Alistair Thomson

alistair-thomsonThomson was educated at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons 1982) and the University of Sussex (MA 1984, DPhil 1990). He was elected FASSA in 2014.

Thomson returned to Melbourne in 2007 after 22 years in England at the University of Sussex, where he was Professor of Oral History, Director of the Centre for Continuing Education, joint Director of the Centre for Life History Research, co-editor of the British journal Oral History (1990−2007), a Trustee of the Mass-Observation Archive and President of the International Oral History Association (2006−08). For many years he worked with the Brighton-based UK community history and publishing group QueenSpark Books.

Since returning to Australia, Thomson has been a Harold White Fellow at the National Library of Australia and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. He is currently Professor of History at Monash University and project leader for the Australian Research Council-funded Australian Generations Oral History Project, a national collaboration involving the National Library of Australia, ABC Radio National, the Oral History Association of Australia, and colleagues at Monash and La Trobe Universities (see http://www.arts.monash.edu.au/australian-generations/).

Research expertise: Alistair Thomson’s research and teaching explore the ways in which different kinds of life story evidence can illuminate the past and its meanings in the present lives of individuals and society. His books have explored the histories and memories of war veterans, migrants and post-Second World War families, in Britain and Australia. An internationally recognised oral historian, he writes about the theory and method of oral history and life history research, including research involving recorded and written memory, diaries and letters, and family photographs. A list of his publications may be found at http://www.monash.edu.au/research/people/profiles/profile.html?sid=12774&pid=4373

In 2014, Thomson received the Dean’s Award for Research Impact (Monash University, Faculty of Arts). The judges’ citation reads: ‘Professor Alistair Thomson’s innovative approaches to the creation and use of oral history have had significant impacts on public history practice both in Australia and overseas over several decades. More recently, he has collaborated with major cultural institutions to generate new archives of oral histories and to produce resources for radio and the web which communicate research findings for a broad public audience. He leads the “Australian Generations Oral History Project” and has collaborated with ABC RN and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image to reproduce research findings from his path-breaking book, Anzac Memories in its original and new editions. Professor Thomson is also nurturing a new generation of historians in creative communication of research through a collaboration with Museum Victoria that enables students to research and create digital history videos.’ For links to some of his public lectures and radio programs, see http://arts.monash.edu.au/history/staff/athomson.php

Sources:

http://museumvictoria.com.au/discoverycentre/websites/making-history/resources/expert-videos/alistair-thomson/

Publications:

As author/co-author

ANZAC Memories: Living with the Legend (1994, 2013); Moving Stories: An Intimate History of Four Women Across Two Countries (2011); Ten Pound Poms: Australia’s Invisible Migrants (2005) (with A.J. Hammerton).

As co-editor:

Oral History and Photography (2011) (with A. Freund); The Oral History Reader (1998, 2006 and 2015) (with R. Perks.

The first edition of Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend (Oxford, 1994), examined how the memories of Australian Great War veterans whom Thomson interviewed in the 1980s were created and recreated over time: as soldiers struggled to make sense of their war and its consequences; as postwar experiences and attitudes cast their war in a different light; and as celebratory national commemoration – the so-called ‘Anzac legend’ – affirmed some war stories but silenced others. According to Joan Beaumont, Alistair Thomson was one of the first Australian historians to recognise this complexity of memory. The book not only traced the processes whereby the Anzac legend became the dominant narrative of war memory over the twentieth century but how the veterans of World War I negotiated their own memories and identities with reference to the dominant public narrative.

Anzac Memories is widely regarded in Australia and abroad as a seminal, pioneering study of war memory and oral history, as ‘a superb account of the interaction of private memory with public myth’ (White 1996: 548) and as ‘a wonderfully subtle and engaging account of the Anzac tradition’ (Atkinson 2002: 65). Two new chapters in a second edition (Monash University Publishing, 2013) use Repatriation medical files to make new sense of the impact of the war on veterans’ bodies, minds and memories, and a Postscript explores the life of the legend in the era of ‘post-memory’. Peter Stanley, reviewing the new edition (2014: 159), wrote that ‘The new chapters strengthen the claim that Anzac Memories is one of the richest and most powerful encounters between the people of Australia’s past and one seeking to make sense of it.’ American historian Jay Winter’s Foreword argues that the book has ‘shifted around the furniture in the field of memory studies’, and Australian historian Joan Beaumont’s recent review praises the ‘masterly writing’ on memory and the Great War. Paula Hamilton included Anzac Memories in her list of ‘key contributions’ to public debates on what is remembered and how, at the collective or public level, and about the place of historical knowledge in Australian life (2001: 482−3).

Anzac Memories has seeded a series of radio programs on ABC Radio National, most recently Searching for Hector Thomson at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/new-document/5372570.

