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  • Your Hunter Valley Magazine

Step Back in Time: Hunter Living Histories

It may have started as a simple project to record the history of the Hunter’s Coal River Precinct. But the University of Newcastle’s Hunter Living Histories initiative is now helping to bring the wider region’s heritage to life for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

For the past 16 years a group of academics, students and community members have been working to unearth forgotten stories and preserve our knowledge of the past, an activity Hunter Living Histories Chair Gionni di Gravio believes is incredibly important.

“Most of our stories are either lost, incorrectly recorded or forgotten, and the location of important tangible physical and documentary evidence for our achievements need to be found, documented and made publicly accessible,” he said.

“These achievements have helped shape the world we live in, as well as our land and the peoples of Australia.

“The aim of the Hunter Living Histories initiative is, therefore, to help restore Newcastle and the Hunter Region’s significant history, and historic achievements back into the Australian story.”

The historical research group, initially known as the Coal River Working Party, was formed in 2003 after Doug Lithgow, President of the Parks and Playgrounds Movement Inc. approached the university with the proposal to form a team of academic researchers dedicated to the investigation of the early history of Newcastle.

With Dr Erik Eklund from the History Department as Chair of the group, their main aim was to research, document and protect the culturally important landmarks within Newcastle’s historic east end, the Coal River Precinct.

But the work carried out by the group expanded to take on a wider focus over the years, and in 2016 it was renamed Hunter Living Histories to better reflect the university’s Cultural Collections historical research collaborations across the Hunter communities.

Mr di Gravio said collaboration had been the key to the success of the group, which meets monthly at the university to share resources and discuss potential research projects.

“Members are invited to share what is going on across their communities, such as important historical commemorations, infrastructure, cultural issues, as well as community needs,” he said. “They are invited to share cultural resources such as photographs, stories, research and collections; it’s often surprising the connections that are made when knowledge is shared, and projects take shape to reflect the needs, as well as opportunities for the university to help.

“The group is a valuable resource, a sort of ‘go-to’ for specific questions about the history and heritage of the region.

“Projects undertaken by the group are collaborative and multidisciplinary, and tap into the region’s knowledge, linking students and academics with the wider community as well as experts in the field to explore the deeper history of the area.”

One of the key activities carried out by the group includes the digitisation of archives and photographic collections, which are then made available to the community on the University of Newcastle Library’s Cultural Collections digital platform.

But Hunter Living Histories has also been involved in some far more technologically advanced projects, such as the 3D Virtual Hunter Project and the Newcastle Time Machine, which created fly-on-the-wall fly-through videos and 3D immersive recreations of the early Aboriginal and Colonial Newcastle, up until 1830.

Mr di Gravio said the most exciting aspect of Hunter Living Histories was seeing the community, business and government create opportunities for the region through work on historical resources. “Such exciting projects have been the recreation of Newcastle in 1825, and the broader project to create a virtual time machine for the whole region,” he said.

“Others include the Virtual Victoria Theatre, as well as uncovering the world of women’s histories and the role they played in shaping the world.

“People can go to the Hunter Living Histories website to learn more about the projects and also access the digital collections online.

“Members of the community are welcome to attend our monthly meetings, and we are pleased to hear from people who are researching the region’s history to support and share projects on our website.

“We encourage collaborations, as often students can also get involved in community projects and build their knowledge and expertise in a practical way.

“We also encourage people to donate to our Vera Deacon Regional History Fund, to help provide paid employment for our dedicated volunteers, many who are young professionals, who help digitise and prepare materials for free access across our sites and digital platforms.

“All our online resources and research are open to the community and available in high resolution, free of charge.”

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