Monday, July 02, 2018

Preserving the integrity of historical records in the age of cultural sensitivities

Aboriginal camp near Armidale. Taken by C Brown Photographer who was working in Armidale in 1892.
Seventy years ago, convict records risked desecration by people who wanted to conceal the convict stain on their ancestry. Today, their children or grandchildren seek to discover such ancestry.

Seventy years ago, having aboriginal ancestry was a matter of shame for some. I am a member of a number of discussion groups concerned with family history. Now there are regular requests from people seeking to establish Aboriginal ancestry. These requests come from Aboriginal people wishing to establish their own family tree and from people who have discovered that they had an Aboriginal grand or great-grand parent and wish to know more. A friend, Caroline Chapman, has established a website and a Facebook group to assist those with connections to the New England Tablelands.

The language used in official  and other records reflects views at the time. Caroline notes:: "Some of the language used in the historical documents cited is now seen as inappropriate by today's standards.
This language has been included for historical accuracy and is often written in quotation marks."

I mention all this because in May The ABC carried a story,  'Aboriginal' redacted from birth, death, marriage certificates after being deemed an offensive term,  about an Aboriginal man who sought a birth certificate for a member of his family only to find that the term "Aboriginal" had been whited out on the grounds that it might be deemed offensive, This decision created outrage among historians.

In this case, the original record was not altered, just a decision made to exclude information from the copy of the record supplied. That's bad enough. The difficulty is that it's actually not a big step from there to a decision to alter the record itself. This has,I think, become easier now that so many records  are digitised.


2 tanners said...

History is written by the victors. I guess that includes the victors of the cultural wars.

Jim Belshaw said...

When the story first broke, I thought that they had altered the records themselves. But its the information made available from the records. My concern is that once you censor the info, then it's not such a big step to censoring the record.

History written by the victors is an issue. But I have been thinking a little about that in the context of some of my present reading. It seems to me that that the success of the victors is actually ephemeral because time will replace their success with another paradigm. Because my reading is in part books written at various points in time, the extent to which the then dominant view has subsequently been replaced is ever present.

I'm not sure whether that reassures me or not. I would like to think that some features of today might survive, but I'm not convinced. I have wandered, but part of the reason for wishing to maintain the integrity of records is to ensure that evidence is available for later reinterpretation.

Anonymous said...

"part of the reason for wishing to maintain the integrity of records is to ensure that evidence is available for later reinterpretation"

I wonder what our Aboriginal fellow citizens would think about this obsessive need to somehow "freeze" a "fact" just so it might be available for "later re-interpretation" - maybe even leading to a "revised history"? Integrity of records is not the same thing as, or at least does not necessarily imply, an honest reporting of our past.

Remember Jim, you once posted a picture of Obama descending from Airforce One, clutching a watermelon :)


2 tanners said...

That later victors can rewrite already rewritten history is of little comfort to me since they will have already internalised the earlier narrative and lost access to important facts.

As for kvd's question about what our co-citizens might think, I do note that official responses failed to point out the extensive consultation with communities which led them to their decision. Perhaps, despite Aboriginal communities being here and the decision being made on their behalf, no-one thought to ask?

Anonymous said...

Thank you tanners!

So here we now have a "fact" surrounded by some context. Amazing! Never heard of that concept b4 :)


Anonymous said...

There's a wider point here about context and re-interpretation which I'll try to make, but will probably fail at, because I'm only struggling with it myself:

1. "context" itself is also malleable, depending as it does on focus and perspective. As example, Elvis Presley today is rightly respected, but in his time was considered somewhat decadent (Jim :) if not outright deviant. I'm uncomfortable with our now "re-interpretation" of his works given that we approach him from 50-odd years' worth of further musical and social development. Are we getting closer to, or further from, an assessment of his work and influence - his visceral effect on his early audiences?

2. "perspective" affects our re-interpretation of events and facts enormously - elapsed time is one perspective; there's also distance (remember the 'blue earth' photo from the moon?) and then tanners' "victors" comment - which we now see every year demonstrated on Australia Day.

Rambling again, I suppose, but this idea of re-interpreting "evidence" (no matter how carefully preserved) can lead us sometimes further from "the truth" than closer, IMO.


Jim Belshaw said...

I talked about these problems a while ago, kvd, in the context (among other things) of questions of perception, selection and bias as well as varying perceptions on the role of history in a national context.

Reinterpretation is inevitable because we get more evidence, more analytical tools and ask different questions of the evidence. This gives rise to the problems you refer to in regard to both context and perspective. They are both malleable. This can indeed lead us further from the truth.

I have a particular problem with the idea that an historical study is meant to prove something as opposed to discovering something. This used to be expressed in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The evidence gets twisted to support a particular hypothesis instead of the conclusion flowing from the evidence, Recognising that bias is inevitable, the only way to handle this in a professional sense is by indicating sources and method with sufficient clarity that someone else can go back to your source material, test and challenge. This includes looking for alternative evidence.

Presley is an interesting case study, although he is actually a little before my time! Attitudes towards Presley at the time is a question in its own right. His later influence is another question. Two contexts, two perspectives.

I sometimes think of history as applied imagination because it requires you to understand, more accurately try to understand, what people thought and felt. Not all history is like this, a statistical study concerned with delineating trends and relationships is different, but I have a personal preference for history focused on people.