Reviews: Oral History 22/2 (Autumn 1994), 91−3 (Mike Roper); Times Literary Supplement, 16 September 1994; Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 23/2 (1995) (Peter Edwards); The American Historical Review 101/2 (April 1996), 548−9 (Richard White); Australian Historical Studies 27/107, (1996), 359−60 (Peter Stanley [first edition]); Journal of Military History 61/1 (January 1997), 179−80 (Ian McGibbon); Australian Historical Studies 45/1 (2014), 158−9 (Peter Stanley [new edition]); ‘Trivialising the Anzacs’, Joan Beaumont, ABR Online (May 2014), https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/116-may-2014-no-361/1948-selling-the-anzacs.

Sources: Paula Hamilton, ‘Oral History’, in Oxford Companion to Australian History, ed. Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (Oxford University Press, 2001): 481−3; Jay Winter, ‘Anzac Legend’, OCAH, 28−30; Alan Atkinson, The Commonwealth of Speech: An Argument about Australia’s Past, Present and Future (Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2002).

A major international collaborative research project between Alistair Thomson and James Hammerton produced the co-authored book, Ten pound Poms: Australia’s Invisible Migrants, (Manchester University Press, 2005), an oral history of post-war British migration to Australia. About one-and-a-half million people emigrated to Australia from the UK and Ireland between 1945 and 1982, one of the largest planned migrations of the twentieth century. These were the famous ‘ten pound Poms’ and this book is the first substantial history of their experience, one that fills a gap in the literature of immigration. In British-oriented Australia, this group was not previously seen as having stories that were culturally, politically or commercially valuable; nor did the migrants need to establish ethnically identified institutions or community networks. Their easy assimilation was assumed, but the reality was often more complicated. The authors draw upon a rich life history resource of letters, diaries, personal photographs and hundreds of oral history interviews with former migrants, including those who settled in Australia and those who returned to Britain, in order to bring the reader close to the lived reality of the migrant experience, to the tension between familiarity and strangeness. Government documents and newspaper reports are analysed to show the creation and implementation of policy, and the debates the program attracted, while statistical information charts newcomers’ patterns of movement, settlement, employment and welfare.

Reviewers noted that Ten pound Poms ‘masterfully traces intimate journeys and large scale movements without sacrificing people to abstractions’ (Times Higher, UK); that ‘with its sophisticated use of oral history methodology and sensitive analysis [it] stands as a model for the exploration of migration’ (Oral History Review, USA), and that it is ‘one of the most engaging and finely written monographs of Australian immigration scholarship’ (Australian Historical Studies).

Reviews: Oral History Society of Australia Journal 27 (2005) 77−8 (Shirleene Robinson); Times Higher, 13 January 2006: 22; Journal of Historical Geography 32/1 (January 2006), 237−8 (Roy Jones); The Oral History Review 33/1 (Winter-Spring 2006), 137−9 (Valerie Yow); Oral History 34/1 (Spring 2006), 110−12 (Breda Gray); Australian Historical Studies 37/127 (April 2006), 253−5 (Tara Brabazon); Twentieth Century British History 17/1 (2006), 137−9 (Eric Richards).

Moving Stories: an intimate history of four women across two countries (Manchester University Press and UNSW Press, 2011) follows on Ten Pound Poms, James Hammerton and Alistair Thomson’s definitive history of British citizens who arrived in Australia on assisted passages costing ten pounds. Moving Stories takes the reader more deeply into the experiences of those immigrants by documenting the life stories of four women, born between 1928 and 1938, who came to Australia in the 1960s and 1970s.

In part a collective biography, the book is based around a distinctive collaboration between the author and his subjects. The introduction draws the reader into a first person account of how Thomson and each interviewee became involved in the book, and the four biographical chapters allow the women to speak in their own voices, co-constructing the narrative and responding to Thomson’s interpretations. A fifth chapter considers how these women lived with and sometimes against postwar roles and expectations for women in Britain and Australia, enriching and complicating our understanding of key themes in twentieth-century women’s history. In the final three chapters, Thomson reflects on how people narrate their lives and identities through letters, photographs and memory, what these different sources reveal and conceal, and how these women’s particular stories took shape. Moving Stories was reviewed as a ‘distinctive collaboration between an historian and four ordinary women’ … one which ‘opens up, in human and approachable ways, a world of experience conspicuously absent from dominant Australian history’ (Oral History Review, USA). The book ‘exemplifies the richness of scholarship and practice that informs Thomson’s work’ (Oral History Australia). The book was awarded the United States Oral History Association International Book Award in 2012.

Reviews: Oral History 40/1, JOURNEYS (Spring 2012) 118−19 (Linda Shopes); Oral History Review 39/2 (2012): 325−7 (Deb Anderson).

Interview: Recorded on January 5, 2009 and March 6, 2009 at Canberra, A.C.T. http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/27482404?q=+alistair+thomson&c=music&versionId=46282763

See also transcript (typescript, 360 leaves).

 

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