because it is based on oral history sources the judges cannot judge it as a history book. They do not recognise oral history research as classical history research.
“What about Thucydides and Herodotus?” asks an amazed Richardson—referring to the Greek historians who founded the classical history tradition. “They insisted on basing their books on eye witness accounts, but the judges would have to rule them out because their oral research wasn’t classical. It’s an insult to the cattle men, and the Aboriginal people on the stations. It disparages everyone whose experiences won’t be counted as history just because they didn’t generate written records.”
Academic historians are beginning to line up behind some of the eliminated books. “I’ve seen Wild Cattle, Wild Country”, says Assoc. Prof. Paul Ashton: “It must have taken years to research and its sources are carefully identified. It is hard to see how the history of the Northern Territory can ever be written without that level of oral research. Insisting on textually oriented research is a remarkable misunderstanding anywhere—and especially where so much of the past is stored in people’s memories.”
The Award was to have been announced on 13 May—the eve of the NT Writers’ Festival. What happens instead may hinge on the outcome of protests raised with the Chief Minister’s office by some of the publishers. “Narrowly managed awards have a way of haunting prizes,” says Matthew Richardson, “people still talk about the ‘lost’ Booker Prize, and Dobell’s claim to the 1943 Archibald. This is an issue that matters well beyond 2010 and the borders of the Territory.”
PROF. PAUL ASHTON is head of the UTS Public History Centre. His new book, History at the Crossroads, is due for release in July. MATTHEW RICHARDSON has 24 years’ experience editing history. His next book, The West and the Map of the World will be published by MUP in August.
BOTH ARE AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW—CONTACT HALSTEAD PRESS 02-92113033
HALSTEAD RESPONDS ON ORAL HISTORY
- The most superficial reader of Wild Cattle, Wild Country can see that it amply meets the depth of research criterion. Anne Marie Ingham has spent years researching, travelling many thousands of miles and interviewing dozens of people involved in the milieu she recounts. Her sources are precisely identified in a consolidated list [p.8] and individually wherever in the text they are drawn on.
- Halstead was advised that Ms Ingham’s research does not count because her sources are oral. The judges do not recognise oral history research as history research. They are only prepared to recognise textual research. Halstead was told the judges’ definition of research is exclusively “the classical definition of historical research”, and that a book based on oral sources is not a history in the classical sense.
- The judges are mistaken. The classical mode of historical research is to obtain accounts from participants and eye witnesses. Typically these accounts are hard to come by, frequently unavailable, so historians must often make do with less adequate sources, which are decidedly second rate by comparison. The classical mode of historical research is outlined by the Greek historian, Thucydides, in Book I of The Peloponnesian War.
“Far from permitting myself to derive the narrative from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw, partly on what others saw, the accuracy of the reports being always tried by severe and detailed tests . . . My conclusions have cost me some labour from want of coincidence between accounts from different eye witnesses.”
His work is based almost entirely on oral sources, as are the Histories of Herodotus. These two historians are the classical wellspring of all Western history, but the NT judges would have to rule them out because their oral history research wasn’t classical.
It has cost Anne Ingham some labour to get eye witness accounts of everything she writes about. Hers is original historical research of the classical and most valid kind. The individuals in her history are not literary folk, or bureaucrats or academics, who leave written traces of each achievement. Their accounts can only be unlocked by oral history research. That doesn’t mean they don’t count in the history of the Territory.
- The judges position disparages the Northern Territory’s history. More than most places, the Territory’s past is stored in the memories of those who made it. The judges insistence on textual research is an insult to them and all who want to understand their world. To the bull catchers, to the Aboriginal people who worked on the stations, to the ringers from the stock camps, the judges are saying the life they experienced does not count as part of genuine history.
- The judges identify a need for a different award in a “community” category that recognises autobiography and other books not eligible for the History Award. This is no answer to the point at issue: that history drawn from oral sources belongs to the central area of history, no less than history drawn from textual sources.
- The judges interpret their elimination criteria in an academic way because they say the Award is designed for academic books. Elsewhere in Australia academic historians recognise oral history research as a fundamental part of their discipline. In any case, to eliminate books so as to reserve the Award for academics is an abuse of a public award—especially since in the call for entries no indication is given that history based on oral sources will not be considered, or that the award is for academic writing.