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A very modern family archive

26 March 2015

liz gloynMy post this week will be last from me until September, because I’ll be on maternity leave from next Monday! This will be our first baby, and so I am making that strange change from being a part of a family to having a family of my own, from child to parent. There are all sorts of reasons that this is exciting from a professional perspective, as well as for the obvious personal ones, but I want to talk a bit about how the experience is raising questions of archiving before the baby has even arrived.

Early on in the pregnancy, my father made the observation that he had not known a baby before who would have a sonogram at the start of their first photo album. This comment took me a bit aback, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this is part of a tendency in how mothers are encouraged to think about preserving their children’s future – recording, from the very earliest stages, the details of their offspring’s lives. This tendency trickles out into shared social media spaces like Facebook, where a family archive of photographs and adoring comments on baby’s first go at various activities gets built up almost accidentally (and, as we are now being warned, with potential consequences when that tiny baby applies for its first job). The act of archiving these sentimental documents has become strangely public and detailed.

Gloyn Mythical Childhood
The author as a small child – from her family archive.

Do photos of your children count as a family archive rather than an individual’s one? I would say they do, because there is a deliberate curating of information and artefacts for the benefit of the next generation – presumably one reason people take photographs and videos of their children is to share them with those children when they are old enough to enjoy them. They often become part of a story we tell about ourselves, signposting future developments that at the time were totally unforeseen at the time – my favourite example of this is a photo taken of me in a formal garden on a family holiday in Germany, which when shared now generates comments along the lines of ‘well, you were always going to become a lecturer in classics, weren’t you?’. The possibility of reading backwards what we know of the present into an archive and interpreting the objects found there in the light of the personalities we know in the present.

In a strange sort of way, this is precisely the sort of thing that the Romans were doing with their tradition of family exempla that I mentioned in my last post, only the other way around. We look back at objects saved from childhood and early life to see signs of the person we know in the present; the Romans showed children images of the past in order to shape the person they should and would become in the future. That sense of a continuous identity extends beyond individual people into families too – we can tell from this photo that Uncle Tim had the Smith nose, and let me tell you, he had the Smith temper too. Visual images become an anchor for story-telling about the sorts of people we are, both as independent people and within a family network.

Of course, the interesting bit is when things are preserved in the family archive that don’t support these shared stories. The great-aunt who spent a lot of time in institutions and so is missing from some photographs where we would expect to see her, but we don’t mention that because we don’t talk about mental illness in our family. The unacknowledged but visible change in the pictures before and after the divorce. The sudden disappearance of an uncle after he blotted his copybook and moved to America, only to reappear ghost-like in the records through his children a generation later.

The stories that recovered Roman archives tell seem, in the main, to be concerned with legalities – who married whom, when such-and-such a property was sold, how much tax was paid in a given year. But I wonder about those sentimental items which nobody seems quite able to explain. How much do they contribute to a shared family story that we no longer have access to?


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