Studying History

Dr. Peter Hobbins

Head of Knowledge, Australian National Maritime Museum

History isn’t just about the past. It’s about finding ways to understand the lives of people whose experiences were profoundly different from your own. Part of the process involves pinning down the historical context of their events, their choices and consequences. But it also requires empathy to imagine the different worldviews that shaped your subjects. What did they believe about how the universe worked and where they fitted into it? Sometimes you can find clues in their writing, their headstones, the items they cherished or the landscapes they criss-crossed as children. And they were all children, once. Whatever decisions they later made – however monstrous or foolish or extraordinary – they all had to grow up and connect with their society.

Part of being a historian involves putting aside your assumptions and learning like a child again. Immersing yourself in relics, documents, monuments and places until those fragments allow you to form a partial picture. It’s never complete – but then none of us fully understand our own times. The quest, nevertheless, is exuberant. Paradoxically, the more experienced I’ve become, the harder the task. Not because history is difficult, but because I keep discovering new ways to explore old worlds and the passion of pursuit is irresistible.

Above all, the craft of history lies in communicating the alien worlds of the past for audiences today. This is the skill that has united my career as a historian. I’ve been an amateur, a professional and an academic historian, and I’ve worked in companies, universities and government. Whatever my subject, from snakes to algorithms to pandemics, I always ask the same questions. Who am I writing for? What do I want them to know? Why would they be interested? And how can I evoke the experiences and the meanings of a world that will never exist again?