Ways of Telling Symposium

Research and writing is often solitary work, so occasions when academics share perspectives and unfold new connections are especially valuable. In November 2014 a group of researchers who have been exploring the records of the Benedictine mission to the Yued people at New Norcia in Western Australia met to explore the various Ways of Telling the mission story.

The symposium marked 200 years since the birth of New Norcia’s founder, Rosendo Salvado, and was designed to encourage conversation not only between researchers from different disciplines, but also to hear from the members of the wider community, including contemporary key stakeholders in the former mission town. Focused on the remarkable collection of 19th century photographic images, it was an occasion when quite literally speakers saw new angles and different perspectives on shared themes.

In keeping with the wider community connection, the symposium met in the State Library of Western Australia, where a small exhibition of images and artifacts set the scene. (See a review of the larger exhibition by Ted Snell in The Conversation)

The figure of Rosendo Salvado, captured in polychrome as he stepped forward purposefully, caught the attention of people passing through the exhibition space in the days leading up to the Ways of Telling event. Again and again people stopped to interact with the three dimensional image – to rest a hand on his arm, air-box his hat, have a photo taken, or pause to consider his stance. Over the two days of the symposium itself a dozen presentations also offered diverse responses to the mission story.

Members of the New Norcia Aboriginal Corporation, and monks of the Benedictine Community, school students who ‘met’ Salvado on pilgrimage, as well as researchers from around Australia with expertise in history, theology, anthropology and linguistics, all spoke in response to one or other of the images of Salvado and his times.

As participants recovered from an extraordinary performance of Salvado’s own composition for piano by Dom Robert Nixon, and watched a roll of the images that had been considered through the two days the richness and possibility of the archival resources, and the powerful memories and stories they prompt, was clear to everyone.

The photographs and the documentation that supports their interpretation is a vital resource not just for local history but also for themes that have national and international resonances. The Ways of Telling symposium brought together a range of people with a deep commitment to exploring the historical record at New Norcia so as to build a good foundation for ongoing work towards reconciliation in the mission town and more widely in Australia. We hope it will prove to have been a landmark event in a year of great occasions.