Public history and rats
I am currently finalising one of the introductions to the Public History Reader. The Reader emphases public history as a process by which the past is constructed into history and a practice which has the capacity for involving people as well as nations and communities in the creation of their own histories. Discussion of process is an integral part of the practice of public history – and of the book. Process also implies practice including the materials used for creating history as much as who decides what history is.
A good example of this is the wonderful The Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, (PDF) Australia which I have visited several times. There are often art installations inside and out, including the Irish famine memorial, pictured below. The Barracks – in the same road as the statue of Trim the cat explorer of southern Australia – is now a museum that depicts various aspects of Australia’s past by showing the different uses of the building over time including its use as a military prison, home for destitute women and government departments. When visitors enter the shop to buy admission tickets they are confronted with the glass cabinet above containing real rats and their nests. Sadly the rats kept in the case are not Norwegian brown rats – the type found on ships who would have been the type to have lived in the barracks. Instead they are domestic agouti rats since they were seen as friendlier (!)
As the accompanying sign says, for most of the nineteenth century the human occupants of the barracks shared the building with rats who scurried about dragging away scraps of clothing, food and bedding to make nests. Because the rats did this, thousands of personal and everyday items relating to humans were found: bonnets, aprons, shirts, shoes, stockings. It was this animal process of accumulation – and then a different, human, recognition of its value – that allowed the archaeological service to document ordinary everyday lives at the barracks in the past.
This is still a fairly unusual approach to the display of materials in a museum since it not only explains but also highlights the way in which the institution has constructed its displays. It shows the decisions taken to save what some might see as everyday rubbish and how these ephemeral traces of the past came to be there. It demystifies the work of the professional historians paid to produce such a collection. (It also starkingly illustrates an aspect of animal-human relationships, of course!)