Welcome to our new Chair, March 2020

On 19 March 2020, the Board of the History Council of Victoria (HCV) accepted with regret Professor Graeme Davison’s resignation as Chair. As its new Chair, the Board appointed Professor Peter McPhee. 

Introducing Peter McPhee

by Professor Graeme Davison AO FAHA FASSA FFAHS

Professor Graeme Davison

The History Council’s new Chair, Professor Peter McPhee AM, is a distinguished historian of the French Revolution with an outstanding record of service to Victorian universities and to the history community, both locally and internationally. He is a gifted writer and speaker, an accomplished university administrator, and a passionate advocate for history in schools and the public culture. He comes to the office at a time of great challenge and promise, both for the Council and the history community.

Peter was born in Victoria and educated at schools in Coleraine, Colac and Melbourne before the University of Melbourne, where he completed his PhD under the supervision of Dr Alison Patrick. In the 1980s he taught for seven years at the Victoria University of Wellington before returning to the University of Melbourne. His course on the French Revolution – which he still teaches as a professorial fellow – has drawn an enthusiastic response from generations of students. Like many other academic historians, Peter came to university as a secondary teaching trainee and completed a DipEd; his continuing interest in history education in schools is shown by his long involvement as a lecturer in the History Council’s History Roadshows.

Our images of the French Revolution are dominated by the dramatic events in Paris, like the fall of the Bastille and the actions of leaders like Marat and Robespierre; but Peter began his researches from the bottom up and from the rural provinces of southern France rather than the metropolis. In a series of influential social histories, such as The Politics of Rural Life (1992), Revolution and Environment in Southern France, 1780-1830 (1999) and A Social History of the French Revolution he explored the social forces that made and sustained the revolution. He remains keenly interested in the delicate interplay of necessity and contingency that produces or inhibits change in society. In a recent contribution to online forum The Conversation, he reflected on the gusts of popular discount sweeping the world in our own time, in places as different as Iran and the United States. Could they produce permanent changes? ‘People grow angry far more often than they rebel’, he observed. ‘And rebellions rarely become revolutions.’

In the early 2000s Peter held a series of senior administrative positions at the University of Melbourne, culminating in his appointment as the university’s first Provost. Among his responsibilities was the introduction of the controversial Melbourne Model. On his retirement in 2009, he returned to his first love, the French Revolution, with a biography of the leader of the Terror, Robespierre (2012) and in 2016 his general history, Liberty of Death: The French Revolution, acclaimed by one reviewer as ‘a major event in the historiography of the French Revolution’, and sure, in the words of another, to become ‘the standard work in English’.

In his 2000 Kathleen Fitzpatrick Lecture on ‘The Future of the Past at the Turn of the Century’, Peter affirmed his belief in the public importance of history. ‘I celebrate the study of the past for the excitement of encountering difference, for the chance of understanding ourselves better, and above for all the skills learned by its practice. We can hardly over-estimate the civic importance of a perspective which emphasizes cultural understanding, careful judgement, flexibility of outlook and respect for difference.’ He is splendidly equipped to lead the Council as it seeks to promote its recent Statement on the Value of History.

A message to all HCV supporters

by Professor Peter McPhee AM FAHA FASSA 

Professor Peter McPhee

I thank Graeme Davison and other members of the Board of the HCV for their warm welcome to me. I look forward to serving the Board in advancing the objectives of the Council and the place of historical literacy in public life.

As Graeme points out, I have devoted much of my academic career to teaching and researching about the French Revolution, although I’ve also written a good deal about Australian history and education. I am particularly supportive of the HCV because of its commitment to the importance of history in general, across time and place.

I have been involved with the HCV for many years through its Roadshow visits and value highly its role as a peak body bringing together important institutions and interests around shared objectives. I’ve also had a close long-term relationship with the History Teachers Association of Victoria and for three years chaired the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. I often lecture about history to community and business groups of various types.

Like all of you reading this, I have a deep conviction about the vital importance of an historical awareness in our lives, in everything from individual and community identity to the quality of our public culture and decision-making.

As we all know, Graeme Davison has personified these values during his most distinguished career and I’m thankful that his need to step away from chairing the Council will not end his involvement with us. He is a fount of both wisdom and new ideas. This is all the more important because of the immediate uncertainties we face in maintaining our activities during the current health emergency. We will hope that our public activities – notably our Roadshow and our partnership with the Making Public Histories seminars – will resume in their usual format later this year. In the meantime, our Executive Officer Margaret Birtley is leading the way in keeping us informed of online activities and news.

The Council faces some other challenges which I am keen to confront, notably our need to ensure a stronger financial basis to enable us to plan a richer variety of activities with greater certainty. We do need to seek a stronger memberships base through expansion of the Friends network, and through individual philanthropic support for general and specific activities.

Of course, I would welcome your thoughts and contributions about these matters!


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The History Council of Victoria Incorporated (HCV) is the peak body for history in the Australian state of Victoria. Its vision is to connect Victorians with history and to inspire engagement with the past, their identity and the world today. The HCV champions the work of historians and the value of history. It recognises that history can be written about any place, any person, any period. The HCV advocates why history matters.

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Our calendar lists all upcoming public events arranged by the History Council of Victoria (HCV), plus events in Victoria, Australia, that are added by our Friends and Members.

If you are organising an event that relates to History, we encourage you to publicise it on our website.

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As the peak body for history in Victoria, the History Council makes submissions on current issues. In doing this, the HCV Board is guided by its Advocacy Policy and by the Value of History, a statement developed co-operatively by the HCV and the History Councils of New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.

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Since 2015, the HCV has been pleased to sponsor the Years 9 and 10 category of the Historical Fiction Competition organised by the History Teachers' Association of Victoria.

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Ways to support us:

Subscribe to our free newsletter: https://www.historycouncilvic.org.au/subscribe
Endorse the Value of History statement: https://www.historycouncilvic.org.au/endorse
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The HCV was formed as an advisory body in 2001 and incorporated in 2003. It comprises representatives from cultural and educational institutions and heritage bodies; history teachers and curriculum advisors; academic and professional historians; and local, Indigenous, community and specialist history organisations.

As the peak body for history, the HCV has both ‘outward-looking’ roles (including advocacy and representation to government and the wider community, consultation, community education, and networking with allied interest groups) and ‘inward-looking’ roles (including member support, information dissemination, and networking between members).



The History Council of Victoria acknowledges the State Library of Victoria and the Public Record Office Victoria for supply of the archival images that appear on this website.

We acknowledge the National Film and Sound Archive for the right to use of the video footage on the home page, titled "Melbourne: Life in Australia (1966)".

Image credits

  • Italian sailors on ship at Port Melbourne 1938, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria
  • Chinese procession in Collins near Elizabeth Street 1901, Harvie & Sutcliffe, photographers, State Library of Victoria
  • People’s homes, Aboriginal station Coranderrk 1878, Fred Kruger Photographer, State Library of Victoria
  • Chinese nurses at Children’s Hospital under scholarship 1947, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria
  • Ladies physical culture class VRI Melbourne c1931, Public Record Office Victoria VPRS 12903/P0001, 011/02
  • Melbourne Cup, Derby and Oaks Day, Flemington Racecourse 1936, Public Record Office Victoria VPRS 12903/P0001/4802, 372/30
  • Flinders Street viaduct at foot of Market Street with advertisement for McRobertson’s Chocolate on bridge, Public Record Office Victoria VPRS 12800/P0003, ADV 1342