Living with the past at home: domestic pre-habitation and inheritance

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: Geography


For many people the intimacy of domestic dwelling is mediated by varying degrees of awareness that their home has been the residence of prior occupants whose traces remain in its physical fabric and in the objects left behind. The home is thus a site for a particular form of historical knowledge and imagination. This has been largely overlooked in scholarship on the home and the practice of public history. However, as the increasing interest in the popular pursuit of researching the past of one's home suggests, this is a dimension of knowledge, practice and meaning that deserves academic attention. This growing interest is evident in the popularity of the BBC television series 'The House Detectives', 1997-2002, the 'Where Do You Think You Live?' strand of the ongoing BBC genealogy series, 'Who do You Think You Are?', as well as a number of published guides. This project extends an archaeological focus on 'pre-habitation' - which concerns the investigation of once-inhabited places where traces of habitation remain - to explore the meanings, knowledges, practices and material dimensions of living with the past at home. It seeks to explore the growing popular interest in the home as a site of historical knowledge as an extension of the popular pursuits of family and local history, and to examine how the meaning and experience of domestic space and dwelling is shaped by contemporary residents' awareness that their home is a site of prior occupation or pre-habitation. It considers the significance of people's awareness of previous inhabitants, or that deemed to be inherited from them - objects, aesthetics, arrangements of domestic space, stories - in framing domestic belonging, ownership, and aesthetic expression in the home. Furthermore it will consider the forms of historical knowledge and historical practice that are prompted, informed by and result from this awareness. It will do so through a focus on the purposeful pursuit of house biographies, as well as everyday experiences and negotiations of the presence of the past at home.

More specifically, it will address the range of ways in which pre-habitation is experienced, recognised, responded to and negotiated and how it shapes people's senses of ownership, belonging and experience of domestic space. The project will consider how the objects, physical fabric, décor, or stories left behind by previous inhabitants shape people's attitudes and decision making in the practice of home-making. It will explore the motivations, imaginations and values that underpin the emergence of the house biography as a popular mode of historical investigation. It will investigate the nature of this form of historical practice and knowledge and how it shapes and reflects inhabitants' relationships with their homes, wider sense of belonging, and their perspectives on historical change in Britain.

These questions will be explored firstly through an analysis of media representations and popular guides to researching the history of one's home including television programmes, newspaper reports, popular guides and on-line sources such as dedicated websites, and explore the relationship between the popular practice of undertaking 'house biographies' and other forms of public history including local, oral, community and family history. This will be followed by twenty-four in-depth ethnographic case studies. Half of these involve participants who are (or have been) actively engaged in investigating the history of their homes as an empirical exercise, and half made up of people who are not engaged in such a formal process of discovery. Four cases studies will take the form of creative collaborative participatory research. The research will be disseminated widely to academic and non-academic audiences and in a variety of forms including a public conference and exhibition.

Planned Impact

The project will have two key beneficiaries: the general public and the Geffrye Museum, London.

1. This project will be of use, interest and benefit to members of the general public with historical interests in general, and to those more specifically interested in knowing about the past of their own homes, in learning about how to actively gain this knowledge, and in the significance of this past to their understandings of their home, its locality and its relationship to wider historical processes and events. The project team will establish links with local historical societies, the Oral History Society, online networks such as Local History Online, public historians (via Ruskin College, Oxford) and pursue opportunities for reaching a wide public through talks to community organisations, radio, online presentations, an online discussion forum and magazine features as well as a public conference, workshops, exhibition and project website (see below and Pathways to Impact). It will also access the public via the Geffrye Museum's Education and Learning Department's extensive contacts with local community groups, schools, elderly people, young people, ethnic minorities, and those with physical or sensory impairments. Our impact and dissemination activities will aim to reach this diverse public as well as those with existing interests in the histories of their home and/or local and family history.

2. Our second main beneficiary is the Geffrye Museum, London, the only museum nationally to specialise in the English domestic interior. With visitor numbers recently increasing to just under 100,000 per annum, the Museum is the focus of growing popular interest in histories of the home. Our diverse forms of dissemination will be paralleled by a close collaboration with staff at this museum in the organisation of public workshops and an exhibition. This is an ideal collaboration because of the specific focus of the museum's permanent displays and temporary exhibitions and because of the already established strong links with staff in the Department of Geography, University of London (Blunt and Owens). This strand of our impact activities has been developed through these existing contacts and through the a strong collaborative relationship between key museum staff and the PI and PDRA (see Pathways to Impact).

