It is now being increasingly recognised that the spread of anti-colonial and democratic sentiments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has often challenged the basic tenets of the social-science and humanities disciplines that themselves took shape and moulded our perceptions of modernity in the nineteenth century. Demands for cultural pluralism and for inclusion of formerly marginal groups in the representations of the nation have contributed to this process. Thus, anthropologists have had to re-examine their disciplinary understanding of ‘culture’ — or geographers their understanding of ‘space’ — in the wake of debates on knowledge-systems and their relationship to domination of one group by another.
The discipline of history has been no exception to this general process. It is no longer enough for historical research to be ‘true to the past’ (as Ranke and others conceived the ideals of the discipline). It is now increasingly demanded that it be useful to the present as well and serve some definite social ends. In many parts of the world in the last three decades, historians and archaeologists have been drawn into acute public disputes to do with questions of the past. Their involvement has given rise to various kinds of debates — national to methodological in scope — with serious impact on and implications for the practice of their disciplines. Countries such as Germany, Australia, India, Israel, South Africa, New Zealand and the United States have provided some of the prominent sites of these debates.
The aim of this conference is to examine in depth several sites of public debates on the past that have seen the active involvement of professional historians. International and local speakers will share with us their experience of particular debates with a view to discerning emergent general patterns that may be suggestive of the future of the discipline. Among the themes and problems the conference will address will be those evident in Aboriginal history in Australia, legal cases involving gay history in the United States, debates on history text-books, the work of truth commissions such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the conflict over ‘Hindu’ history in India in the last two decades, the controversy over the Enola Gay exhibition in the United States, the work of the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand, and Israeli archaeology. This conference hopes to contribute to contemporary discussions of disciplines and their futures in a world marked by growing demands for recognition of groups hitherto marginalised by mainstream national and institutional practices. By focusing on the discipline of history in particular, this conference will provide a forum for discussion by historians as to whether or not their involvement in public disputation has led them to rethink the protocols of the discipline, or its many possible futures, in any fundamental way.
The speakers will include Bain Attwood (Monash University and The Australian National University), Neeladri Bhattacharya (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Laurence Brown (The Australian National University), Dipesh Chakrabarty and George Chauncey (University of Chicago), Paula Hamilton (University of Technology, Sydney), Claudio Lomnitz (New School, New York), Klaus Neumann (Swinburne), Deborah Posel (University of Witwaterstrand), Bill Schwarz (Queen Mary's College, University of London), Keith Sorrenson (University of Auckland) and David Thelen (Indiana University, Bloomington).
The Centre for Cross-Cultural Research acknowledges the support provided for this conference by the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University; Department of History, University of Melbourne; School of Historical Studies, Monash University; School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney.