Broken Hill High School Students Learn History and Create History

11 December 2012

Following on from a series of visits to Broken Hill, last week the Department of History hosted a group of twenty Year 12 students from Willyama High School at the University of Sydney. While here, the students undertook a series of activities at the Macleay and Nicholson Museums, the Rare Books Room at Fisher Library, and learned about the history of the Quadrangle and the University. They also had some non-history fun - enjoying rock climbing at The Ledge and evenings at Manly Beach, in the City, and in Chinatown.

Courtesy of a pioneering partnership with the City of Sydney, the students also got to explore the historic Rocks while participating in a new program aimed at mapping all the historical plaques in the City to create a new database for public use. One of the organisers of the visit, Associate Professor Michael McDonnell of the History Department, said that the students "not only learned about the history of the City, but got to create it too."

They are one of the first groups to help the City take stock of its own history. There are thousands of historic markers and plaques around the City, but there is no central registry of them. The City program will create an interactive database of these plaques so that users can search for specific names or places and then go out and view the plaques. The students first had to go out and find some of the plaques. With the help of postgraduate history student volunteers, they then took photos and notes about the plaques and marked them on maps. This information will be uploaded to the City website. When people search for the plaques in years to come, they will see all this information, as well as the names of the Willyama High School students who compiled the notes.

City of Sydney Public Art Program Manager, Eva Rodriguez Riestra, said that the students' work will be "hugely beneficial for the City in the years to come."

"Often many people call in who want to find a plaque about one of their relatives. We can also much more easily replace vandalised and stolen plaques since we'll have a good record of them now."

Historian Michael McDonnell agreed: "The program really marks a turning point in the historical documentation of the City, and it is great that the students will be a historic part of that moment."

While at the University, the Willyama students got to stay at Women's College, thanks to the generosity of Jane Williamson and the College, and were treated to packed lunches, a barbecue, and rock climbing with the support of the Social Inclusion Unit's Regional Program.

"It really was a team effort," said McDonnell, "and the amount of support for the program around the University has been amazing, and crucial to the program."

The students were welcomed by Jennifer Barrett, Pro-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and Regional Program Project Officer Trish Di-Masi, and then learned about the University and the programs available to regional students to help them get to University by Victoria Loy of the Compass team.

The high school students also got shown around campus by current history students and talked about the challenges - and opportunities - at University. Craig Barker from the University Museums then gave them an introduction to the Nicholson Museum, and the fascinating history of the Quadrangle, while Jude Philps and Jan Brazier of the Macleay Museum showed them some of the many rural town photographs of Charles Kerry, and asked students to think about the kinds of photographs they might take of Broken Hill today.

Sara Hilder, the Exhibitions Coordinator of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library introduced students to some samples from the collection including 16th century music books and 20th century comics. Sara also managed to find newspaper accounts of recruiting drives in Broken Hill for the utopian community of 'New Australia' in Paraguay in the 1890s. The students were amazed to find that at least five people from their own town signed up for the colony, and pledged to try and find out what happened to them.

The diversity of the program also helped the students see the range of studies on offer at the University. Several noted that the visit inspired them to find out more about studying history, but also archaeology, architecture, sports science, and even the history of special and rare books. Many also reported that the visit was helpful in thinking more about the options available to them after they finish school. And some who had been to Sydney before said they had seen the city - and the University - "in a very different way" this time.

Michael McDonnell said he was really pleased with the three-day visit, and noted that he and the Willyama teachers are already making plans to do repeat the trip next year. Despite the planning and effort to come - over 17 hours on buses and trains each way - teachers Emelia Nairn, Ross Mackay and Ingrid Seck all agreed it was well worth it.

McDonnell concurred, noting: "Though the teachers emphasise how important these trips are for the students in Broken Hill, we think it is also important for those of us here. The students push us to think very differently about our view of the world, and about the University. They compel us to think what a truly inclusive University might look like."