Our Inheriting the Family Research Network has been pretty quiet for a while and so we thought we’d explain why! Our AHRC funded Research network led by Katie Barclay and Joanne Begiato was awarded funding late in 2019 for a two-year project. Our plans were to deliver four international workshops, two History Harvests in which we would ask family historians to share with us objects that they have inherited, which we would curate and share as an online exhibition on our website, and two collaborative published outputs.
Our network is very much part of a wider momentum by historians of the family and family historians to work together more collaboratively and to use our work to shape the bigger picture of history from the personal to the global. Our overall aim is to use inherited objects and the emotions they evoke to understand personal, family, and national identities.
We are exploring why certain objects and ideas are transmitted across generations to explain why, when, and how such artifacts and stories become significant to collective and national heritages. We are also interested in what stories, objects, and memories don’t make it through to that level or are only transmitted in selective ways.
Our work builds on a growing interest in the role of family archives and their connections with broader histories, such as the AHRC funded project ‘The Family Archive: Exploring Family Identities, Memories and Stories Through Curated Personal Possessions’. With Inheriting the Family, we wanted to draw together interdisciplinary scholars who would use emotions and material culture methodologies in order to understand the related processes of familial inheritance and nation-making. Our aim is to collaborate with heritage practitioners and the general public at each of our workshops and History Harvests to shape our publications so that they are as impactful as possible.
But – in 2021 – we haven’t got as far as we’d initially hoped thanks to the challenges we have faced due to Covid. So we wanted to update network members and anyone interested in our project on what we are doing, and our hopes for the future.
Our plans to work across the UK and Australia – with one workshop located in Australia and three in the UK – have proven very difficult to achieve during the pandemic. We launched our project with the first workshop in late 2019 at Oxford Brookes, drawing together panellists on the theme of Genealogies, Genetics and Family Histories. This workshop explored how people conceptualise the family as a lineage, focusing on popular engagement with genealogies, family histories, ancestry genetics, and the relationship between family histories and cultural heritage.
Of course, having got off to a great start, you’ll not be surprised that March 2020 disrupted our plans dramatically and has continued to do so, despite having an extension of our grant to August 2022. We had to cancel our second workshop in Adelaide, which was at an advanced stage in planning for an April date, on the theme of Imagining the Family with a History Harvest around family photographs. It has taken us a year to reschedule! This is due not least to lockdown and travel restrictions, but to the changes in people’s working and personal lives. We finally held the two-day event as two online workshops in May and June and we explored what, why, and when family members transmit representations of their families across generations, in both private and public domains. The workshops were really productive and sparked some wonderful discussion and ideas (more below on that!). Katie even managed to run the accompanying and first History Harvest focusing on family photographs as a f2f event, since it was held in Australia.
Now we need to organise our next two events as well as some publications that we’d like to develop out of our network activities. But this is still proving a little bit of a challenge! Our third event, which was to be held in Leeds on Emotional Objects, will focus on family bibles, scrapbook albums, recipe-books, and ‘family books’ that have semi-legal status in proving lineage. We think we are likely to have to move online too, given continued uncertainty in England public gatherings indoors. We were planning to be located in the Local & Family History Centre, Leeds Central Library, where we could also hold a second History Harvest on family books, scrapbooks, and similar objects. So, we’ll need to refocus and may have to ask our participants to bring their artefacts to a series of online History Harvests!
Our final workshop is on Storytelling: Intangible Inheritances, which aims to explore how families transmit such intangible inheritances across generations to illuminate how and when they evolve, establish what explains their resilience, and analyse why particular stories move from the personal to public domain in autobiographies, biographies, popular histories, and heritage sites. We’re remaining mildly hopeful that we can hold this in person in Oxford Brookes in summer 2022 so please keep an eye on our website and twitter for more information.
Although we’ve faced many difficulties and constraints on our time because our university roles got so busy, the adaptations that we’ve had to make have offered some opportunities which we hope will lead to collaboration and knowledge exchange.
Our History Harvest was focused on family photographs and Katie noticed that some of the people who participated wanted to talk about photos which were not directly inherited from family members. I’ve also come into contact with collectors who acquire photographs of families with the intention of finding descendants of the families portrayed in them. We think the impulse seems to be to ‘rehome’ family photographs and return them to their family of origin and we would like to explore the emotions involved in this process and its relationship with family history and the history of family more generally.
Another strand that is emerging in our work on inherited objects is that there are some artefacts about which people are very ambivalent – primarily hair, but also teeth. These are parts of bodies which those who inherit them find problematic, often stirring feelings of disgust. Moreover, unless they are in a worked form such as jewellery or crafted objects, such bodily inheritances do not enter our cultural or national heritage in the same way as other artefacts.
So we are planning to make a call for contributions to publications and further workshops around these themes. If you have any insights into these areas of interest, please do get in touch with us! We would also really welcome your tips and thoughts on how to reach out more effectively and communicate with people who are interested in our project’s aims and who we could work with collaboratively. You can email us on firstname.lastname@example.org and also add your name to our network to hear more from us.