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Arts & Culture

Stories from the skies: the heritage and history of Australian aviation

During her time as the State Archaeologist for the NSW Heritage Council, Professor Tracy Ireland had little inkling that 20 years later, she would be leading a project focused on how aviation has transformed Australia.

Today, she is the Director of the University of Canberra’s Centre of Creative and Cultural Research, and her three-year Australian Research Council (ARC) linkage project, Heritage of the Air, 2018-2020, is a digital and community-focused project studying how communities value the heritage of Australian aviation.

UC has partnered with Airservices Australia to bring these stories to life.

“Back in 2013, some people on the board of Airservices Australia wanted to do something around the Centenary of Aviation, which is in 2021,” Tracy said. The ARC project fulfils the need to mark this important Centenary.

Tracy has drawn on her vast experience as a heritage practitioner to unearth a treasure trove of previously untold stories.

The research team quickly established that the project wasn’t just about planes; it equally considers the role aviation has played in connecting communities and the people who have been employed in the industry over the past century.

Across regional Australia, Tracy discovered a substantial interest in civil aviation, and this guided research directions.

“We contacted interest groups around Australia and asked what they regarded as the most important aspect of their collections,” she said.

The aim was to uncover stories that hadn’t been told previously. “What we wanted to do was tell the stories of how civil aviation has impacted on the lives of ordinary Australians,” Tracy said.

“We wanted to do something away from the well known narrative, which tends to focus on heroics and records.”

From more than 70 specialist aviation museums around Australia, the stories began to emerge.

The research team had the luxury of being able to draw on a baseline of a previous UC heritage project, Connecting the Nation.

Tracy’s ability to apply adaptive contemporary archaeology to the project further added to the research team’s unique approach.

“I use objects to tell stories,” she said. “They might not be written down, but there is evidence from objects, photographs and other material to fill the gaps. We wanted to give an official voice to those who haven’t been heard before.”

One such story is how aviation changed life for women, allowing them to travel and find a sense of freedom.

“Some women, like the aviatrix Lores Bonney, were able to get a pilot’s licence before they were able to drive a car,” Tracy said.

Aviation also played an important role in providing employment for women in a range of positions, and the research project documents the significance of women as key drivers of the Australian Civil Aviation Industry.

The Heritage of the Air project has also unearthed the role played by Australia’s Indigenous communities in our aviation history.

As Tracy explains: “One of the interesting things about the project is that it includes four PhD scholarships here at UC to look into the heritage of aviation. One of the PhD students, Ashley Harrison, is looking at how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have experienced aviation. This is a story rarely told. There is also a story to be explored about the role played by Indigenous communities in building airport infrastructure.”

Another PhD researcher, Fiona Shanahan, is looking at aviation in Northern Australia. This has led to her interviewing groups who restore and fly old ultralights in Darwin and Alice Springs.

Now at the halfway point of the project, a conference is being staged at University House in ANU. Its aim is to bring together key people involved in aviation.

“These will include academics, professionals in aviation and heritage conservation and communities who might be researching their own histories,” Tracy said.

The conference has attracted 190 delegates, including keynote speakers like ABC radio personality Rhianna Patrick, who was married on an airfield, and heritage consultant and archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman, well known for her blog, Space Age Archaeology, and her book, Dr Space Junk vs The Universe.

For Tracy and her research team, the journey to unearth untold stories about Australia’s aviation heritage continues to gather momentum. There is a possibility for this project to continue well into the future, as the desire to discover more about our history grows.

Photo by Madeleine Wood

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