The Way into History by Anna Kent

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton

If you’ve spoken to me, or checked my Twitter feed, in the last six months you’ll know that I’ve become relatively obsessed with Hamilton: The Musical. Hamilton is the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the United States of America, reimagined in rap and hip hop, with characters played by non-white actors. I have, in turn, passed my obsession onto my husband and children – so much so that my kids are now petitioning for a trip to New York to see it live.

What has intrigued me about this obsession has been how much it has stimulated all of our interest in American history. I’ve never really been an American history buff, I’ve never quite worked out when in history the War of Independence was in relation to the Civil War, and whilst I recognise many of the names of American history – it has never been my jam. But with prompting from Hamilton, our family is now relatively well versed on the life of Alexander Hamilton, and more specifically his family (as my children are much more interested to hear about his wife, Eliza, his sister in law Angelica and his kids than they are hearing about the financial system of the early United States).

This has got me thinking about how popular culture stimulates interest in history. This is, of course, not a new conversation. But it is interesting to note the correlation between those periods and events that have significant popular culture ‘coverage’, and those that are relatively well understood or conceived of in the general population. For example, the top three historical films listed by IMDB are related to WWI or WWII, and seven of the top ten are related to a war or battle. Maybe this is because war movies sell? Or because movie executives have very little imagination? Either way, it is easy to argue that there is a popular conception about what the wars of the 20th Century were, what they were about, and who ‘won and lost’. Historians may argue about the details, but the broad brush strokes are in our consciousness.

But what Hamilton has shown me is that it is possible to create a ‘hook’ about other stories and themes of history: a hook that is big enough to generate interest in primary school aged children! This realisation is not mine alone, as can be seen by a new Kickstarter appeal being run to fund Suffrageddon, a hip-hop musical telling the story of Emmeline Pankhurst and the fight for women’s suffrage. You can hear some of the songs already written for the musical in a recent episode of The Guilty Feminist podcast.

Not surprisingly, whilst I’m keen for my kids and friends to hear the stories of the suffragettes, I also want to get my kids interested in Australian history. So, my question, or perhaps, my challenge to readers, is what are the stories of Australian history that need to be part of our collective consciousness? And who is going to write the musical?

Anna Kent

Anna is writing a PhD in the Contemporary Histories Research Group on ‘Australian Scholarships for Indonesia 1960 to 2015: Critical Mass, Policy and Expectations Associated with Scholarships and Alumni’

Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia

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