Working with family historians


… by Patricia Curthoys

Between September 2012 and June 2013, I worked as a research officer for Dr Tanya Evans, of the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University. One outcome of that project is Tanya’s recently published monograph – Fractured Families: Life on the margins in colonial New South Wales (New South Press, Sydney, 2015). The speech made by Dr Lisa Murray, City of Sydney Historian, to launch the book on 17 June, at the State Library of New South Wales, is now available on the PHA NSW&ACT blog. In it Lisa introduced both the content and the process of the project. In this blog I want to talk about the politics of the project as well as the process. You will see that the two are interconnected.

Tanya’s study of fractured families in colonial New South Wales is largely based on histories of people who were, at one time or other during the nineteenth century, clients of The Benevolent Society of New South Wales, Australia’s longest surviving charity. (The Benevolent Society celebrated its bicentenary in 2013.) The life stories Tanya uncovers are ‘refracted’ through her history of The Benevolent Society (Evans, p. 2). But Tanya wanted that history to be different to previous institutional histories of the Society, often written by former staff members, often focused on the operations of the institution and generally ‘uncritical and celebratory’ in tone. (Evans, p. 12). It was important to Tanya that the major client group of The Benevolent Society since its establishment – lone mothers and their children – should have a voice in her history. But how was that to be achieved?

Tanya did so by seeking out and working with family historians researching the lives of their ancestors who had been clients of The Benevolent Society in the nineteenth century. She used a variety of ‘crowdsourcing’ methods to find these family historians, in particular by contacting users of the Benevolent Society archive held in Mitchell Library as well as users of the on-line database of the Admission and Discharge Registers of the Benevolent Asylum, 1857 to 1900, constructed and maintained by Martyn Killion and Heather Garnsey. The generosity of Killion and Garnsey’s contribution to the project is warmly acknowledged in Tanya’s. So too is the work of family historians who so generously shared the results of their labours with her.

Less explicitly stated is what a personally enjoyable and rewarding project it was both for Tanya and myself, as we got to know the family historians we worked with. Their generosity in sharing their work with us as well as their enthusiasm for the project was matched on our part, we hope, by a commitment to respect and value those contributions. The book is, therefore, in part, an argument for the benefits of collaboration between different producers of history in our society: in this case, between academic historians and family historians. Tanya argues that ‘sharing authority’ with different producers of history can disrupt dominant historical narratives – in her work narratives about the history of the family (Evans, p. 6). As well, from Tanya’s perspective — a perspective with which I am sure many public historians would concur — the more people who are involved in historical endeavours, in whatever way, ‘the richer and more democratic our knowledge [of our history] will be’ (Evans, p. 20).


Fractured Families


…Lisa Murray’s launch speech (17 June 2015)…

Fractured Families: Life on the margins in colonial New South Wales by Tanya Evans was supported through the City of Sydney Council’s History Publication Sponsorship Program. Over the years, the program has helped authors and publishers bring to the public over a dozen books about Sydney’s history. Through such books, the City supports lifelong learning and enables researchers, like Tanya’s family history collaborators, to find out more about Sydney’s past and to have a greater appreciation for our communities today.fractured families

I was extremely pleased to recommend support for this book because of Tanya’s commitment to public history and also for her interest in using and ‘crowdsourcing’ family history. This is a topic about which I am also passionate. Through my work as the City Historian, as a board member of the Dictionary of Sydney and a former board member of the Society of Australian Genealogists, and as a current personal member of both the SAG and the Royal Australian Historical Society, I am acutely aware of the intersection and benefits of connecting family history with Sydney’s urban and community histories.

Fractured Families is an ambitious book. It has dual aims:

  • first, and foremost, it is a history of the marginalised and impoverished in colonial NSW – highlighting the difficulties faced by the aged poor, mixed relationships, abandoned women, orphans and spinsters.
  • and secondly, it examines the methodologies and motivations of public history and family history.

These are weighty, and at times conflicting, aims. Tanya weaves the two together in an effortless manner, allowing the reader to consider the process and motivations of historical research, as well as enjoying and learning from the fruits of such research. Tanya has an easy writing style with a conversational tone that makes this book a joy to read.

Fractured Families makes an important contribution to the historiography of public history. Tanya’s work on the history of the Benevolent Society has resulted not only in this book. She has shared her research in a radio documentary on the history of charity, broadcast by ABC Radio National, and provides research advice and on screen talent for the television history program, Who Do You Think You Are.