Our collaboration with the Geffrye Museum will benefit the Museum though facilitating its efforts to respond to increasing numbers of visitors expressing interest and seeking help in undertaking research on the history of their homes, through contributing to its archive, and through mutual exchange of knowledge and skills in our collaborative work. The wider public, accessed via the museum and more widely, will benefit through the range of resources and activities aimed at enriching public understanding of the meanings of home in general, and more specifically focused on the pursuit of knowledge about, and engagements with, the past of people's own homes. The project will encourage lifelong learning through presenting the complex and diverse meaning of the home as a historical site in stimulating and accessible public outputs. But this is not envisaged as a one-way model of knowledge transfer since the project seeks to highlight and acknowledge people's own agency in the production of historical knowledge and reflective engagements with the past in their homes.

The benefits of the project thus include: the provision of practical guidance on how to pursue house biographies; the presentation of a range of rich research materials, perspectives, concepts and interpretations which contribute to understandings of the meaning of the past in the home; its work in highlighting the value and creativity of non-academic forms of historical practice; and its contribution to the outreach and education strategies of the Geffrye Museum as


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Title Who once lived in my house? 
Description An exhibition of selected research material at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, 24 September 2013 - 9 February 2014, with accompanying exhibition leaflet. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact See the 'narrative impact' report 
Description This project successfully achieved its 5 original objectives. 1-4 related to the gathering and analysis of documentary and ethnographic research material to produce an original body of scholarship; 5 related to its wide academic and public dissemination (detailed in the narrative impact section). This report outlines the significant new knowledge generated from an intensive qualitative research strategy (35 in-depth case studies of households varying in terms of owner occupation or tenancy; range of locations, mostly in London or the SE; age and type of homes; number of years of residence; social backgrounds; and degrees of historical knowledge of their home).

The research contributes to academic scholarship and wider public understanding of the complex and diverse ways in which people reflect upon, make sense of and respond to the presence of the material, documented and differently reconstructed past of the home itself and its earlier occupants. Two interrelated themes are key to our findings. The first relates to the nature of engagements with the past in people's own homes; the second concerns the ways this informs and reflects different sorts and degrees of imaginative identification with the home and prior inhabitants.

Our research has found that engagements with the past can be differentiated between history as something to be formally researched as data and history as an everyday, lived and imagined experience within the home which may or may not be informed by wider historical knowledge. For many participants the process of uncovering material traces of the past in the process of restoration or modernisation leads to intimate engagements with the home and its pasts and becomes part of people's narratives of identifying with and situating themselves in the home and its extended history and future. This project reflects upon these 'intimate histories' of home in relation to public history, local history and other forms of historical engagement, domestic archiving, and the figuring of 'amateur' and 'expert'.

Furthermore, the research provides a depth of insight into how people understand ideas of past and present, continuity and change, similarity and difference. In general the past is a valued dimension of people's homes but different aesthetic, ethical and affective responses to the past at home shape people's sense of the home in the present, its future and their role as current occupants or custodians conserving or changing the home for future occupants. This is also informed by attachments to previous homes, and wider social and cultural values, beliefs and attitudes. Tactile, sensory and imagined pasts overlap and often provide a sense of kinship or connection with past inhabitants, through a sense of shared experience of the home's more permanent material fixtures and features, and this in turn is cross cut by people's perspectives on the differences and continuities between the lives of residents in the past and the present. This sense of non-genealogical lineage is itself shaped by the time period of past residence - with the legacies of recent occupants often being less welcome - and the appeal of some historical periods over others.
Exploitation Route We remain committed to continue to extend our existing success in meeting objective 5 which was 'to disseminate the research widely to academic and wider audiences and to contribute to public knowledge and understanding about the practice and meaning of exploring the home as a historical site.' We have already met this objective through conference and seminar presentations, conference and conference session organisation, public talks, workshops and the project exhibition'. Two peer reviewed journal papers have been published (Lipman 2018; Lipman and Nash 2019). In addition, a research monograph from the project is under contract with Routledge for publication in the Critical Studies in Heritage, Emotion and Affect series and will to be completed in 2019. Progress on the publications was somewhat delayed by the personal circumstances of the PDRA after the end of the award, but, along with our existing achievements in academic and public dissemination and impact activities, these academic publications fully fulfil objective 5.

