The Institutions of the Humanities in Australia

Joel Barnes is a Research Associate in the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. He is working on an Australian Research Council-funded project led by Emeritus Professor Lesley Johnson titled “The Institutions of the Humanities”, which examines the institutional histories of the humanities in Australia since 1945. Joel Barnes is the first scholar to be part of our newly launched Visiting Fellowship Programme in the History of Knowledge. He will be at Lund for several weeks over September and October 2019.


by Joel Barnes

The Institutions of the Humanities project is examining the histories of humanities institutions in Australia since 1945. The burgeoning field of the history of humanities, which is particularly strong in The Netherlands and the Nordic countries, has as yet had little impact in Australia. Contemporary overviews of the humanities in Australia have been produced with some regularity since the late 1950s, and there exists a rich body of institutional and disciplinary histories, but few studies have examined “the humanities” as a whole and as an object of historical inquiry. The project seeks to advance the history of the humanities in Australia by situating their emergence and development in relation to the knowledge-making institutions that have supported and made them possible.

The project team—Lesley Johnson, myself and Saskia Beudel—is investigating three types of institutions: universities, research libraries and the Australian Academy of the Humanities. The starting point for the project is the observation that contemporary debates about the value and purposes of the humanities frequently assume a certain timelessness about what the humanities are or ought to be. Yet humanities scholarship and teaching, and the institutional arrangements supporting and shaping them, have undergone significant change since the end of the Second World War. The humanities therefore need to be conceptualised as historical, institutional forms of knowledge-making that are in a constant state of development and flux.

Lesley Johnson has published from the project on the sense of generosity that underpins humanities institutions. Her work on research libraries includes a study of the role of the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and the National Library of Australia, Canberra, in shaping the humanities in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. Lesley Johnson and Saskia Beudel are currently examining the history of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the peak national body for humanities scholars in Australia.

My focus is on universities as humanities institutions. Themes I am examining for the project include the collegial governance practices of Australian universities between the 1950s and 1980s; liberal education ideals in the context of postwar technological society and its discourses of a supposed “two cultures” divide between science and the humanities; the interdisciplinary theories and structures of the “new universities” of the 1960s and 1970s; and changing definitions of the humanities in light of the expansion of the university system, the emergence of new disciplines, and the growth of scholarship on Asian and Indigenous cultures alongside those of Europe. I am looking forward to visiting the History of Knowledge group at Lund, and the opportunity to think comparatively about some of these problems in relation to their Swedish and Scandinavian counterparts.



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