Cultural Studies, Historical Studies, Life Writing

Lives Recovered and Reclaimed

25.04.11 | Comment?

A life can be recovered in many ways: through retrieving, reclaiming, remembering, re-imagining, revising, restoring, recognising, re-telling or re-placing. In this special issue of Life Writing the impulse to pay respect to lost, hidden or unacknowledged lives flows through the papers, all of which are drawn from the major international conference on ‘Recovering Lives’ convened by Cassandra Pybus, Caroline Turner and Paul Arthur in 2008, and hosted by the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. With sessions held at the National Museum of Australia, accompanying exhibitions, artists’ talks and film screenings, the conference aimed to break down traditional barriers between disciplines, media and ways of seeing. Historians, writers, filmmakers, anthropologists, curators, journalists, artists and activists interpreted the theme in ways that put the spotlight on people and practices that the global vision, for all its benefits, has left behind, overlooked, marginalised, or even enslaved.

The effect of colonialism and of war and conflict on individual lives is a thread that weaves together many of the diverse articles in this collection. The lives they present are retrieved from the archives, restored through testimony or reimagined through art. These accounts span Australasia and the Pacific, USA, Britain, Europe and Asia, covering a wide timeframe from the late eighteenth century through to the tragedies of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The first three papers explore the possibilities and challenges of retracing and reconstituting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lives from very limited, contradictory or scattered evidence. Covering a broad spectrum of topics, from the lives of slaves, convicts and travellers to those of higher standing serving in influential posts, these are fascinating personal explorations that expose hitherto unknown transnational connections between people, across continents, and in different social and cultural contexts. The histories they present are pieced together out of the fragments of archival material with a remarkable degree of attention to detail and commitment to discovering evidence where on first inspection there appears to be very little available.


Arthur, Paul Longley, ed. “Recovering Lives.” Special issue, Life Writing 8, no. 1 (2011).

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity