Is Sovereign Hill fake?

Due to our SOSE co-ordinator’s fantastic grant application skills, all of the SOSE department tripped off for a day-long session with Marion Littlejohn, one of 8 Education Officers at Sovereign Hill. I’m flabbergasted that they have 8 people dedicated to schools groups. Then again, they have 350 on staff.

On Monday night, we attended the sound and light show, which tells the story of the Eureka Stockade, which (rightly or wrongly) is one of the most defining and evocative in Australia’s short history. That was very impressive. Then we spent the next day walking around Sovereign Hill with Marion, who is a passionate and articulate interpreter of Ballarat’s gold-mining past.


Chilean crushing wheel – used to crush quartz
There were 2 aspects of the trip which stick out most.

The first is the creative ways that Sovereign Hill can be used educationally. We spoke with Peter Hoban, who has some excellent ideas for integrating technology into the historical experience of Sovereign Hill…sounds eerily familiar! I think I’m a little jet-lagged from the iHistory juggernaut, but once I get over that I’m sure I’ll be eager to talk more with Peter about how we can work together on this. Sovereign Hill has so many visual and kinesthetic experiences that we can draw on.


Creation of a gold ingot – the presenter was an actor cum blacksmith

The second is the middle-class sanitation of Sovereign Hill. Marion broached the topic of historical accuracy many times – a passion of hers – and pointed the many difficulties that Sovereign Hill faces in being historically authentic. For example, their insurance company forces them to have footpaths along the roads because of the horses they use. More interestingly, there are no brothels, funerals are not conducted, opium dens are excluded and drunken behaviour is non-existent. However, all of these were staples of the goldfields – why are they left out? The drunkenness of James Scobie was a factor leading to the Eureka Stockade! The funeral one is easy – people get upset at funerals, especially as they may have just been to one.

But the exclusion of brothels, opium dens and public drunkeness is more complex: I think it has to do with the tension between, on one hand, being historically faithful, and on the other, appealing to a financially able market. Most schools and families are not likely to approve of their students being shown prostitution, opium use and drunkenness in an educational experience. Even if they were to include these elements, their presentation would necessarily be judgemental in order to keep people coming through the door (after all, they need 500 people a day just to pay for insurance). But such a presentation would not be historically faithful either.

And so we come to the title of the post – is Sovereign Hill fake? Well, yes…The important thing is not whether it is 100% historically accurate (which it cannot be) but how it deals with these tensions. I think it is wrong to exclude negative or undesirable elements of goldfields life, but I like that the education team explicitly gets students to think about these issues, because it means students begin to realise that the telling of history is partially a creation of the teller, that not everything is kept in the story, that remembering involves weighing what is important to tell, and how to tell it. However, deliberately excluding historical fact because of fear of offence seems to lessen the impact that Sovereign Hill has as a historical experience – it becomes a kind of lowkey theme park.


About Dave Fagg

I'm a dad, husband, and resident of a regional town in Bendigo. I earn a crust through freelance writing, and youth work. I am also studying sociology. When I'm not working I love reading on the couch, playing soccer with my son, and musing.
This entry was posted in General Teaching, History Teaching, Learning & Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Is Sovereign Hill fake?

  1. Roland says:

    Wow, I have wondered the same things. It is good to read that the school staff are aware of the issues.

    My younger sons attended a splendid 1800’s school class organised by staff at the Flagstaff Hill, maritime museum. The teacher later remarked that during that period, my sons would have been punished for using their left hands to write upon a slate. Whilst it was given brief mention during the class, for obvious reasons it was not reinforced .. I suppose as much that the experience is a positive chance for them to see what could have been, not an exact replica of a fear driven curriculum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s