It’s not really as ghoulish as it might sound: for the past few years, Dr Lisa Murray, the City Historian at the City of Sydney Council, has been out every weekend visiting cemeteries, photographing graves and headstones. “I visited all the cemeteries in Sydney, which is more than you think: there are over a hundred,” Dr Murray says. “It’s a pet project of mine.”
Dr Murray’s necropolitan research will result in a new book, Field Guide to Sydney Cemeteries, to be published later this year by NewSouth, the publishing arm of UNSW Press. She says the cemeteries project has been a great opportunity for her to revisit the work she did for her PhD thesis at University of Sydney, which was a study of 19th century cemeteries in NSW.
“I never pursued my PhD as a career path to become an academic or a teacher. I pursued it as an opportunity to explore ideas about memory and history and how the public engage with that. So I guess then being able to come to work as a public historian here at the City Council was great opportunity.”
Dr Murray is a Sydneysider who grew up on the lower North Shore. She started working at Sydney City Council towards the end of her doctoral research in 2001. She was appointed to her current position in 2010, after the inaugural City Historian, the distinguished Dr Shirley Fitzgerald, retired. As City Historian, she heads up the small team – “two-point-three full time equivalents”– under the umbrella of Creative City. “Our role is to both research and promote Sydney’s history and to really encourage Sydneysiders to think more about the past and how it might touch on them in the present.”
Her team’s main focus, she says, is the local government area of Sydney. However, she sees projects such as the Dictionary of Sydney, which encompasses all of metropolitan Sydney, as allowing her work “a more global city vision.” The Dictionary is a free online encyclopaedia of all aspects of Sydney’s history.
The Dictionary was launched in 2009, with the help of Australian Research Council funding, the City of Sydney, University of Sydney, the State Library, the State Records Authority and UTS. Dr Murray has been a former chair of the Dictionary and serves on the Board. “The Dictionary of Sydney is a really extraordinary venture,” she says. “It’s actually an independent non-profit organisation with the idea of presenting all of metropolitan Sydney’s history online and allowing multiple voices, diverse voices, to tell that history.”
Recently the Dictionary set its sights to the west of the city. With a small grant from the Blue Mountains City of the Arts Trust, the Dictionary of Sydney has partnered with Varuna, the National Writers House, to commission five authors to write about the Blue Mountains.
The writers all have a close connection to the area. Delia Falconer’s 2010 nonfiction work, Sydney, is a personal history of her home town. Julian Leatherdale, whose 2015 novel Palace of Tears was inspired by the history of the Hydro Majestic Hotel. Local historian John Low OAM, takes readers along Darwin’s Walk at Wentworth Falls. Poet and author Mark O’Flynn visits Varuna in Katoomba, the former home of novelist Eleanor Dark, and historian Dr Naomi Parry, who has published a range of works on child welfare, community and Aboriginal history, writes about the Mt Hay Plain and Lockley’s Pylon.
Dr Murray said writers have a powerful role in keeping memories alive – she calls them memory keepers. “Writers, and particularly historians, have a very important, often unacknowledged, role in shaping ideas about the history of people and place; personal memory, but also historical memories and how that’s shifted and changed over time,” she said.
“I think it’s also sometimes their role to actually remember what others forget,” she said. “So sometimes the writer reveals stories or memories that people may have overlooked or possibly deliberately forgotten, and I think it’s the role of the writer to shine a light on some of those stories and sometimes to challenge us about how we conceive of people and places; to get us to think about things and look anew at places and people.”
As an example of this “looking anew”, Dr Murray points out that although the Three Sisters and Echo Point are now considered iconic images of the Blue Mountains, Falconer’s and Low’s essays both show that in the 19th Century, Wentworth Falls was much more celebrated “as a sublime sort of experience.” It wasn’t until the growth of tourism and photography that the Three Sisters became the Blue Mountains icons they are today.