Dr Alison Holland, senior lecturer and researcher in Australian race relations and Indigenous history in the twentieth century, talks about her journey from museum curator into academia.

Why did you choose to research in your area of expertise, and what keeps you interested in it?

I became interested in Indigenous history and policy after I completed my Arts degree at Sydney University. While I was there Indigenous history wasn't taught, but in the context of the late 1980s and particularly the bicentenary, it was becoming more widely canvassed. My interest was developed after completing a Diploma of Museum Studies in which I did a major piece of work on the history of museums in Australia. Indigenous collections - cultural appropriation - were a key part of this.
My first job, after leaving university, was in a curatorial capacity at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney. Indigenous history was integral to the story of law, police and justice we were telling. My move from museum work into academia was via a research assistant position for Professor Ann McGrath (ANU), one of Australia's leading practitioners of Indigenous history. It was while undertaking research for her that I came across a letter describing how Aboriginal rights activist Mary Bennett's considerable private archive was removed by the state of Western Australia virtually at the moment of her death. This piqued my interest and led me down the path of research into race relations, settler colonialism and Indigenous history.
I remain deeply interested in questions of Indigenous history, social justice and governance because they remain unfinished business. My research has always been at the nexus of history and politics. As much as a biography of one of Australia's leading human rights activists, my study of Bennett was an exploration of humanitarian investment in the context of a particular policy setting. My new book Breaking the Silence, Aboriginal Defenders and the Settler State, 1905–1939 recovers aspects of the conflicted politics around Aboriginal affairs and futures in the first half of the twentieth century. Historical research (by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars) has been integral to many of the advances in Indigenous affairs in this country and I like to think that the research I do can have real-world impact and inform contemporary policy debates. Besides this, there is still so much work to be done.

What would people be surprised to know about you or your work?
Well, my daughter recently told me I float gracefully in the ocean - which was news to me!
In relation to my work, it might be surprising to know that my PhD came out of a project led by Professor Ann McGrath, who had been awarded a large ARC grant titled Gender and Colonialism, and about half-way through the research suggested I take up a PhD on a strand emerging from the research.

What’s your proudest achievement at Macquarie?
Student achievements fill me with pride and joy. Watching students I've taught graduate is very rewarding and then hearing about what they are doing afterwards is a thrill. One student recently emailed to let me know that she was using the colonial massacre map (produced by Professor Lyndall Ryan, Uni Newcastle) which I'd used in class in her own secondary classrooms. PhD completions are particularly gratifying too. One of my first completions was an Indigenous student who recovered the history of her Warraimaay family from early colonial times. Another, a mature age student and single mum of three, became gravely ill half-way through her candidature. For a time it seemed she would not be able to complete - but she eventually did. Launching her book -  a climate history of NSW - recently was a very proud moment. The publication of my first monograph, Just Relations. The Story of Mary Bennett's Crusade For Aboriginal Rights was a proud personal achievement.

What was a ‘failure’ which set you up for later success?
My curatorial forays were not exactly a failure but a combination of funding limitations and my own frustrations with writing labels that felt like they left out more than they included, made me realise that museums were not where I wanted to be.
Tendering my resignation was a leap in the dark but the museum experience helped me get the work with Ann McGrath. It also facilitated my ongoing quest to undertake research in the emerging field of Indigenous history. One of the tasks I was assigned at the Museum was to research Aboriginal occupation of the site at Circular Quay. I found myself up the road at Mitchell library, exposure to which was a revelation. I was working there at the same time as the eminent historian Henry Reynolds was pouring over microfilm for one of his books, which was exciting and seemed fortuitous as I was working my way through his growing body of work. The library then became my permanent abode for several more years as I worked on McGrath's project (which was eventually published as the award-winning Illicit Love: Interracial Sex and Marriage in the United States and Australia) and then my own research.

Who is someone who has inspired you lately and why?
These days I'm inspired by young people, activists who have such clear visions about the pressing challenges facing humanity. The likes of Greta Thunberg or Dujuan Hoosan, the 13 year old Arrernte/Garrwa boy from central Australia who delivered a speech at the UN Human Rights Council last year, raising the issue of Indigenous youth incarceration and calling for the raising of the age of criminal responsibility. As well, I continue to be inspired by the many powerful and articulate Indigenous leaders in Australia particularly those, such as Professor Megan Davis, who led the deliberations which resulted in the Uluru Statement, and continue to press its veracity for Indigenous futures against the grain of political obfuscation and ill-will.

What are you most excited about on your agenda for 2020?
Research-wise I'm working on an article at present which I intend to submit to the international journal, Imperial and Commonwealth History, exploring how Indigenous affairs shaped and shifted imperial and commonwealth relations, sensibilities and subjectivities over time. I'm excited to be part of a panel proposal for the annual Australian Historical Association in July exploring humanitarianism in the twentieth century with Professors Joy Damousi and Melanie Oppenheimer which I'm aiming to develop further in the direction of an edited collection. I'm also looking forward to consolidating my research connections with Indigenous scholars at UTS with whom I'm working on an ARC Discovery Project application which focusses on the creation, operation and demise of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (1989-2005).
Teaching-wise I'm looking forward to convening new and revamped units which were the result of the recent curriculum architecture process.