Research excellence: How history repeats

Published: Wednesday 14th October 2015

Dr Nell Musgrove from the School of Arts gained major recognition for her work A Long History of Foster Care in Australia: hidden stories of growing up in foster care in the 19th and 20th centuries. "One of my key goals is to write history which helps explain how past events have led us to the place we are now," Dr Musgrove said. "In my work, this can be particularly relevant for people who want to understand the needs and rights of people who were harmed by past child welfare policies and practices."

A very quick background on you

I was born in Wollongong (NSW), but grew up mainly in Melbourne. I have a PhD in history, an MA (Research) in history, and a BA (Honours 1st class), all from the University of Melbourne.

What led you to choose this career path?

I started my university life doing a double degree in Arts and Engineering, but within about 18 months I decided that my passions lay in studies of people and societies. I just found myself thinking in much more engaged and critical ways in the Arts part of my study – so I ultimately withdrew from Engineering.

During my BA studies my majors were history and politics, and I was most interested in history because of what it could tell us about the present day. So I framed my studies around modern history, and especially Australian history.

In my Honours year I really began to develop my fascination with Australian social history, and from that time on I focussed on research that tried to find out about the ordinary people who had been forgotten and marginalised in Australian history. People often say that it was a smart choice to study Australian history, because there really isn’t that much of it, so I should be able to master it quickly. I always smile politely, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Historians are constantly in debate about how we should understand what happened in the past, why it happened, and what we should understand from those past events in present day society. Indeed, working on the history of your own nation makes these debates particularly political and complex. Part of what I love about researching history is the sense of a never-ending quest – even in Australian history there is still so much to explore!

What are you working on at the moment?

My particular focus within Australian history is social welfare history, especially the history of child welfare. My current project, being conducted in collaboration with Dr Deidre Michell (University of Adelaide), is funded by an ARC Discovery Grant (2013-2015) and is creating the first national history of foster care in Australia. We are using archival records as well as oral histories to trace the successes and failures of foster care in Australia throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the wake of three major national inquiries into the treatment of children in out-of-home care in Australia’s past (Bringing Them Home, Lost Innocents, and Forgotten Australians), both people who grew up in out-of-home care and historians of child welfare put a lot of time and effort into finding ways of bringing the experiences of that history to a higher public profile. Many people had suffered during their childhoods in out-of-home care, and it seemed that it was part of our history which had been largely hidden from the national narratives of Australia’s past. There was a lot of progress, but it also became clear that a stronger sense of the experiences of people who grew up in institutions like orphanages and other Children’s Homes was emerging than the experiences of people who grew up in foster care. Foster care has provided for at least as many Australian children as have institutions, and it remains a central part of present day child protection services across the nation. Therefore, this is an important part of our history which still remains to be well-understood, and my current research seeks to make an important first step in that direction.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

I enjoy the people I meet in my work, which includes people who grew up in out-of-home care, people who have been foster carers, people who have worked (or currently work) in child welfare services, and people who have other scholarly or professional interests in the history of foster care. I also really enjoy the connections I can make with people from the past, whose lives I only ever read through archival records. These are just snapshots of people’s lives, but when I find things like letters written between a mother and her child in foster care, I feel a sense of connecting with the humanity of people from the past. Perhaps I have largely imagined these people into existence, but I know they were profoundly impacted by the relatively harsh child welfare systems of the past.

How does your research make a difference in the community?

One of my key goals is to write history which helps explain how past events have led us to the place we are now. In my work, this can be particularly relevant for people who want to understand the needs and rights of people who were harmed by past child welfare policies and practices. It can also mean looking at what has gone wrong in the past in order to prevent the same mistakes from being made again. Some of the key issues which have emerged from my current research on foster care include the shortages of foster homes, which has been an almost constant issue for at least a century; the extent to which chronic low (I would argue under) funding of child welfare has pressured out-of-home care to be run under constant pressure and without the space to adapt and reform effectively (except sporadically); and the wider Australian society’s lack of sympathy for the biological families from which children are separated when they are placed in foster care. In many ways foster care is the arm of Australian child welfare which is least changed from its 19th century beginnings, and if we understand the history of foster care more richly, the hope is that we can identify ways to do it better today.