The Family Archive: Exploring Family Identities, Memories and Stories Through Curated Personal Possessions

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Sch of History, Archaeology & Religion

Abstract

Many families possess a 'family archive'; documents, photographs, heirlooms, scrapbooks, recipes and a whole range of other items that reveal insights into past generations and preserve family stories for future ones. They may never have thought of their collections as 'archives', but by retaining and preserving possessions kept in shoeboxes, under beds, on top of wardrobes and in garages, people use these items to mould a sense of family identity.

This project explores the concept of the family archive through time, considering what, how and why families have archived personal items for private purposes. Making use of both historical case studies and contemporary focus groups, the project team will investigate how the family unit makes conscious use of curated possessions - including documents, images, objects and other materials - in order to develop a familial identity based on past and present generations, and how this is transmitted to future family members. The project will ask: what stories and memories do older family members pass to future generations through family possessions? How has this changed over time? How does this impact upon a family's collective identity? And how do families relate their own histories and memories to wider national and international historical events? In addressing these questions, we will explore the past, present and future of the 'family archive'.

Planned Impact

Impact is integral to the design of this project. The research has important implications for archival practice and user engagement with archives and other heritage organisations. In particular, investigating how and what individual families collect privately, and how they use family archives and intergenerational stories to connect to wider narratives of change, will strengthen understandings of the meaning and importance of heritage among a variety of social groups. The project will specifically benefit the following groups of people:

1. Our partner organisations will benefit from this research. These organisations are Your Back Yard (Leeds), Barnsley Museum and Archives Service, Sampad (Birmingham) and The National Archives. These organisations will benefit from the project's findings, as well as being able to inform elements of the research from the beginning of the project (for instance through joint discussion regarding questions to be asked of focus group participants), which will in turn enable them to develop and enhance their own research agendas connected to this project. The research will help these organisations to, firstly, engage with the communities they serve and, secondly, better understand those communities, their interests in heritage and family history, and their personal archival/curatorial practices. The organisations will increase their networks through participation in the project (e.g. by attending the workshop at the end of the project), which will allow them to establish new working relationships and projects. Finally, involvement in the project will also increase the research capacity of these organisations, particularly the smaller ones such as Your Back Yard, who have not previously partnered a RCUK-funded project.

2. By extension, professionals beyond the partner organisations will also benefit. The project's findings will give professionals in the wider archives, museums and heritage sectors a better understanding of both what individual families collect and how they imbue meaning in such materials; these conclusions will have important implications for local archival and curatorial practice. The findings will also help professionals to consider how private archiving affects the memories held and created by institutions, through examining decisions about what families do and do not keep, and how this affects what reaches institutions later in the archival process. This will also inform conversations about the developing notion of 'citizen curators' (currently particularly popular in the US e.g. used by the US National Archives), and the recognition of where expertise lies outside of the profession. The research findings will help archivists and heritage experts to better adapt to the needs of user groups and develop outreach strategies to new sections of the population.

3. The project will have significant impact for members of the public, both the focus group participants and the general public. It will raise awareness of the issues of private archival practice amongst the public, empowering people who may not consider themselves possessors of specialist knowledge and encouraging them to apply the concepts of 'curation' and 'archiving' to their own practice. Participants at the focus groups will have the opportunity to engage directly with staff from local organisations, and to learn from their expertise. The public will also benefit through the partner organisations' enhanced ability to support family historians in their local area, and engage new individuals in their work.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description In our project we have combined the findings of three historical case studies, three focus groups with members of the public, and a literature review. By interweaving the key findings from these different research methods, we have been able to make the following observations.

1. What 'goes into' a family archive?
By taking a very flexible and open-minded approach to the idea of the family archive, we have broadened the understanding of what families keep and treasure. This may include 'traditional' items relating to family history (e.g. photographs, certificates, medals, letters), but it is not limited to those. We found that intangible items, such as recipes, memories and stories, are sometimes treasured as links to past family members. More unusual objects may be kept too, such as hair, furniture, plants and tape recordings. This has allowed us to break down the divide between 'official' and 'unofficial' forms of heritage in the family setting. It has also allowed us to visualise the 'family archive' in different ways, beyond the conventional idea of a box of papers under the bed or in the attic, for example.

