In 2015, Prudence Black, Jane Ferguson and Peter Hobbins were all working at The University of Sydney totally unaware that they all shared an interest in aviation. Prudence was in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, Jane was in the Anthropology Department and Peter was in the History Department. As is often the way, people with a shared interest often find each other. There was a sense that each of them felt isolated in their respective disciplines with regard to their research interests in aviation. The delight in having found each other meant that they wanted to cast the net wider and to see who else was out there.
And so, a small seminar was organised for 27 February 2015. It was going to be called Aviation Culture, but Jane rightly suggested that Culture had to be plural. The first Aviation Cultures: Science, Technology and People was held at the University of Sydney. It was a half day seminar and even though there were only twelve papers presented there was the immediate sense the topic of Aviation Cultures was a winner! It was decided that before the year was out Aviation Cultures Mk.II: Technology, Culture and Collections would be rolled out. In order to fund the seminar we approached The Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science and Dr Daniela Helbig came on board as one of the organisers as did Professor Tracy Ireland, University of Canberra who along with Airservices Australia had just finished working on the Connecting the Nation: Australia’s Aviation Heritage project. The conference was held over 10-11 December 2015 and attracted an international audience including Blake Summers, Director and Chief Curator of SFO at the San Francisco International Airport and with a keynote address by John Hill, Assistant Director of SFO. An excursion to the Powerhouse (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences) saw many delegates enjoy a guided tour by Senior Curator, Matthew Connell. The conference attracted aviators, archaeologists, anthropologist, curators, aviation historians, ex-flight crew, gender and cultural studies academics, sociologists, historians of technology, philosophers, RAAF crew, social scientists and writers.
Aviation Cultures Mk.III: Airspaces, Mobilities, Identities was held at The University of Sydney over 27-29 April 2017 with organisation by Prudence Black and Peter Hobbins with the addition of Paul Ewoldt from the Aviation Historical Association of Australia (NSW). The focus moved to the Asia-Pacific region with keynote presenters Professor Christine Yano, University of Hawai’i and Lynette Townsend, Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa. A satellite session on 29 April included a visit to The Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) at Albion Park and the launching of Prudence Black’s book Smile, Particularly in Bad Weather: The Era of the Australian Airline Hostess on board Qantas Boeing 747-438. Funding was received from the Australian National University, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Sydney and Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science. By now the conference had attracted 80 delegates from Australia, the USA, Hawaii, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan.
In September 2017 an Aviation Cultures Northern Hemisphere Satellite Seminar was organised by Prudence Black while she was a visiting fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen. Professor Dorthe Gert Simonsen also at the Saxo Institute was co-organiser of the afternoon seminar which attracted an audience from Copenhagen and other European countries.
The following year from 28 November-1 December 2018, Aviation Cultures Mk.IV: Transitions, Communities and Global Networks, was held at The University of Sydney. The organising team included Prudence Black, Peter Hobbins, Paul Ewoldt and David Crotty, Curator of the Qantas Heritage Collection. With increasing numbers wishing to attend the format changed slightly from formal papers to include 5 minute ‘Blitz’ talks. Invited keynotes were Dr Alex M. Spencer from the National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC and Dr Dorthe Gert Simonsen from the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen. A half-day symposium was allocated to discuss the topic of ‘A National Aviation Collection for Australia?’ Funding and support was gratefully received from Sydney University, Sydney Airport, Norton White Lawyers and the Australian Research Council ‘Heritage of the Air’ Linkage project. With over 100 people registered for the conference, the budget had grown from $160 for the first seminar to $12,500 for the fourth conference.
An important philosophy underlying the Aviation Cultures seminars was the strong belief that as a way of encouraging diverse audiences and presenters there would be no fee to attend the conference. This at times meant there was considerable juggling of the minimal of funds available but Peter Hobbins was skilled at managing this and tenacious in attracting funds. This spirit of generosity was appreciated and was typically accompanied by a genuine interest in the wildly diverse conference participants. Another important aspect was maintaining quality amidst this diversity but this was not difficult to achieve given the expectations of the organisers and the level of expertise and knowledge of the presenters.
In 2019 the Aviation Cultures conference was rebadged to reflect a new organising team which was linked with the Heritage of the Air (ARC Linkage Project 2018-2020). The conference Heritage of the Air: Modernism, Machines, Migration, Memories was run in partnership with Heritage of the Air, Australia ICOMOS, Aviation Cultures, and Canberra Modern from 14-17 November at Australian National University, Canberra. The organising team included Prudence Black, Sally Brockwell, Steve Brown, Kerime Danis, Alexandra Dellios Ashley Harrison, and Rosemary Hollow, Tracy Ireland, Marilyn Truscott, Sarah Webeck and Jessica Western.
In just on four years, it was enormously satisfying to see how the Aviation Cultures theme had helped create the background for a diverse and engaged audience that resulted in the Heritage of the Air conference attracting 197 delegates from the UK, US, NZ, UAE, PNG, Finland and all over Australia to deliver over 80 presentations during the 4-day conference. Above all, the spirit of the conferences has remained constant: to open new conversations, to make new connections and explore new horizons together in a spirit of collaborative endeavour.