In the book Tanya explores the influence of television programs such as Who Do You Think You Are in shaping popular understandings of history methodology. Tanya also demonstrates with her family history collaborators the benefits and excitement of the digital turn of history. The digitisation of sources, establishment of bulletin boards and chat groups, the proliferation of blogs have all encouraged a greater public interest in, access to and collaboration for historical research.

Through the vignettes about the family historians that conclude each chapter, the reader gets to reflect upon the motivations of researchers, the methodology and approach of different researchers, and how we can present history.

For me, one of the interesting outcomes from Tanya’s engagement with family historians is the insights around when people start doing their family history. Tanya reports from her encounters that it is often influenced by the life-cycle, such as a death in the family. Recent audience development research that we have undertaken at the City Council confirms this finding. People reported that they became curious about the past when they had children, moved house to another suburb, or was faced with the loss of a parent or grandparent. This gives historical producers and publishers much food for thought around opportunities for engaging and tapping new audiences.

Family history often destabilises the authority of historians – pulling up the exceptions to the rule, and highlighting the complexities of community and family networks. Tanya demonstrates the benefits of adopting a collaborative approach to research and historical writing. The result is a more intimate and nuanced understanding of our past, while at the same time admitting to the ambiguity of sources and the limits of knowledge (p.239-40).

Tanya concludes Fractured Families by stating: ‘Historians are obliged to use our expertise and skills to educate, entertain and excite others about the past. Family history, as all our historians featured here would insist, is a fantastic place to start (p.252)’

I thoroughly agree. Family history is personal, intriguing and complex and it highlights the networks of family, religion, and business that make up our society.

Congratulations to UNSW Press, the family historians and most especially to the author, Tanya Evans. This is a wonderful contribution to the history of Sydney and colonial NSW, and to our understandings of public history. I commend the book to you all and declare the book launched.


[Photo: Family in a pony cart [with dog] by Mark Brody (c.1905) sourced from –]

A Reflection on Two Museums


by Katherine Knight …

In the past three months, I have had the opportunity to reflect on two museum experiences. Memberships of the Australian Museum were family Christmas gifts this year, with the primary intention of introducing two little preschoolers to some of the wonders of science, nature and culture. The museum is Australia’s oldest, founded in 1827 ‘when natural history was at the cutting edge of modern thinking’. From being housed in a shed, formerly the post office, it moved into its first official building opened in 1857. Since then, there have been many additions and expansions on the site now bounded by College and William Streets, Sydney.

tyrannosaurLast year, we made two visits to the museum – both to see Tyrannosaurs – Meet the Family, an extraordinary multimedia experience showcasing the newly-revised tyrannosaur family tree. The exhibition was produced by the museum itself and was truly immersive. Dinosaurs rumbled in warning and then appeared loping around Sydney’s Circular Quay. Scary but exciting. Children could run and jump in a special floor space and watch as dinosaurs ran through doorways to check the disturbance. Fossils, casts of skeletons and interactive screens fleshed out the history.

This year, radical change is evident as the museum is reconfigured under director Kim McKay AO, now in her second year in this role. Work continues on creating a new, easily accessible crystal glass entrance and new displays.

Garrigarrang: Sea Country has already been open for six months in the upgraded Indigenous Australian galleries. In the words of co-curator Amanda Jane Reynolds, the concept behind the development of Garrigarrang: Sea Country is ngara – to listen to Elders in the local Sydney Aboriginal language. ‘Hear what Country is saying and think how our actions will impact all living things. Ngara is the path to knowledge, wisdom and survival.’ The atmosphere is respectful; it invites listening and enquiry. ‘Elders, makers and communities from many Sea Countries around Australia are represented through stories, songs, artwork, films, and cultural and scientific knowledge and technologies.’ At the entrance to the exhibition, a film shows Auntie Julie Freeman telling a story handed down from her Dharawal grandmothers – Narawarn and the coming of the Sea. As she relates the story of Narawarn and his older brother Arrilla, her gentle voice and the expression on her face of complete absorption become compelling. My four-year-old granddaughter sat and listened as we watched Auntie Julie’s eyes fill with tears as Narawarn’s had done and we glimpsed the depth of scientific, cultural and spiritual wisdom, encompassed by the creation story. In fact, the little girl asked me to tell her the story again, seeming to accept it with natural wonderment.