The research outcomes will be taken forward within academic scholarship and by individuals, groups and institutions interested in pursuing and supporting wider interests in house histories and other forms of popular knowledge and practice. Its original focus will become a foundation for future research in cultural geography, contemporary archaeology, history and heritage studies on non-academic forms of historical knowledge, practice and imagination, and the home. The research has been received with enthusiasm within and beyond geography and new interdisciplinary relationships will be pursued by the project team. The Geffrye Museum of the Home is a key project beneficiary and the exhibition leaflet and materials will be resources for the museum in responding to public interests in house histories. The project publications serve as resources for the many individuals and groups (e.g. local, community or family history societies) interested in reflecting on the practice of house history, and learning of other people's perspectives and experiences. It could also be made use of in education since it offers a model of historical investigation and reflection that would be accessible and stimulating for children.
Sectors Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description This project successfully completed the activities set out in its original Pathways to Impact statement. These included a range of activities organised in collaboration with the project partner, the Geffrye Museum of the Home, and other academic and wider public forms of engagement and dissemination. Most broadly, the project enhances the quality of life by contributing to collective knowledge and understanding of significant dimensions of social, cultural and domestic experience, practice and imagination concerning the domestic home and the past. The wider public, accessed via the Museum and more widely, have benefitted through the range of resources and activities aimed at enriching public understanding of the meanings of home in general, and more specifically focused on the pursuit of knowledge about, and engagements with, the past of people's own homes. The project has encouraged lifelong learning through presenting the complex and diverse meaning of the home as a historical site in stimulating and accessible public outputs. The value of the project is also in its work highlighting and acknowledging people's own agency in the production of historical knowledge and reflective engagements with the past in their homes. In addition to the value of the project to the Geffrye Museum (see below), the benefits of the project have thus included: the provision of practical guidance on how to pursue house histories; the presentation of a range of rich research materials, perspectives, concepts and interpretations which contribute to understandings of the meaning of the past in the home; and its work in highlighting the value and creativity of non-academic forms of historical practice. This 'narrative impact' report firstly outlines the activities that were undertaken through the Geffrye Museum of the Home. Secondly, it describes the project's wider impact activities. i. 'Living with the Past at Home' at the Geffrye Museum of the Home The public impact activities of the project were closely developed in collaboration with key specialist members of the Geffrye Museum staff especially Eleanor John, at the project's funding application stage. The project's collaborative work developed from an existing relationship between the Geffrye Museum and the School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London, which has resulted in a formal partnership between the two institutions - The Centre for the Studies of Home - a hub of research, learning and knowledge exchange. The strength of this partnership helped ensure that the planned activities were undertaken and were successful. The activities consisted of community and public workshops, the project exhibition, a public talk and the project conference. Full use of the media was made in publicising these activities (e.g. websites, press releases, leaflets). For the Geffrye Museum these activities were valuable in facilitating its efforts to respond to increasing numbers of visitors expressing interest and seeking help in undertaking research on the history of their homes, in reaching new audiences, contributing to its existing outreach and educational work, extending the research expertise of the museum through the focus of the project, and through the mutual exchange of knowledge and skills in our collaborative work. Community and public workshops As originally planned, the project team organised workshops at the Geffrye Museum which included two half-day community workshops and one full-day public workshop in the first phase of the project (in March and May 2012). The workshops were designed to provide practical advice about how to undertake research on the history of one's own home and were planned to respond to the evident interest in this as expressed by visitors to the museum as well as reflected in the media and popular culture. The community workshops were offered free of charge to local organisations which reflected the diversity of communities in east London. The project team collaborated with the Geffrye Museum's community and educational outreach team in marketing the workshops. All workshops were attended by a capacity audience, and involved detailed advice about the process of researching the history of homes. The project team recruited two very well-established house historians - Dr Nick Barratt and Melanie Backe-Hansen - to help lead these workshops. They also provided useful examples from their own portfolios of work, offering insights into some of the potential challenges and issues as well as inspiring accounts of what people had found out in researching the history of their own or other people's homes. The workshops provided an opportunity for attendees to reflect on what it means to find out about the past of and in their own home, how it might enrich their sense of history, bring to life the past through the personal connection to home, as well as challenging or complicating what is assumed about local or wider histories and processes of historical change. The workshops were very well received; all attendees gave the workshops the highest rating in evaluations and commented on the inspiring enthusiasm of the presenters, and the depth and professionalism of the guidance. The project exhibition A key dimension of the research project's impact strategy was the collaborative production of a professionally designed and curated public exhibition featuring selected research material at the Geffrye Museum. The PI and PDRA worked closely with participants to carry out research into their homes' histories. The exhibition featured the stories, photographs and objects of six households from the wider project. Entitled Who once Lived in my House, the exhibition ran from September 2013 until March 2014. Preparation for the exhibition included taking photography in participants' homes and accessing and borrowing materials, including old photographs of previous inhabitants and found objects such as carved children's toys and coins. This creative collaborative participatory research required close work with curators at the museum and the exhibition designer. This was a form of knowledge