The Power of History Making

Educational institutions value history. They respect the idea of examining the past in order to accommodate the present and plan for the future.

‘History is a relentless master.
It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.” 
John F. Kennedy

Thorough, thoughtful school history is a timeless investment and commissioning a professional historian is the safest and most efficient way to secure such an asset. Inviting the entire school community to participate adds a dimension to the history that archival documents cannot provide.

A professional historian knows how to marshal such diverse resource material, how to assess, analyse and organise its complex content, and to advise on the most appropriate form of disseminating the fascinating story that will inevitably emerge.

The traditional outcome of a history project is a book. Most Alumni will appreciate and cherish it, because a book is a familiar, tangible, tactile and very personal object. It also becomes a lasting legacy for a much broader community because it will automatically be placed in state and national libraries.

Beyond books, a school’s story may also be celebrated through exhibitions or websites, as well as a history trail around the school, a short film or a digital timeline.

Any of these outcomes could become useful curriculum resources in the classroom.

What better way to engage your students in the examination of history than to begin with learning so much more about a place that is already so familiar?

School history can also serve as an engaging way to market your school’s traditions, facilities and achievements. A history book’s launch can be a fabulous highlight in the calendar of celebrations for your school’s special anniversary year. Books can be presented as prizes for students, and as commemorative gifts to Alumni or honoured guests.
A great school history project can also be a rewarding experience for the entire school community as it provides many opportunities for participation and reflection.

Having a professional historian visiting your school is akin to having a writer-in-residence who will serve to stimulate new connections between past and present members of the community.

Alumni, in particular, may become more interested and involved in school events as a consequence of a commissioned history project. Some have even reconnected with their school directly as a result of the school history project because of a search for missing archival sources, the need to fill particular gaps, or simply because they were invited to be interviewed. For example, the donation of copies of an “underground” student newspaper proved an exciting historical addition to one school’s archives. In another project, one interviewee was later asked by the principal to be the guest speaker at speech night. It is this active involvement with aspects of the school’s heritage that the community values.

Reconnection through history provides a stimulating and, for some, especially attractive alternative to attending reunion dinners or sporting events.

History also has the power to heal past rifts. After a silence of 20 years, a former senior leader at one school accepted an invitation to participate in the oral history program. A former student from another school came to terms with unhappy school experiences through the cathartic oral history interview process. Several school principals have remarked about the ways in which historical reflection and newly discovered knowledge have benefited their understanding of the institutions they lead.

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About Helen Penrose Senior Historian, HistorySmiths Pty Ltd.

Helen Penrose (HistorySmiths Pty Ltd) is a professional historian. She has a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Melbourne, and is a member and past President of the Professional Historians’ Association of Victoria.

Working as a historian in Melbourne for over 20 years, she believes strongly in the role professional historians have in collaborating with organisations to tell their stories. Her published books include histories of three hospitals, a large legal firm, and several major independent schools, such as Melbourne Grammar, Caulfield Grammar, Firbank Grammar, The Geelong College and Ivanhoe Grammar. Her histories relating to Hobsons Bay include Spotswood Primary School, Hobsons Bay Toy Library, and the western suburbs during World War Two. She is currently writing a history of Westbourne Grammar School.

HistorySmiths, of which Helen was a founding director in 1994, provides research, writing and editing services. Helen and her colleagues have worked with a diverse range of organisations since then on curriculum projects, biographies, oral histories, heritage projects, editing jobs and commissioned histories.