A storyboard in the exhibition says the museum has a special place where Indigenous people can come and record their stories for future generations or ask for cultural information that may have been lost.

With this recent experience still resonating in my head, I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York in July this year. museum (640x480)The first impression was one of enormity. The main entrance, off Central Park West, at 79th street, opens into the dramatic Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which rises two floor levels in height. It was American Independence Day, the height of the summer holiday season and crowds of people surged throughout the building. Signs and floor plans indicated a great range of permanent and changing exhibitions about birds, mammals, human origins and cultures, space and earth sciences.

Among the signs were ‘North West Coast Indians’ and ‘Eastern Woodlands Indians. There wasn’t time to visit them, but I felt uneasy about the titles. Viewing online reveals what I feared – showcases filled with informative material, but none of the sense of connectedness to real people offered by the Australian Museum’s Garragarrang: Sea Country. It felt like the dioramas of traditional Aboriginal life in the Melbourne Museum of my 1940s’ childhood, when it never occurred to me that Aboriginal people and culture were actually still alive in Melbourne.

From the Memorial Hall, people flowed into the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. In the darkened centre was a herd of African elephants. On two levels surrounding them were dioramas of animals.

dioramaThe displays had been funded by private donors, acknowledged under the titles of the displays. The overwhelming sense was of 19th century grandeur. I wondered if the American museum was restricted by the terms of those original endowments. Both the Australian and American museums work constantly to raise funds – private, corporate and government support, memberships and retail sales. Maybe the Australian Museum has been able to negotiate more flexible use of their funds to allow the development of really contemporary and engaging experiences.


Member profile: Jennifer Debenham


Dr Jennifer Debenham is Senior Research Assistant, Centre for the History of Violence and Sessional Academic, History – School of Humanities and Social Science; and the English Language and Foundation Studies Program, University of Newcastle.


Her current area of research is examining the ways in which Aboriginal Australians have been represented on documentary film from 1901 to the present. This study casts light on how social attitudes and politics have affected approaches to Aboriginal peoples.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I came to a career in history by accident. I enrolled in a university enabling program where Australian history was one of the options. I had enjoyed history when I was at school but history at university was very different ―and I developed a passion. My success at university led to post-graduate studies and to teaching, something I had never dreamed of doing. Working on research projects has been rewarding. I am always amazed by the people I am fortunate enough to meet. I love discovering what motivates people, given they exist in a particular social and political environment. And I love the detective process of finding a particular bit of information that contributes to my understanding of our society.

Who is the audience for your history?

Parts of my work are aimed at an academic audience because I am a member of that community. But I like to be able to change my writing style to suit a wider public audience. I want my audiences to be infected by my passion to understand our past. There are so many fascinating details about Australian history that appear to be unappreciated; so it is my job as an historian to address my research to a number of different types of audiences. It is important to keep history relevant by understanding current developments so that we are able to address the public’s interests. These were considerations when I worked with Christine Cheater on The Australia Day Regatta (UNSW Press, 2014), a history of this annual sporting tradition.

What is your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

This is a very difficult question to answer. I love going to the journal databases but there is something alluring in the tactile relationship you develop with original documents and artefacts. The smells and the textures make you think about the people who produced them. The stimulation of these senses makes you ask questions about the author and what they were thinking at the time. On one occasion, I examined the field journals of Felton Mathews in the NSW State Library. Studying the drawings he made and looking closely at how the lines composed an image made me think about where he was sitting, who was with him at the time (and even if he had enjoyed his breakfast!). What inner spiritual reaction did he have when he looked over those heavily wooded ranges to record them in his journal? Artefacts are the things left behind by people who laughed, cried, developed ambitions and jealousies – the material existence of a person is represented by one small fragment of their lives; it can tell you so little and yet so much about a person―that is fascinating to me.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

What a choice! The medieval period has a certain appeal. Often when this term is used our minds go to Europe but I think it would be fascinating to visit other parts of the globe such as Meso-America and the Middle East. It would be good to talk to philosophers and academics about some of the ideas they were developing in the arts and sciences and how they rationalised the world they inhabited. A trip to Australia would be fantastic to see the social and political structures of Aboriginal peoples and how they traded, lived and socialised with each other. How different the map of their nations would look! And it would be amazing to find out  what, if any, other languages were being spoken.