2. Gender and family archives:
We have explored the role of gender in the preservation of family items in our historical case studies, literature review and focus groups. In the focus groups many participants reported that women in their families were more active in keeping and curating items of emotional significance, with many men reporting that their female relatives (especially sisters) were the keepers of their family archives. In our Anglo-Saxon case study women and children seem to have been buried with antique items - possibly heirlooms, while in the 20th-century autobiographies studied in another case study women were also heavily involved in archiving family items. The exception is our Roman case study, in which male family members seem to have played a more central role, as both ancestral role models and as the audience for stories told about those ancestors.

3. Inter-generational communication:
As well as enabling communication between living generations, the long time-depth of family archives can allow long-dead family members to 'speak to' family members who haven't even been born yet. Archives can emphasise particular traits, to build a sense of a family 'character' or identity and family members can learn from one another. This happened in our Roman case study, in which boys were expected to learn from the deeds of their ancestors. In our focus groups, members of the public reported similar things; they were proud of character traits that they saw being passed down from past generations, such as a hard-working attitude or a creative spirit. This confirmed findings made by other scholars in studies of family history and public heritage, namely that a sense of family identity, expressed through objects and items from the past, can be crucial for a family's wellbeing.
Exploitation Route In non-academic terms our findings can be taken forward to inform the policies, services and resources of public bodies such as museums and archives. We have established links between these bodies and members of the public as part of the project and these institutions will be able to continue using our work to engage with new audiences, encourage greater participation, and help members of the public to value their own roles as curators of their families' pasts.

As the research team were drawn from four different disciplines - Archaeology, Classic, Cultural Heritage Studies and History - our findings can be taken forward in a number of different directions. Indeed, for any academic interested in themes such as family, materiality, emotions and domesticity, our approach and its findings will be pertinent. The research will encourage other academics to look at family collections in new ways, taking into account tangible and intangible items, and valuing the curatorial role of 'ordinary' people in preserving the past.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/familyarchive/
 
Description Our research brought together members of the public and professionals from the museums/archives we worked with (e.g. Barnsley Museums and Archives, Leeds Local and Family History Library, and The National Archives). We were able to introduce members of the public who hadn't previously used archives to the resources held by these public institutions. Members of the public who took part in our project events reported feeling more confident as 'curators' of their own families' histories. They reported a change in their perception of what a family archive might contain and a better understanding of why certain objects, documents and other items were special to them. Similarly, archivists, museum curators and other heritage professionals who attended our project workshop reported a broadening in their ideas about what constituted a 'family archive'. Two of the groups that we worked with to organise our focus groups - Sampad in Birmingham and LS14 Trust in Leeds - used our research to explore family history and family archives with their community members in their own work, when they hadn't previously done so. For example, Sampad worked with their community participants to explore family archives in new ways. As a community made up of immigrant families from many different countries, traditional family history resources available in local libraries (e.g. UK census records) were not particularly useful resources for these families. By using our broader and more flexible concept of the family archive and what it might contain (e.g. stories, songs, recipes) Sampad were able to engage their participants with family history research in different ways.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Societal

 
Description School of Advanced Study/Being Human Festival
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2015 
End 11/2015
 
Description Barnsley Archives Collaboration 
Organisation Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council
Department Museum and Archives Service
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The research team organised a focus group at the Barnsley's Archive Discovery Centre, bringing in participants who did not usually interact with the Archives and sharing information on their resources.
Collaborator Contribution Staff at the Archives Discovery Centre helped to organise the focus group by booking rooms and sending out advertising materials, as well as running an information session on family archive research after the focus group.
Impact A focus group and information session for the public in Barnsley are the outcomes of this partnership.
Start Year 2014
 
Description LS14 Collaboration 
Organisation London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The research team worked with LS14 (a community trust based in Seacroft, Leeds) to organise the Leeds focus group. This helped the trust to develop new ways of engaging with their community participants through exploring family history research.
Collaborator Contribution LS14 helped to recruit volunteers for the Leeds focus group and a member of staff presented a talk at our project workshop about their community projects and the impact of this project on their participants' family history research.
Impact LS14 contributed to the organisation of the Leeds focus group.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Leeds Library Collaboration 
Organisation Leeds City Council
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The team worked with staff from Leeds Local and Family History Library to organise events which attracted members of the public to the library's resources. The team also discussed research findings with staff in order to help inform their work with members of the public.
Collaborator Contribution Staff from the Library helped to organise the Leeds focus group in conjunction with Your Back Yard. They assisted in developing an accompanying family archive information session and also presented a talk at the project workshop. In addition, the library hosted and contributed to running a public talk about the project for the Being Human Festival.
Impact The Leeds focus group, and Being Human talk and workshop derived from this collaboration.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Leeds Museums Collaboration 
Organisation Leeds City Council
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution By sharing research findings and running an interactive workshop at the Discovery Centre as part of the Being Human Festival, the team encouraged members of the public to explore and use the Centre's resources.
Collaborator Contribution Staff at the Discovery Centre helped to organise and run the interactive workshop, showing participants around the premises and introducing them to family archive resources.
Impact The output was the interactive workshop which took place during the Being Human Festival in November 2015.
Start Year 2015
 
