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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration



Ann Curthoys
Ann McGrath

We used these writing exercises in our Visiting Scholars Program, and student response was very favourable. Try them in your writing class or informal writing group, or try them alone.


When a group is first established, and first meets to discuss writing, arrange for everyone to introduce themselves, not only with some personal details and a statement of their subject or topic, but also by saying what their project is really about in two words. Just two words to suggest their major aim or purpose. Many people find this extraordinarily challenging, and thought-provoking.

A variant is to ask them to state the argument or theme of their project in one sentence.


The daily journal is a great way to become more conscious of where you are going in the learning process. It serves as a sounding board for evolving ideas, and also as a means of mapping your achievement in developing a more sophisticated understanding of your research topic.

Write a daily journal entry that especially considers your writing project and ideas you encounter in primary research, secondary reading or seminar paper attendance which might have some bearing on your writing project. Feel free to write or illustrate (photos? doodles?) whatever else you like in it. This journal could then be used as a primary source for a reflective consideration of the research process.

We asked students to select an excerpt from their journal to read out to the class. Several chose to do a little editing for effect. The other students really enjoyed hearing the excerpts. The presentation stage should take place towards the end of the course or program—that is, once students have already gained a sense of trust, and a sense of having shared an intellectual journey.


Approximately 1000 words

This exercise aims to spark the imagination, especially of the visual and the metaphorical. For history writers, we see it as a ‘warm up’ exercise. You are encouraged to explore connections between visual creativity—the artist’s practice/techniques of creating an image—and of the practice of creating academic writing. Technique (including the carefully learnt and the spontaneous) and audience response are important considerations.

The writer or teacher chooses an appropriate art exhibition which would be of interest. This exercise is designed as a class activity, but it can also be done by the individual writer, who might like to share the process with a writer colleague, or else to do this as an individual exercise. For our Writing Histories/Writing Cultures program, we took the students to an exhibition of Emily Kngwarreye’s paintings at the National Gallery of Australia. When we took them to the ‘Seeing Cézanne’ exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, we asked Roger Benjamin, an art historian, to do a floor talk. Many galleries have educational officers and volunteers who will provide some introduction to an exhibition, but this is not essential.

We then asked students to write about 1000 words on either:

(a) Consider particular examples of art, or your overall visit to the Gallery, as a starting point. Write a reflexive, reflective piece about your training and experience as an academic writer, and muse about the borderlines between art and writing—craft, practice and effect upon audiences.


(b) Using one piece of art in particular, write an imaginative, richly descriptive piece based on your understandings of an aspect of an historical, possibly cross-cultural, experience or event/s. (You might consider writing dialogue and/or the first person, but at least experiment with some stylistic device you normally wouldn’t use.)

We urged students to stretch their imaginations, to adopt an entirely new speaking voice and writing style. One of the gratifying aspects of this exercise was to see the students with flatter writing styles making long-distance creative leaps. Sometimes this led to a kind of identity crisis—‘Was that me writing that?’ All students circulated their work and the pieces were discussed one by one in the larger group. Discussion was lively and there was plenty of diversity in audience reactions to writing experimentation. While a consensus usually emerged about what ‘had worked’ and what hadn’t, audience members will differ in taste and sensibility. Don’t expect a homogenous audience!


Approximately 1000 words

This is really a variant of Exercise Three but this time the focus is an object or objects in a museum.

Visit a specific museum exhibition—definitely not the whole museum—and write an imaginative narrative piece focussing upon an object or objects within the display. Experimentation with dialogue and rich scene-setting is encouraged.

You can do the same thing, with variations, with a play, film, or music.


Approximately 3000 words, illustrated

This is a longer, more complex exercise, appropriate once a history-writing group is well established.

Select a building of heritage significance. Document it by observation and visual recording via photos, drawings, diagrams, maps. Using at least one primary source and historical background information, see if you can write a piece which brings the history of the building to life. Pay careful attention to the integration of visual and textual sections. (The responsible Heritage, Historic Houses or other organisation should have some background information to start off your research.)


Approximately 4000 words

Select a landscape or streetscape. This may be one you know well from personal experience or one which is a new area of inquiry. Describe what it looks like as richly as possible, then tell its story imaginatively. Pay careful attention to relations between people and the physical, tangible environment and draw diagrams and use photographs or other illustration where appropriate.


Approximately 5000 words

What is the topic of your main research project? Write a reflexive or reflective piece explaining how you came to choose it, or how it chose you. Now concentrate on describing the events of your research journey in as much detail as possible. Make sure it is a readable tale with strong introductory lead in, meaty discussion, and a clever ending.

Cite this chapter as: Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. 2009. ‘Gallery, museum and other exercises for writing history’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 10.1–10.4.

© Copyright 2009 Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress:

Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath