Joe Powell (Griffith Taylor Medal)

Citation for Griffith Taylor Medal
Joe Powell
Conferred Hobart, June 2008

Professor Powell’s publications include fifteen major books, incorporating the highly influential Public Lands of Australia Felix (1970), An Historical Geography of Modern Australia (1988), a range of treatises on the history of resource management and settlement in Australia and North America, and more recently a series on water management in Victoria, the Murray-Darling Basin, Queensland and Western Australia. In addition he has written more than 100 major articles and book chapters, more than 50 smaller articles, and hundreds of notes and book reviews. He has published in more than 45 major academic journals, particularly Australian Geographical Studies, Australian Geographer, Journal of Historical Geography, Progress in Human Geography, a range of International and Australian higher and secondary education journals, and Australian historical journals. He has been a long-serving editorial board member on nine major international journals, a book manuscript assessor for a dozen major international publishers for more than 35 years, a research grant assessor for Australian, British, French, and American committees, and a referee and reviewer for geography, history, sociology and other journals in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France, and North America.

He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia, a Fellow of the British Academy, and a past President of the Institute of Australian Geographers and of Section 21 of ANZAAS. He has been a visiting scholar in at least nine major universities in half a dozen countries, and a respected keynote speaker. He is a life member of four Australian historical and conservation societies and active in many other academic, advisory and public bodies. He spent 44 years at Monash University where he was Professor of Historical Geography from 1992 and where he is now an Emeritus Professor. Joe has long been a leader in his discipline, a renowned international scholar, and has done much to elevate the status of geography in Australia.

Arguably, as writer, mentor, supervisor, reviewer, editor, critic, and examiner, no historical geographer has influenced his discipline in Australasia as much as Joe, and few geographers have had such a profound effect on the nature and direction of their discipline. This includes an interest in geographical education in the broadest sense, with a long commitment to assisting in the development of the discipline in secondary as well as higher education, and in a long career of engagement with diverse popular audiences. His regional focus encompasses authoritative works on the historical geography of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Israel, Japan and more broadly, the New World, British Empire and later Commonwealth.

In Joe’s own words, his ‘research trajectory commenced with a study of nineteenth-century Wales after a training in ‘classical’ historical geography at Liverpool University. As it became strongly focussed on Australia it identified quite closely with the scholarship-civic interface, as manifested or proffered in certain aspects of government policy and in the development of specialist and vernacular geographical thought. Emerging from these central professional and vocational interests and constantly influencing them, [my work] also includes critiques of modern education policy and practice, observations on the contributions of key individual thinkers in government circles as well as in the academy, comparisons between the objectives and approaches of historical geography and social, regional and environmental history, and a number of (peer-reviewed, pro bono publico) writings for major government agencies.

Specific research interests have concentrated on geographical and historical accounts of the development of resource interpretations, environmental management, environmental attitudes and related government policies in Australia since 1788, and secondarily on the association of those themes with the evolution of academic geography. This has produced some emphasis on the social, political and other contexts of pioneer settlement, the management and mismanagement of water and forest resources, the creation of national park systems and the emergence of regional planning ideas, and more generally on the role of human agency in landscape modification. It has also required investigations of the extent to which the Australian experience has been derivative or innovative, as measured against scientific, technical and approaches characterizing the wider British Commonwealth and international scene.’

In the past decade, Joe’s research has focused on Australian water management and then shifted from the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century resource management particularly within the British Commonwealth and wider world, but the role of geography and geographers remains a major interest.

Possibly no geographer has contributed more to an understanding, and indeed a promotion, of the role of geography and geographers in Australian life, and arguably no Australian geographer has so influenced academic history and historians in this country. Few have railed so much against the attack on higher education. Joe’s work seamlessly integrates an appreciation of academic geography with an exploration of the wider social milieu, including a range of pioneering ‘landscape authors and interpreters’ such as explorers, settlers, scientists, politicians, and bureaucrats. His numerous works on Griffith Taylor exemplify his enormous attention to detail, and his interest in the relationship between geography, identity and nationhood, as well as the remarkable relevance of debates on environmental limits to national development.

Taylor’s work on the engagement of people and place, especially an immigrant society in an alien and hostile environment, and his struggle to convince the public of the value of geographical insight, have striking parallels in Joe’s own work both in terms of an engagement with resource evaluation and management, and the exploration of the role of the academic in public life. With his acute sense of heritage there are dozens of notable individuals who have been brought to light by Joe’s authoritative bio-bibliographies, including his chronicling of the work of geographers such as Oscar Spate.

His emphasis on historical geography is especially passionate and poignant because it offers the scope necessary for the broad scale of Joe’s work, encompassing more than two centuries and a world of ideas and influences. It allows an evaluation of complexity and dynamism often missed by a narrower temporal focus. So too the comparative and multi-scaled nature of Joe’s research is characteristic, providing more than context for his finely-crafted historical-geographic accounts. His attention to primary sources, the early use of detailed statistics, the evocation of ideas through maps and popular imagery (including posters and political cartoons), the integration of scientific and historical methods in environmental reconstruction, and the rigour of his writing and critiques are all notable.

Although more overtly concerned with models and processes as heuristic devices in his 1970s works on colonial settlement, perception and resource management, and despite his authoritative research on the history of science, Joe has remained a fierce and formidable advocate of humanistic approaches as a key to understanding how geographic knowledge and behaviour is shaped. Few commentators have considered so closely the nexus between history and geography and Joe remains an implacable advocate of both regional and thematic ‘historical-geographical analyses’. He concludes in the masterful An Historical Geography of Modern Australia with the plea: ‘Let the past serve the present’.

Stephen Legg
David Mercer
Nigel Tapper

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