Defining Moments in Australian History: A teaching resource

The Defining Moments in Australian History discovery wall at the National Museum of Australia

As history teachers know, our histories help us to explain where we have come from, what we identify with, what we admire or are proud of, even what we feel embarrassed or ashamed of. The past is not ‘another country’; the past is ourselves, and the better we know it the better we understand who we are individually and as a nation.

Defining Moments in Australian History is the National Museum of Australia’s premier online social history resource which has great application for Australian classrooms. It derives from the premise that our histories (individual, family, communal and national) are important to us: a community might be defined as a group with a shared past.

The program has been developed in two connected parts. The Museum, in consultation with an advisory group of eminent historians, developed an initial list of 100 defining moments in Australian history. This has progressively been released online with explanatory content including text, images, videos and links to collection objects.

The second part builds on this collection by inviting the public – both online and at the Museum – to nominate the moments they consider important or noteworthy, and to participate in creating a dynamic record of the nation’s history and people’s relationship to their country. Over 150 additional publically suggested moments have been added to the initial list of 100.

Paul Barclay from Radio National’s Big Ideas program leads a discussion on ‘What is a Defining Moment in Australian history’
Paul Barclay from Radio National’s Big Ideas program leads a discussion on ‘What is a Defining Moment in Australian history’

Defining Moments provides a significant resource to support the teaching of Australian history in primary and secondary classrooms – we are already aware that the largest audience for the project is school students, with up to 70,000 views per month. The interactive nature and design of the project directly supports the intent of the Australian History curriculum: to encourage and develop students’ curiosity and imagination, and help build an understanding of ourselves and others.

Almost 150 moments are enhanced with additional primary and secondary source materials, including short essays, bibliographies, internet links, and associated objects or exhibitions from the National Museum that students can use to dig deep into the moment. Some moments also feature video content.

Each of the moments addresses key curriculum goals by:

  • questioning: challenging students to question historical events and preconceived ideas
  • analysing: looking at various viewpoints and attitudes towards an event at different times
  • evaluating: drawing conclusions by using varied resources
  • exploring chronology, terms and concepts: using the material to explore chronologies, examining the relationships between events and timelines
  • interpreting: using source materials to communicate ideas from different perspectives.

As you will see, the Defining Moments website was designed to be easily navigated and searched – especially by teachers and students. The landing page is laid out chronologically, and at the top of the page you will find five search bars: Topics, Places, Curriculum subjects, School years and By month, which is especially useful, for example, if you wanted to talk about a moment ‘on this day’.

As well as the familiar curriculum topics, ‘quirky moments’ looks at the defining moments in Australian food, the creation of Tim Tams, and the development of Australian Rules football.

Try Defining Moments in Australian History in your classroom and take part in one of the largest interactive social history projects in Australia. Challenge your students to explore the events and themes, to suggest new themes and pathways, and to make their own connections to Australia’s living history.

We’d be delighted to have your class suggest its own defining moments and submit these via the website: www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments

And watch this space to hear more about the exciting new digital classroom resources we will be creating in the near future to further enhance Defining Moments in Australian History.


Jonathan Lineen, Curator, Defining Moments Project
Jono Lineen is a curator at the National Museum of Australia. For the past three years he has been the lead curator on the Defining Moments in Australia project. Prior to that he worked on exhibitions at the Museum such as Home Front: Australia during the First World War and Lag Meta Aus: Home in the Torres Strait.

David Arnold, Deputy Director, Programs and Engagement
David Arnold has been Deputy Director of the Programs and Engagement division at the National Museum of Australia for the past three years. Prior to that he worked in education related positions at the National Museum and the Commonwealth Parliament in Canberra, and taught history in schools in Victoria.

Natalie Maine, School Program Producer, National Museum of Australia
Natalie Maine is the School Program Producer at the National Museum of Australia. She inspires students and teachers to actively engage with the Museum’s objects through hands-on Education Programs. Prior to that she was a Primary School Teacher in New South Wales.