Quarantine: History, Heritage, Place

Scholars Quarantined


Across 14–16 August 2014, over 70 scholars were isolated at Sydney’s Q Station to discuss the history, heritage, archaeology and geography of quarantine. Convened by the Quarantine Project, this important conference connected the global with the local, the past with the present, and the material with the immaterial traces of quarantine.

Our conference was set in the breathtaking historical and natural landscape of Sydney’s former Quarantine Station. If Australia-wide delegates noted similarities between North Head’s architecture and their local sites, sessions on early modern and Ottoman practice emphasised the persistence of quarantine across wider spans of time and space. While Japanese scholars argued that quarantine has not universally been associated with immigration restriction, in his keynote paper, Professor Nadav Davidovitch illustrated how health, disease, immigration and citizenship have been perpetually entwined in the statehood of Israel. This theme was reinforced by Dr Gareth Hoskins, who argued that an interpretive emphasis on historical struggles to pass through quarantine and immigration boundaries has served to cultivate a desire for citizenship and hence submission to the nation.

Other keynote speakers emphasised duality. In evaluating early twentieth-century quarantine and immigration facilities along the US-Mexican border, Professor Alexandra Minna Stern demonstrated how American public health officials admired and emulated key technologies and practices of their Mexican counterparts. In the context of maritime quarantine, Professor Nayan Shah detailed the non-consensual research undertaken on the bodies and pathogens of those quarantined in San Francisco, providing public health and immigration authorities with collective data used to justify subsequent exclusionary practices.

The material aspects of quarantine and mark-making were also a prominent theme. Archaeologists explored the built environments, inscriptions, artefacts and assemblages through which experiences, regimens and absences of quarantine can be told – or challenged. The rise in named and dated objects from the seventeenth century, Professor Harold Mytum elaborated, bespoke the “markings of middling people” seeking first to emphasise their newly elevated status, then ultimately their enduring heritage. In a paper authored with Dr Ursula Frederick, the Quarantine Project’s Dr Annie Clarke proposed that the historic inscriptions across North Head are both objects with their own biographies, and objects serving as individual and collective biographies.

With Professor Dennis Foley welcoming the delegates to Car-ang-gels country, at the conference dinner Booker Prize winning novelist and historian, Thomas Keneally, mused that his long association with North Head has helped foster his writing. After presiding over the conference, Professor Alison Bashford from the Quarantine Project concluded the proceedings by emphasising the multi-disciplinary and cross-border conversations that were made possible by thinking through history, heritage and place.

Quarantine: History, Heritage, Place was convened by the chief investigators of the Quarantine Project, Professor Alison Bashford and Dr Annie Clarke, and research associates Dr Peter Hobbins and Dr Ursula Frederick. The conference was superbly managed by Tiarne Barratt. We are grateful for the ongoing support for the project, and this conference, provided by the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney, the Mawland Group, the Australian Research Council and the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.