exchange which resulted in a rich mix of stories and representations of different engagements with the history of participants' homes in the exhibition. The PI and PDRA have contributed insights into this process at a workshop on collaborations between museums and universities (April 2014 see below). A free exhibition leaflet (full colour, double-sided, folded A4) was produced to accompany the exhibition. It included a short essay reflecting on the project theme and brief practical guide to undertaking house history research. The project team held an exhibition launch event, inviting all 35 households participating in the wider project and the exhibition was advertised widely in the local press as well as to local history groups within and around London. Feedback from museum visitors was very positive. The museum and project team carried out audience research into the impact of the exhibition, including the informal gathering of verbal comments as well as a detailed visitor questionnaire. This research found a high degree of interest and satisfaction with the exhibition, with visitors spending a long time engaging with the stories represented in the wall panels, both in terms of reading the written descriptions and studying the photography and displayed objects. Comments from visitors suggested that the exhibition had allowed space for reflection about people's own homes' histories as well as their relationship to the past in general. The following brief selection of quotations taken from the questionnaires offer a flavour of responses: 'The exhibition has inspired me. Finding things from previous owners would be special' 'I liked seeing all of [the panels] as a collection of stories. It was a nice mix of different couples and families, and different homes' 'I was impressed with the level of detail' 'I found the exhibition very engaging. It is an excellent and original idea. It is nice to hear about the different family histories It's given me an idea to do this with the kids at home' 'It looked interesting when I came downstairs [to the exhibition space] and made me want to stop' Public Talk In January 2013 the PI and PDRA also gave a public talk at the museum based on the exhibition and offering emerging insights from the wider research project. The talk was attended by a capacity audience and very well-received. Project Conference In addition, the project team organised a full day, end of project conference entitled, Custodians of Home took place at the Geffrye Museum in January 2014. The conference focused on the theme of custodianship and was planned as a way of making connections between academics, museum and heritage professionals and lay-expert practitioners across a range of disciplines and fields interested in considering how the material form and contents of domestic homes are attributed significance and how that significance is attended to in managing the continuous process of change in both lived in and curated homes. Contributors came from a range of fields, within and beyond academia, including geographers and historians, a local authority planner, community archaeologist, house museum curator and anthropologist. The audience was similarly wide ranging and enthusiastic participants in the discussions. The project team are in discussion with the editors for the journal Home Cultures about publishing a theme issue based on the conference papers and edited by the project team. ii. 'Living with the Past at Home': other forms of dissemination and impact activities The project has also reached academic and public audiences through other forms of dissemination. Website: A website (at was established in the first month of the project and has provided a hub for information about project activities as well as information and advice to the public on researching house history. Presentations: In addition to organising the project conference (see above), the PI and PDRA have disseminated emerging insights via a wide range of talks, seminars and conference papers, including major annual meetings for geographers, contemporary archaeologists and public historians over the course of the project. They include the following presentations: 'Living with the Past at Home' at the 'Culture, Value, and Attention at Home', AHRC Expert Workshop (part of Cultural Value Project), Liverpool Hope University, May 2014. 'Reflections on a recent collaborative exhibition: 'Who Once Lived in My House?' at 'Research on Display: Collaboration between Academics and Museums on Exhibitions', workshop at Geffrye Museum, London, April 2014. 'Living with the Past at Home: domestic prehabitation and inheritance' at the 'Custodians of Home' Conference, Geffrye Museum of the Home, London, January 2014. 'Living with the Past at Home' at the Contemporary & Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) Annual Conference, London, November 2013. 'Living with the Past at Home: social and material traces of inheritance' Centre for Studies of Home seminar series, Institute of Historical Research, London, November 2013. 'Beyond family history: people's relationships to the previous occupants of their homes' at the 'Whose History Is It Anyway' conference, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, September 2013. 'Living with the Past at Home: domestic prehabitation and inheritance' at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference, London, August 2013. 'Living with the Past at Home: domestic prehabitation and inheritance', Public History Discussion Group seminar series, Bishopsgate Institute, London. May 2013. Conference session organisation: The project team also convened, chaired and contributed to three sessions at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers in September 2013, under the theme 'Home Time: temporalities of domestic life'. It is difficult to document the on-going social impact of a qualitative cultural project beyond the stage of the active impact activities. The project was of considerable interest to audiences to the exhibitions, exhibition and other public talks and participants in public workshops at the Geffrye Museum of the Home as we detailed in our end of project report. It is impossible to track the long term impact for visitors and audience but it is likely to have been of lasting value to individuals and thereby contributing to public knowledge and understanding. We will use the publication of the project journal paper in March 2019 as an opportunity to reach wider public as well as academic audiences though a feature in The Conversation and press releases which we hope will be taken up in print and online media.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Organisation of The History of Your Home workshops x 3, March and May 2012, The Geffrye Museum of the Home 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact See 'narrative impact' section
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Public talk to accompany the 'Who Once Lived in My House?' exhibition, Geffrye Museum of the Home, Jan. 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The talk was very well-received with a lively question and answer session after the presentation.

Many people expressed their sense of the value of the talk and the wider exhibition for the depth of reflection it prompted and the cultural enrichment it offered.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014