An Object-ive view of family history: It’s not just “stuff” or junk

An extract from George Paterson's school exercise book from 1899, kindly donated to me by a relative.

One of Richard Reid’s comments during Shamrock was to the effect that family historians search for meaning and information on their ancestors among the documents held in various repositories but ignore the things or objects that may tell us more about their lives. In his paper presented to the 2009 Irish Conference, hosted by the Irish Studies Association of  Australia & New Zealand, he reiterates the same concern and asks of his own immigration: “What ..has survived outside of impersonal government records of my own coming to  Australia? What real, physical object from that Journey from Ireland…remains?”[i]

Generations of baby bonnets, handcrafted crochet, by maternal ancestors

The vast panorama of the Not Just Ned exhibition has highlighted the importance of objects in telling the story of the Irish in Australia. No doubt a similar canvas could be presented for other ethnic groups. Without the objects we’d have had an un-engaging array of documents and images. Some objects illustrated a particular aspect of life (perhaps the work of the immigrants on the Rajah quilt), some illuminated a formerly unknown-to-me event (the breastplate given to the Aborigines who humanely assisted Burke & Wills) and other items serve to remind us of our own experiences (for me, the Child of Mary cloak, Archbishop Duhig and the  Hibernian sashes).

So what does this mean for our family history practice? Do  we adequately consider how things or objects can not only illustrate our family’s  story but also add to it, and possibly to a wider social history?

A number of blogs clearly show the importance of objects and  can profoundly tell us about a particular family’s history as set within a  broader context eg the World  War II diary of a woman in London tells us about her own family and marital  issues, as well as the broader social circumstanc  of living with wartime hazards and restrictions, and over on A Hundred Years Ago, young Helena Muffy’s diary is woven with background research into social history of the time. Charles Fleming’s diary of the voyage of the Eastern Monarch in 1883 not only tells the story of the voyage and its relevance to his family,  but is directly relevant to the family history of all the other immigrants on  that ship. These diaries are certainly valuable objects in highlighting both family and social history of ordinary people.  On the Tree of Me Sharon has shared her family treasures of electors’ rights certificates, illustrating an document, but also an object, that many men would have had at one time.

Smocking and embroidery on a christening robe for a grandchild.

It seems to me that objects are perhaps more telling in the  lives of women and children whose history often goes undocumented in official records such as the documents we so carefully pursue and  trawl. Recipe books, craft, handiwork or special items can illustrate a woman’s life and her work to make our family history richer and more interesting. School exercise books can tell the story not only of an individual but also of changing educational practices. (My Kunkel family history included an example of one such as did the Not Just Ned exhibition).

Having recently been packing and unpacking our house for painting, I’ve been bemoaning the volume of “stuff” that I seem to have despite multiple  efforts at rationalising, weeding out, or trips to Anglicare or Vinnnies. This topic is a salutary reminder that not all our belongings should be categorised as unnecessary stuff or old junk: we throw them out at our family’s peril. If each generation kept at least a small  handful of special objects just imagine how much richer and how precious our family  history collections could be.

I suspect much has been lost in the earlier days before family history and the recording of ordinary lives gained such prominence.Every time I replay in my  mind a conversation with a grandchild of my original Australian couple, George and Mary Kunkel, I could cry as she told of photos that people would laugh at, and other things being burnt! Did this include family portraits from overseas? Naturalisation certificate for my Bavarian-born great-great-grandfather and her grandfather? Letters to or from Ireland or Germany? Truly irreplaceable items for my family history.

Spoons embossed with my great-grandmother’s initials; passed down to her daughter and then to me, and will ulitmately go to my daughters and granddaughter.

How can we stop the same thing happening to the objects which tell our story? How do we convince our descendants that these objects tell their life story as well as ours, or those of earlier ancestors: tangible reminders of lives past? I have photographed important items and plan to write up the short story of each and why it’s important but it’s also critical to ensure we leave these objects in the care of someone who will truly value them. So often they have little financial value but immense personal worth.

What do other people think? What are your strategies? I’d love to hear.


[i] Richard  Reid, “An Impossible Subject, preparing an exhibition on the Irish in Australia”  in Irish and the Irish Antipodes: One  World or Worlds Apart, Australasian Irish Studies Conference Papers, July 2009.