Professor Ann McGrath elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Ann McGrath, Director of the Research Centre for Deep History with the College of Arts and Social Sciences at The Australian National University (ANU) has been elected into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This esteemed institution has counted luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin (1781), Albert Einstein (1924), Margaret Mead (1948) and more recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda (2023).

“I’m proud to be awarded such a high honour, which reflects well on the School of History, the College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian National University. I appreciate the support that we have received for our projects, particularly for the Research Centre for Deep History.”

Professor McGrath's interest in history began during her time as a student at the University of Queensland, where she developed a keen interest in social change and feminism. Her curiosity led her to explore various cultures, including the history of Japan and China. However, she soon realised she wanted to “make some difference to social justice by focusing on Australian history and looking at the challenges in our own nation.”

As a young child, she questioned the narrative taught in school that suggested Aboriginal people had simply ‘disappeared’. “I realised there was this great gap in our consciousness about Australian history. And when I say ‘our’ I mean non-Indigenous people, because Aboriginal people always knew they had this long, long history in the country.”

This gap in consciousness about Australian history, particularly among non-Indigenous people, motivated her to pursue a PhD focusing on Aboriginal labour in the cattle industry. During her research, Professor McGrath learnt more about Aboriginal experiences, values, and perspectives. “I soon realised that we had a somewhat narrow view of what history was because as well as sharing their stockwork and droving stories, Aboriginal people I spoke with would talk about the extraordinary as part of the same timezone — as happening simultaneously— what Western people would call ‘dreaming stories’ or ‘myths’.Clearly, they held a very different understanding of lengths of time in their conceptualisation of history. These included origin stories about every part of Australia — how each geographical feature came about.

Professor McGrath’s research shines a light on Aboriginal historical narratives which have been relayed through storytelling devices such as dance, song, and art, emphasising the importance of understanding such stories without imposing Western historical standards or seeking validation solely through scientific evidence.

Sharing her experience of joining Indigenous-led tours and witnessing the deep connection Aboriginal people have with their Country and their ability to impart their knowledge and values to future generations, Professor McGrath reminds us that these stories provide a unique way to relate to and understand deep history.

“Recently I went on an Indigenous-led tour where young cultural custodians explain so much about the Great Barrier Reef – for example, that certain crustaceans were not only used for food but also their shells were used as tools and fishing hooks since time immemorial, and still are today. Elders speak of dreaming stories about ancestral heroes now under the water and the sea. It reminds us that the sea we view today was once land. Aboriginal people have stories that go back pre-Holocene, and pre-Barrier Reef — after all, 18,000 years ago there actually wasn't a reef there at all. They have these stories because there were people on Country when that was land. Along the Western Australian coast, they have songlines that remember places around the sea-beds of Australia that were once land. Scientists now conducting undersea archaeological research have demonstrated the veracity of these stories.”

GBR Biology reports, “During the last Ice age ~18,000 years ago, the Traditional Owners remained connected to the land and the sea. As sea level rose Aboriginal People began a westward retreat to what is now the east coast of Australia. These major environmental changes were recorded in Dreaming stories that provide insight into a vastly different landscape, for example, Fitzroy Island and Double Island were part of the mainland.”

As an award-winning historian, Professor McGrath strives to bridge disciplines and encourage collaboration between historians and scientists. She believes that integrating scientific disciplines such as geology and archaeology is essential for exploring deep history. Her work has influenced scholars across many disciplines, fostering interdisciplinary approaches and opening new avenues of research.

“A new project we are working on called Marking Country came out of my Laureate Fellowship. We wanted to create a map that told the deep history stories for educators to use. We couldn't go to a lot of places and that was partly due to COVID, but what we did find when we worked with different communities was that they all had totally different ways of wanting to tell their deep history stories. Additionally, they did not see deep history as something in the past, or something that happened long ago. They saw it as happening on a different kind of temporal ontology which we call an ‘Everywhen.’ The book that I've co-edited called Everywhen(Edited by Ann McGrath, Laura Rademaker, and Jakelin Troy, 2023) explores the languages that Aboriginal people have used to portray time — which include music and art as languages of history too.”

Another published work written by Professor McGrath, Illicit Love(2018), “juxtaposes examples of what was happening to prevent intermarriage in Australia and North America. It relays stories of love affairs that became intimate, relationships, that were not condoned by state authorities.”

She says these histories are important to remember today more than ever — as important dialogue takes place across the nation surrounding The Voice To Parliament Referendum 2023. Noting, we've got to remember how Aboriginal people really lost the chance to love their children and their partners and lost a lot of their liberties because of past government policies in Australia. We can't forget they didn't have a voice to talk about how this was affecting their family lives in the most intimate way. I hope that this book continues to make an impact because I think people forget that history. A lot of Australians wouldn't have a clue that this happened for most of the 20th century in Australia.”

Professor McGrath also cuts through the noise to remind us of the exceptional case for Aboriginal people to have a Voice to Parliament in this article published in early May.

Reflecting on her election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Professor McGrath expresses her gratitude for the recognition and acknowledges the significance of international validation for Australian scholars. She recalls her first overseas sabbatical at Yale University. There she was privileged to receive encouragement from leading scholars in the field, who affirmed the value of her work on a global scale.

In September 2023, Professor McGrath will join the other new members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for an induction and formal ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her colleague, Professor Lisa Kewley — formerly of the ANU Research School for Astronomy and Astrophysics, but now leading up the The Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian — will also receive her membership at this event, which was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor McGrath further highlights the interdisciplinary nature of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which brings together humanities and science scholars. Adding, “Collaboration between these fields is crucial for the study of deep history, as scientists provide valuable insights into geology, changing worlds, and dating techniques. By working alongside scientists, historians can enhance their understanding and contribute to a more comprehensive exploration of the past.”

Professor McGrath's election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is a testament to her exceptional scholarship, dedication to interdisciplinary research, and commitment to illuminating the complexities of Australian history.

Further information about the American Academy of Arts and Sciences can be found at: