Q&A with Gay Hawkins and Ben Dibley, Authors of Making Animals Public: Inside the ABC’s natural history archive

Ben Dibley is a visiting fellow at Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia.

Gay Hawkins is an Emeritus Professor at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. She is a leading researcher in the fields of environmental humanities, STS and the politics of materials.


Congratulations on the publication of your book, Making Animals Public: Inside the ABC’s Natural History Archive. What inspired you to start this project?


G&B: The initial interest came from wondering about the role of the ABC in attuning audiences to animals and how it developed a distinctly Australian form of natural history TV. While Australians now take natural history animals on their screens for granted, getting them onto television in the 1960s involved a lot of technical and cultural intervention. Once they got there, these animals rapidly became very popular with audiences and had significant impacts on them. They also developed a life of their own! We were interested in exploring both those dynamics: how animals were made informative and entertaining, and how natural history programs have shaped public interest in nature, conservation, the environment and science. Natural history television is now a huge global production industry and format. The ABC has been the key institution for developing this genre in Australia. It has played a very significant role in documenting myriad natural environments as well as many rare and elusive Australian animals – and showing these to audiences for the first time. While there have been lots of analyses of the evolution of the ABC as a major cultural force in Australia, these have focused on genres like drama, comedy and current affairs. Natural history television remained relatively unexamined.


Making Animals Public examines the evolution of natural history television on the ABC, through a combination of disciplines – screen studies, critical animal studies, and science and technology studies. How important was this interdisciplinary approach to your analysis of this archive?


G&B: An interdisciplinary approach was important because the material demanded it. The book is not an institutional history; it is an exploration of what is distinct about screen animals, how they are made televisual. Hence the need to draw on media and screen studies accounts of mediation and representation. It is also a study of what natural history animals say, more broadly, about the place of animals in society and animal–human relations. How are audiences invited to look at natural history animals: as superior to humans or as companions in a complex multispecies world? Finally, we were interested in concepts from science and technology studies that foreground how science is shaped by cultural dynamics. Scientific knowledge has a huge influence in defining what is natural, what is factual and what threatens us. Natural history television is a major force in communicating science and making scientific knowledge accessible and popular.

In the book, you state that televised animals are “enacted and staged rather than found and documented”. Can you expand on this briefly?


G&B: In recent years, natural history television has been criticised for creating televisual “Edens”. The accusation is that these programs protect audiences from the realities of ecological crisis by showing animals in pristine environments doing remarkable things. Related to this is concern about the use of domesticated animals and an array of other production techniques in order to simulate animals in the wild. While these critiques are compelling, the claim that natural history animals aren’t really that natural after all is misplaced. It implicitly endorses the idea of an “authentic animal” and fuels concern about mediation as distorting. In the rush to critique what the media “does” to animals, we can lose sight of how natural history animals are crafted and composed in complex and myriad ways. In order for animals to be able to inhabit television, they needed to be staged and enacted rather than simply documented. Camera angles, narration, soundtracks, edits, etc. all work to craft a natural history animal that will engage viewers. The issue we explore is not how these techniques obscure the real animal but how they reveal what has come to count as a natural history animal and how this has changed over time. The ABC has made huge shifts in screening animals over the last 15 years and foregrounding human–animal interactions – from the politics of feral animal management to living with sharks. They have also explored major conservation issues such as extinctions and environmental destruction. This undermines the idea of pristine, untouched nature.


How do you think ABC documentaries about Australia’s natural flora and fauna, from the 1950s to now, have contributed to Australian identity and environmental awareness?


G&B: The public broadcaster has played a key role in framing the biota of the Australian continent as central to national identity, and also as unique, fragile and valuable. It has been central in building environmental awareness in audiences: this is a reflection of the institution’s charter to inform, educate and entertain a national public. This reached its apogee with the series Nature of Australia (ABC 1988) which was made for the bicentenary. During the period that our book focuses on – from the 1950s to the 2000s – we trace a growing disquiet about the trajectory of Australia’s modernization and its ecological cost. This is a trajectory in which “nature” moves from an exploited and neglected backdrop to the nation’s growth and development, to center stage as “the environment” and a matter of public interest and concern. More recently, planetary concerns have become a focus, with programs investigating climate change and its threat to all life on earth.


What do you expect or hope for the future of natural history programs?


G&B: There have been significant shifts in how animals and nature are explored on the ABC. The final chapter of the book explores the Your Planet series that screened in 2020. This series examined planetary forces shaping the environment. After the Fires and Big Weather: And How to Survive It, for example, investigated the impacts of climate change and showed the devastating effects of catastrophic weather events on humans and animals. This was definitely not easy viewing! The key shift in these programs was that they challenged the idea that nature would always go on, that it was resilient and would recover. In abandoning this premise, they could be described as “post-natural history” shows. Situating nature and wildlife in a planetary framework is important; it doesn’t deny the local but it gives it a bigger context. This is politically significant because it disrupts a focus on singular issues or species and foregrounds the forces that all humans and animals are facing. 


Within the ABC’s oeuvre, what natural history programs might you recommend to readers of your book?


  • After the Fires
  • Nature of Australia: A Portrait of the Island Continent
  • Back to Nature
  • A Dog’s World with Tony Armstrong