What are the most valuable things that people keep? In my last post I talked about how the most mundane aspects of a house – such as a cupboard door – can function as a ‘family archive’. Since that time, I took part in a work
shop by curator, art historian and writer Lynda Morris, in which participants were asked to bring a sample, or a list, of the papers they had kept over the years. This process of looking through my collected papers made me reflect on the idea of the family archive to me personally, and how that might inform our research.
At the workshop, there was some fascinating discussion, with lots of relevance to our ‘Family Archives’ project. Some of those who came along (all academics) brought along papers related to their work. Others brought papers and photographs they had inherited from friends and relatives. Still others showed us very personal kinds of papers, such a recipe handed from mother to daughter giving clear instructions on achieving the family’s favourite dish.
The workshop made me think about some important themes for our project, in thinking about our own historical research, and the focus groups we’ll be running with people interested in creating a family archive. Three points stuck out for me:
– the relationship between one’s archive as an individual and our family archives
– the relative value of keeping documents versus keeping objects
– the role of disruption and transition in shaping family archives
Firstly, it’s important to consider how individuals’ own collected items related to a wider picture of what we might call a family archive. Some of what we keep is very much for personal reasons, and we shouldn’t necessarily conflate our family and our own collections – we may keep things for very different reasons. When asked to bring along papers we had keep in Lynda’s workshop, I randomly selected a few bits and pieces, but noticed that these were mostly personal to me – greetings cards from friends, tickets to gigs, clippings from newspapers that were relevant in some way, and not really as relevant to a wider family collection. How do the things we keep relate to a bigger ‘family archive’? How has the relationship between individuals’ and families’ belongings changed over time, through history and across someone’s life? Does what people keep tell us something wider about how big a role the family plays in individual identity?
Secondly, documents and papers can have quite a different significance in our way of remembering than objects. Letters and other personal writing are highly evocative of a particular individual; we can hear their voice when we read someone’s writing, whether it’s a mundane letter or their formal memoir. And we can feel and see their presence in their handwriting. As a historian, working with the original writing of individuals – such as the letters written between servicemen and their families in the First World War, held at the Imperial War Museum – is often much more interesting, and also emotional, than a typed up document (or a digital version of it). Objects serve a different purpose, perhaps – they may have been loved and used everyday by someone we were close to. Perhaps we can hear less of the voices of loved ones but the emotional resonance of object passed on from generation to generation is profound. Is there a fundamental difference between keeping objects and keeping papers?
And thirdly, one theme of my own historical research is how family archives are shaped or created in the wake of someone dying. The process of separating up someone’s possessions and deciding who takes them on is a point at which the creation of archives is a more conscious process than usual. Other big moments of transformation could be when people move house or couples split up – all of these force us to consider what is important to us and why we keep what we keep.
It’s a complicated process, making a family archive, a mix of conscious and unconscious decisions. When thinking about how people end up with the collections they hold in the past and today, we must remember that this isn’t usually a carefully planned process. Indeed, perhaps the reluctance to throw apparently insignificant objects away might tell us something about those individuals and families, as much as the treasured possessions that people hoard away safely.