Official and Vernacular Public History: Historical Anniversaries and Commemorations in Newcastle, NSW

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Erik Eklund


The city of Newcastle commemorated two bicentenaries within the space of seven years. In 2004, the city marked 200 years since the permanent establishment of the settlement on 30 March 1804. But 2004 was not the city’s first bicentennial. In 1997, Newcastle celebrated the 1797 journey of Lieutenant John Shortland, who named and sketched the Hunter River and brought back samples of coal to Sydney. These anniversaries, and earlier ones such as Newcastle’s centennial in 1897 and its sesqui-centennial in 1947, were crucial moments of history making in the public sphere. History was evoked to celebrate progress, encourage civic loyalty and, more recently, to emphasise the city’s transition into a post-industrial era.

This article will explore the way in which commemorative dates in Newcastle’s history were interpreted, utilised and presented to the general public. It will examine how history, heritage, politics and policy come together to use the past in a public way. Utilising US historian John Bodnar’s terms, the shift in the themes and tenor of public history in Newcastle over this period has been from an ‘official’ to a more ‘vernacular’ style. Official public history emphasised unitary notions of progress while vernacular styles presented more diverse and occasionally more critical versions of public history. By the time of the 2004 commemorative events there was more scope for active popular participation. Newcastle public history was being nourished by community groups often with conflicting notions of public history, generating a multivalent, multilayered sense of the past, though older themes persisted with remarkable durability.

In a city where ‘history’ has such an ambivalent position, large-scale historical commemorations make for intriguing analysis. After a review of the principal themes in the Newcastle commemorations of 1897, 1947, and 1997, I consider the 2004 ‘Newcastle 200’ programme. In particular, I will be considering my own movement from an apparently objective historical analyst of the earlier commemorative events to a participant in the history-making process in the 2004 program.

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Author Biography

Erik Eklund, University of Newcastle

The author is a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle