In Australia the majority of our public understanding of history comes not from reading the work of historians but from watching film and television productions based on history. Performance has also become a key interpretative strategy for museum and heritage sites, and digital programs and web-series are playing a growing role in school curriculums.
My PhD explores the process of adapting history through performance – how it could or should be done, and what the opportunities or challenges might be in adapting the work of historians through different performance mediums. My research is practice-based and I’m building upon my background as a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter to develop a series of performance texts that are adaptations of the Founders and Survivors Project, a quantitative history research project analysing the experiences and legacy of Tasmania’s convicts.
In 1803 the British invasion of Australia spread southwards to a lush heart-shaped island named Van Diemen’s Land by Europeans, known today as Tasmania. The island soon teemed with red-coated soldiers, record-obsessed colonial bureaucrats, and ambitious free settlers who over the next fifty years would whittle it into a ‘little England.’ This feat was only made possible thanks to a devastating process of land dispossession from local Aboriginal groups and the forced labour of around 73,000 men, women and children convicted of crimes in British courts and transported from the far reaches of the Empire as convicts.
For the purposes of the colonial administration these convicts were comprehensively documented:
As unfree migrants, the convicts sent to Britain’s Australian penal colonies were described in extraordinary detail that proliferated over time. We know the colour of their eyes and hair, their place of birth, age, religion and literacy as well as the names of their parents and brothers and sisters. We also know much about their former criminal and work histories and the disorders for which they were treated on the long voyage to Australia. So minutely were their bodies examined that we have a record of their scars, inoculation marks and tattoos.
– Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Founders and Survivors Project [i]
The Tasmanian convict archive contains some of the most detailed data about 19th century working classes in the world. As well as describing the convicts, the archive also traces each convict whilst under sentence, keeping track of any work done, punishments borne, marriages sought or babies born.
When convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land ended in 1853 locals began unburdening themselves of the past and scrubbing clean the ‘convict stain’ that many felt had tainted the island. The convict archive was literally locked away, with some records actively destroyed, and society developed an unofficial ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy about the convict past. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Tasmanian convict archive was made available to the public, and it was only near the end of the 20th Century that it became a point of pride, not public shame, to have found a convict in your family tree. In 2007 the Tasmanian Convict archive was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
The Founders and Survivors Project is an ongoing collaborative research project between a number of institutions involving historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers who are interrogating this UNESCO listed convict archive. Convict records are gradually being transcribed and uploaded by researchers into a massive database, and quantitative analysis techniques are unearthing some ground breaking ‘big picture’ stories about the convict experience. Instead of seeing the archive as a record of convicts’ individual failings and experiences, which has long shaped our understanding of convict history, we can ‘read against the grain’ en masse and see the attitudes and systems of the colonial administration and how convicts’ lives were influenced by political, social or economic factors.
The project’s findings cover diverse territory – from myth-busting entrenched attitudes towards Irish convicts to analyzing height data to gauge whether the children of convicts were at a health disadvantage. Big data is changing the way we do history, and significantly shifting our understanding of the Tasmanian convict experience.
Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania
When adapting this research for performance a key challenge has been negotiating the warring needs of accuracy, artistry and accessibility in developing a performance text for a particular audience. For each performance text I have decided how much fidelity to the original historical research I need (or want) to maintain and what role the slippery and subjective term ‘authenticity’ should play in my choices. Quantitative history enjoys a relatively small audience thanks to the complexity of the methods used by researchers, and one of the aims of my research has been to interpret the data analysis process in ways that allow it to be accessible and engaging for wider public audiences without losing accuracy or misrepresenting the findings. I’ve been exploring techniques around simplification, prioritisation, and providing extra informative scaffolding, and have been experimenting with ways of visually representing the data, inserting the data into narratives and finding ways to perform ‘a likelihood’ rather than an outcome.
The early exploration of performing a Gaussian curve
Because the Founders and Survivors Project is so dependent on digital technology, and the database provides such a highly mediated window through which to view the Tasmanian convict experience, I have used similar digital-based mediums in my performance texts. I am developing a vlog-style series that uses visual representations of data and builds upon contemporary forms of educational storytelling to communicate some of the key findings of the Founders and Survivors Project. I’m also exploring online digital engagement with the Founders and Survivors research and how digital data visualisation might also be integrated into live theatrical performance.
My findings might be used to inform museum and heritage performance practice or performance adaptation projects for stage, film or television, but might also influence the communication practices of quantitative historians, and I’m looking forward to publicly releasing my performance texts and gauging how they bring this exciting new research into Tasmanian convict history to new audiences.
[i] Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish ‘And All My Great Hardships Endured’?: Irish Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land’ in Transnational Perspectives on Modern Irish History, Routledge, Niall Whelehan (ed), United Kingdom (2015)
Lydia Nicholson is a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter and is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Tasmania. She studied at Flinders University and the University of Sydney, has worked with a range of theatre companies in South Australia and New South Wales and developed public programs with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, the Australian Museum, National Trust Tasmania and the British Museum.