Description Sampad Collaboration 
Organisation Sympatec
Country Germany 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The team worked with Sampad (a South Asian arts organisation) to organise a focus group and family archives information session in Birmingham and recruit local participants. This helped the organisation to engage with their community participants in a new way, through family history research (their previous focus had been on local history research).
Collaborator Contribution Sampad staff helped to organise our Birmingham focus group and family archive information session, and recruit participants. A member of staff delivered a presentation about their work and the impact of our project at our end-of-project workshop.
Impact The outputs were our Birmingham focus group and family archive information session, and a presentation at our workshop.
Start Year 2014
 
Description The National Archives Collaboration 
Organisation The National Archives
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The research team promoted the family history resources of The National Archives to members of the public, as well as museum, library and archives professionals through our blog, focus groups, Being Human outreach event, and our workshop. Holding our end-of-project workshop at The National Archives premises in Kew to encourage professionals' interaction with TNA resources further.
Collaborator Contribution A member of staff sat on the advisory board for the project and attended meetings. Several members of staff assisted in the organisation of the workshop, including booking space on out behalf, setting up the venue on the day, and delivering a presentation at the workshop. They also provided resources for sharing with the public at our focus groups.
Impact Outputs are the project workshop, three focus groups and their associated resources, and an outreach event for the Being Human festival.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Your Back Yard Collaboration 
Organisation Your Back Yard CIC
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The team worked with Your Back Yard to organise a focus group and kept informed them of the research findings.
Collaborator Contribution Your Back Yard helped to recruit participants for a focus group and family archives information session in Leeds.
Impact A focus group and information session for the public resulted from this collaboration. It also led to a new collaboration with LS14, a community trust based in the Seacroft area of Leeds.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Being Human Family Archives Lunchtime Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This talk introduced members of the public to the family archives research project and gave some practical examples of family archives held at Leeds Central Library.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://beinghumanfestival.org/event/we-are-what-we-keep-family-archives-lunchtime-talk/
 
Description Being Human Interactive Archive Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This workshop introduced interested members of the public to archival practices and gave them some tips and information about curating their own family archives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://beinghumanfestival.org/event/we-are-what-we-keep-interactive-archive-workshop/
 
Description Being Human Participation Station 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Pop-up exhibition and interactive activities through which members of the public could learn about our research and tell us about their family archives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://beinghumanfestival.org/event/we-are-what-we-keep-exhibition-and-participation-station/
 
Description Focus Group (Barnsley) 
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 A focus group and accompanying information session on family archive research were organised at Barnsley Archives Discovery Centre. This generated discussion about family archiving practices which the team recorded, transcribed and analysed. The information session provided guidance and advice for focus group participants to help them research their family histories.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Focus Group (Birmingham) 
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 A focus group and accompanying information session on family archive research were organised at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham with help from Sampad. This generated discussion about family archiving practices which the team recorded, transcribed and analysed. The information session provided guidance and advice for focus group participants to help them research their family histories.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Focus Group (Leeds) 
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 A focus group and accompanying information session on family archive research were organised at Leeds Local and Family History Library (with advertising and recruitment help from Your Back Yard and LS14 Trust). This generated discussion about family archiving practices which the team recorded, transcribed and analysed. The information session provided guidance and advice for focus group participants to help them research their family histories.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Project Blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project blog featured information about the team, the research, its findings and its funding. Information about the project workshop was also made available. The blog was regularly updated by the team with opinion pieces, summaries of research case studies and provocations to encourage discussion about family history and family archives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016
URL http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/familyarchive/
 
Description Workshop (The National Archives) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A one-day workshop organised in conjunction with The National Archives at Kew attracted attendees from across the country to discuss the theme of 'family archives'. Delegates came from museums, local library services and archives, The National Archives, the Society of Genealogists, charities, and a range of university departments nationally. Presentations from invited speakers and discussion sessions encouraged debate and discussion around the project theme, resulting in increased interest in the project over the longer-term from attendees and their colleagues.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/familyarchive/workshop/