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About the Project

The Family Archive Project is an AHRC-funded study into the past, present and future of the ‘family archive’. What do families preserve and collect from their pasts and what do these things say about them?


Many families own some sort of ‘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. Even if they have never thought of their collections as archives, by keeping and preserving possessions, people use these items to mould a sense of family identity.

The Family Archive Project focuses on exploring these family archives through time. It compares the ways in which modern families collect and preserve treasured possessions with similar practices in the past, making use of an inter-disciplinary methodology that draws on archaeology, history, museum studies and Classics. The project investigates how the family unit makes conscious use of curated possessions – including documents, images, objects and other materials – to develop a familial identity based on past and present generations, and how this is transmitted to future family members.

Key Research Questions

  • Definitions: What is the ‘family archive’? What does it contain and why, and how has it changed over time? How many generations does an archive typically span; how far back in time and how far into the future do archived materials reach?
  • Function: What messages about family identity do these materials convey? What expectations do they pass on to subsequent generations? How do families emotionally engage with the objects in their archives, and the histories associated with them?
  • Ownership: Who owns/curates archival material in families, and how? Who decides what is included and excluded? Do archives exist in one place, or can they be a virtual concept, with contents spread across time and space? How have digital technologies affected ideas of ownership?
  • Context:  How do families integrate their histories with wider historical narratives (e.g. wars, class struggles, major events) and group identity, and collective or cultural memory? How do they use archives to negotiate their place in, and relationship with, the wider world?

Case Studies

1. Current Debates about the Family and Memory

A comprehensive review of issues surrounding popular genealogy, the construction of family identity through the amassing of tangible and intangible ‘things’, and the public’s relationship with archives and museums (led by Dr Anna Woodham). The outcomes of this review will inform the structure of the project’s three focus groups.

2. The Roman Family Archive

This study will examine ancient Roman approaches to preserving family histories in the early imperial period, including the exempla tradition, family shrines and other culturally-specific ways of creating a shared inherited narrative (led by Dr Liz Gloyn).

3. Curating Family Objects

Archaeological evidence for the reuse, curation and repair of domestic artefacts in medieval and post-medieval Britain will be reviewed. This will reveal insights into the preservation of meaningful personal possessions in the home across a long time period (led by Dr Vicky Crewe).

4. Family Archives in Britain, c.1918-50

This case study will use a selection of published autobiographies to find evidence of how people chose to preserve and document their family histories, including what items were kept within the family home and by whom (led by Dr Laura King).