Why is history important today?

History is important today because it illuminates the events and the reactions to those events that helped form a national identity. Identity is just as important to a nation as it is to an individual. It’s important to understand why some events, such as the myth of Gallipoli, command such an important aspect of our history. What happened to make it so and why do we keep up the narrative of uncommon valour as being a uniquely Australian attribute? Historians are often pilloried for their scepticism and ‘lefty’ analysis but it is the historian’s job to be critical and analyse the narrative of the nation. Of course this is affected by the present and the context in which we are writing and researching; fifty years ago the valour of Anzacs was ‘common sense’ and was rarely questioned by historians or the public. Recent research into psychology, as well as new understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder of war, have recently altered the way we think about soldiers’ experience.

I think history is understood by many people as something in the past that cannot be changed. That is far from the truth. Our understanding of past events is flavoured by the present. Present historical understandings have altered the ways in which the motives and actions of historical protagonists are being examined, shifting us to new interpretations. History is important today because it is an active debate or conversation we continue to have with ourselves, as a nation and as individuals; it helps us understand the whys and wherefores of our existence.


Image: Recto of Gum leaf Band at Lake Tyers, Victoria Part of Jim Davidson Australian postcard collection, 1880-1980.



… in support of Adam Goodes by the Committee of PHA NSW & ACT

Just a few days ago, members of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT (PHA NSW & ACT) were warmly and generously welcomed to country by Sydney Indigenous woman Donna Ingram before we began our annual mid-winter awards and social evening. We were all honoured to be welcomed, and for Donna to have then stayed and shared the evening with us.

This week, the outbreak of public vilification and racism directed at Sydney Swans footballer Adam Goodes, now amplified and spread far beyond the grandstands, has shocked the PHA NSW & ACT committee, leading us and a number of our members to ask whether we really were deserving of that generous welcome.

The objectives in the PHA constitution include ‘advocating public history perspectives in public debates concerning interpretations of history and the keeping of documentary, environmental and other historical records’. To this end, we have for some time been lobbying NSW Government agencies such as State Records to employ Aboriginal archivists, and the Heritage Council to reinstate its History Advisory Panel. Sadly, we have made little impact and the State has remained indifferent to our submissions.

Our members mostly work as independent public historians. We often work alone, outside academia, managing our own practices and acting collegially in furthering our own professional development. Many of us have been privileged to work with Aboriginal communities and families, on historic sites of great significance to Indigenous peoples, and in places where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples have shared histories. We appreciate the significant role of sport and sporting cultures in our history, in helping to bring about social cohesion, and in providing opportunities for so many people to improve their lives. We have tried, in our own small ways and in accordance with our own ethical standards, to be supportive of Aboriginal people and communities, to contribute to creating something new for our common future, a future based upon mutual respect.

As historians, we well know the impacts of past social attitudes and government policies – impacts that last across generations, often with terrible ongoing results. But as public historians – working in the public arena on issues of heritage and history –we also believe we have a role to comment on the context of issues that have plagued, and continue to plague, Australian history and society. The recent racist actions and words of some in the ‘debate’ around Adam Goodes have left many of our members appalled and distressed.

On a personal level, some PHA NSW & ACT members have Indigenous friends, colleagues, partners and family. While the distress felt by our members will be nothing compared to the distress being experienced and lived every day now by Indigenous people, families and communities, these members feel strongly about this issue and wish their support for Adam Goodes and all other Indigenous people who experience similar issues to be known.

Thus the committee of PHA NSW & ACT issue this letter of public support.

We support the group of AFL captains who have called for an end to the harassment of Adam Goodes.

We support all the other leaders in civil society and sporting clubs calling for this to stop. Bullying is unacceptable. Racism is unacceptable. The time for reflection will come, but first the abhorrent chorus must stop, and it must stop now.

More than anything else, the PHA NSW & ACT, in accordance with our own constitutional objectives, our own code of ethics and indeed our own personal morality and our own diverse understandings of the past, through this statement, extend our collective hand of support and friendship to Adam Goodes, to all Indigenous peoples and indeed to all Australians of good will. We support you, in our own small way, and we want you to know that we stand with you.

On behalf of the Committee

Bruce Baskerville

Chair, PHA NSW & ACT

2 August 2105