Professor Tony Ballantyne, Department of History and Art History, University of Otago, New Zealand

Professor Tony Ballantyne, Department of History and Art History, University of Otago, New Zealand

This lecture was given by Tony Ballantyne, Professor of History and Head of Department of History and Art History, before an audience of nearly two hundred people on Thursday the 6th of August.

How do archives shape the past?  Historians rarely share their stories of archives in public.  Nor do they list the archives they have worked in.  Archive stories shape a historian’s story of the past.  Primary source research takes a historian into the gossip, controversy and arguments of the archive records.  Ballentyne has discovered the violence that occurred among first generation missionaries with limited resources and their own personal politics; and the transnational history in the exchange of letters, books and notes that occurred in an empire that crossed the globe, the rule of paper in communication.  The life-blood of empire was the networks of exchange connecting collectors in a global system.  The rise of national processes obscures global colonisation.

New history must emerge as the archives of colonial collectors are investigated.  Our history under the Waitangi Tribunal has been an investigation of the enquiry whether the Crown breached the Treaty of Waitangi in the colonisation of New Zealand.  As this question is resolved for this generation, at least, a new singularity emerges.  The opportunity arises to research the role of colonials hidden in the nation-building story.

Historians can only find what is in the archives.  There will be complexities and silences that affect the historic writing, the things the collectors never mentioned, who is included, and who is marginalised.  The reading of a cursive style of writing, ‘joined-up writing’, most of us no longer practice or read.  Marsden Online gives the historian access.  They also have to remember to see and handle the original document.  Electronic retrieval is not enough.  Historic figures in archival collections must capture historians.

Questions remain.  Is it inevitable that the archive stories and research become biographical?  How much more can historians do to encourage their students to come to the archives, to see and handle the original documents?

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