Meet Congress 2015 Speaker: Grace Karskens

KarskensToday’s Congress 2015 speaker interview is with Grace Karskens from the University of New South Wales, one of the keynote presenters. I’m excited about her presentation and think it will offer much food for thought for all of us.

I wonder if you could tell us a little about your background?  Are you a genealogist, researcher, historian or representing your organisation?  

I am a historian. I teach Australian history at the University of New South Wales. I also have a degree in historical archaeology, so I always try to read the material record of the past as well as the documentary one.

How has genealogy/family history/history/heraldry improved or changed your life? What do you love most about genealogy/family history/history/heraldry? 

Family history is so important in my work. Many of my books and articles take a close look at societies and people who have vanished forever. Family history offers a rich source for understanding those societies and people, for example, for looking at family formation, who married whom, where people moved to, and so on. I’m always looking for patterns, and how these patterns fit into the bigger picture – the economy, society, culture and environment. Like most family historians, I am so often amazed at the great human stories even just the lists of births, marriages and deaths open up or suggest. I am also very grateful for the generosity and skills of so many family historians who are happy to share their work.

One day I would love to explore my own family history – my parents were both post war migrants, they met in Sydney in the 1950s. Dad was from Zaandam and Harlem in the Netherlands. Mum grew up in a Dutch-Indonesian family in Indonesia. But I’m too busy with other people’s stories at the moment! Maybe a retirement project?

Have you attended Congress in previous years?

No, looking forward to my first.

 What are your key topics for Congress?

My keynote is called ‘Men, women, sex and desire: family history on Australia’s first frontier’. I’m getting down to the nitty gritty of what family history – making families – is all about! I’ll present some of the findings from the book I am working on at the moment – The Lost World of Castlereagh – exploring male-female relationships and what sort of community settlers made on the Nepean River, why finding a partner and having children was so important to these people, the impact of the uneven gender ratio, and the fact that there were so many young convict men around, and so few women.

How do you think your topic/s will help the family historians at Congress 2015?

I’m hoping I can bring the lost world and people of Castlereagh to life: recreate the landscape of relationships between men and women, and also parents and children; look at what mattered to people, and what choices they had. In short, see them as human beings in complex situations.

What do you think are the benefits of attending a large conference like this, for you personally and for others attending?

Reaching so many people will be great, and I always learn a lot from questions and chatting during the breaks.

Do you have a favourite piece of advice or a tip or trick you can share with conference attendees?

One of my favourite inspirational quotes is from the great historian Greg Dening. He wrote that we have re-imagine ‘the past’s own present’. That is, we have to try to enter the worlds of past people from their own point of view, their own situations, their own moral and cultural ideals, rather than our own.

In the ‘past’s own present’ we have to imagine what it is like not knowing what happens next, because they didn’t.

 Is there somewhere we can connect with you online?

People can email me at my university email address.

Thanks Grace for sharing your “take” on family history in its broader context. With such an interesting title I’m sure you’ll get lots of interest. 


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