Recovering lost cultures: ethnographic history

Instead of focusing on the leaders and figureheads, what does history look like when we focus on ordinary people and how they understood their world?

Dioroma of ancient Aztec market
Diorama model of the Aztec market at Tlatelolco, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Melbourne school

Rhys Isaac called it “inclusive, ‘everybody-in’” history. For Donna Merwick, it was about making sense of “mysterious happenings in a culture that is not ours”.

Isaac and Merwick were part of a collective of Melbourne-based social historians who, in the 1970s, adopted a new, ethnographic approach to studying and writing history. Rather than confining themselves to dramatic events involving prominent individuals, they focused on ordinary people and the way they understood their world, by seeking to recapture their feelings, perceptions and experiences.

Drawing on anthropology, sociology, archaeology and even performance studies, these internationally renowned researchers – who also included Merwick’s husband, Greg Dening, and Inga Clendinnen – investigated the actions, rituals and symbols of cultures which left little or no written records, such as the Central American Aztecs and the Dutch settlers of colonial New York.

The “Melbourne School”, as the group was christened, inspired two generations of historians in Australia, Europe and the United States to recreate the lives of everyday and Indigenous peoples, and recover their “lost” cultures.

Returning to the past the past’s own present

An illustrious scholar, Dening pioneered the ethnographic perspective in Australia, examining encounters between eighteenth-century Europeans and Polynesians in the Pacific. Among his acclaimed books are Islands and Beaches (1998), about the Marquesas Islands, and Mr Bligh’s Bad Language (1992), a major reinterpretation of the Bounty mutiny.

Describing the Melbourne School’s approach and methodology, Dening wrote:

“In its broadest sense, ethnographic history is an attempt to return to the past the past’s own present, with all the possibilities still in it, with all the consequences of actions still unknown.”

Better known internationally than many other Australian historians, the group opened up new avenues to understanding past cultures. Much of their work, conducted in an era of anti-colonial sentiment and Indigenous rights movements, dealt with the complexities of cross-cultural contact in settler societies and with non-Europeans’ experiences of colonisation.

Developing a cross-cultural toolkit

Isaac, whose work centred on Virginia’s colonial and revolutionary history, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History for his book The Transformation of Virginia, 17401790 (1982) – the only Australian ever to win that prize.

As Isaac wrote, he “set out to read colonial Virginia’s historic landscape as a vast stage set”, with the sets consisting of “courthouses, parish churches, gentlemen’s plantation seats, farmers’ houses, and even the yard spaces of slave quarters”. He explained: “I wanted readers to feel as if they were personally watching the action at these characteristic settings.”

Clendinnen focused on Mayan and Aztec culture and society in two celebrated books, Ambivalent Conquests (1987) and Aztecs: An Interpretation (1991). In the former, she reconstructed how sixteenth-century Mayan Indians reacted to – and resisted – European missionaries. The latter painted a vivid picture of life for ordinary Mexica in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlanon, shortly before the Spanish conquest, and analysed the Aztec Empire’s practice of human sacrifice.

Merwick’s specialty was North American history. After reinterpreting Boston Catholic culture in Boston Priests, 1848–1910 (1973), she turned her gaze, in Possessing Albany, 1630–1710 (1990), to the different experiences of Dutch and English settlers in New York state, as well as their interactions. In The Shame and the Sorrow (2006), Merwick explored how the culture and society of native peoples living around Manhattan Island disintegrated following the arrival of the Dutch.

With their more intuitive ways of looking at history, the work of these academics – and of others whom they influenced – can help Australia to better understand its own past, as well as that of other people around the world, and to meet pressing contemporary cross-cultural challenges.

Further reading & resources

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