Dr Tony Moore on Making Australian Public Histories

From written word to viewer-friendly doco

The rewarding but challenging task of turning scholarly Australian history into engaging material for modern audiences will be discussed by a leading Monash University historian at an upcoming seminar.

Director of the National Centre for Australian Studies, Dr Tony Moore will examine the trials, tribulations and pleasures of documentary-making since the 1990s, and the challenges of writing for different audiences and popularising Australian history.

TonyMoore Bookcover

Using his own long-term Australian cultural history project as an example, Dr Moore will explore better ways to communicate Australia’s diverse history to the general public. Last year he published Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians, which had its origins in an ABC TV documentary Bohemian Rhapsody, and progressed to a PhD before reaching book form.

Dr Moore said to make history popular, it was essential to have a sense of an audience’s diversity and the media, and story-telling devices that engage different people.


“There are many challenges in translating scholarly ideas and research into documentary television,” Dr Moore said.

“Unlike a PhD, a TV documentary uses emotions such as humour and sadness, and works with music, visual effects and the grammar of film.”

Looking at his own experiences pushing for innovation at the ABC, Dr Moore argues that there is ‘a disparity between the innovative and refreshing approaches of academic historical research uncovering Australia’s past, and the often plodding, incurious, and aesthetically conservative approach to history on television. Documentary commissioners have long underestimated  and under-researched their audiences’.

Dr Moore said the onus was on scholars wishing to produce non-traditional outputs like documentary to make their research engaging and relevant to  changing audience literacies,  to balance the lack of knowledge, anti-intellectualism and risk aversion of many media professionals.

“Ignorance of Australian history outside of a few often repeated events and myths makes us poorer as citizens and a culture,” Dr Moore said.

“I also suspect that part of the reason for neglecting the past is the wrong-headed belief by TV executives looking back to their own school days that Australian history is boring.”

“Our nation has a rich history and the incredible diversity that has always existed in Australia makes for great stories and ideas that need to be told in innovative, engaging ways.”

Australian Bohemians on the Screen and on the Page will be held at the Village Roadshow Theatrette, State Library of Victoria, Entry 3, La Trobe St, Melbourne on Thursday 21 March from 5.30 – 7pm.