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.

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

  1. Interesting post and questions for thought. In my family, I seem to be the “chosen” one — by the ancestors, by some yearning to make sense of this history of mine. It’s not that others family members don’t keep memorabilia, but they aren’t driven with the same need to want and need the stories behind the objects.

    The problem that is the biggest concern is what to do with all of the “stuff”. As a family we have been trying to photograph all of those little family treasures that we each have sequestered. My particular bent is with words and stories, so I have a computer full of diaries, letters, and now telling the stories of those bits and pieces.

    But then there is always the question: What to do with all of this “stuff” — current, past and future?


    1. hi Joan, Thanks for your response. It’s interesting how some family members become the “repositories”. I agree the photos are a safeguard to preserving the items. As I mentioned to Sharon from The Tree of Me, how about putting the photos and stories into a published book? I’m sure it would quickly become a family treasure in its own right and a unusual family history. But I agree, what to do with the stuff…there is something special about holding an item an ancestor has also held. I suppose there’s always a museum for specific pieces which has the plus that they are preserved but against that they go out of the family’s hands. A conundrum indeed. Pauleen


  2. Thanks for mentioning one of my posts on your blog. Family treasures are going to be a regular feature on The Tree of Me. I actually wear two family treasures each day – my mother’s mother’s mother’s wedding ring and a gold sovereign on a chain from a pocket watch belonging to my father’s father’s father.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of the problems is that people coming after us don’t always associate the meaning of the items. One of the ways I deal with this is to have an item out and get people to tell the story of the item (this also works for photos!). It is often best if you can get a group together as each of them have a different memory of Grandma’s milk jug or apron. Granddad’s saw or plane brings back different memories some of him working with it or of the items he made and the adventures had with the billy-cart.

    It is amazing what stories can come out when faced with an item or photo. If you can get them talking you have the voices and memories for future generations (assuming you update your media etc)


    1. hi Helen, Some great ideas in your suggestions! I agree that one memory can kick off another etc. You just need them all in one place for the chat. Thanks very much for your ideas. Pauleen


  4. For many years after my grandmother died, I would use her tablecloths on the dining table that she had handstitiched – I guess to keep her memory alive. People tut-tutted, saying that they would get worn and stained. And they were correct – they did. But it seemed sillier keeping them in a cupboard where no-one would see them. I think recording them at the least via a blog is one way of managing the problem of what to do with stuff that no-one else in the family may want.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree Alex on both counts…photos and a blog story honours the women whose lives are often obscured, and there’s no point not using things unless they are very precious.


  5. I understand how important it is to conserve heritage but it is such a difficult and often emotionally traumatic decision- to choose what to keep and what to throw- and it is never possible to hold on to everything. So as you say we gradually lose objects and memories. Maybe that is the way of the world!


    1. Letting go of some objects can be important but also preserving those which are most meaningful. I don’t think it helps that we have so many objects in our lives these days…our ancestors had much simpler lives in terms of surplus “stuff” unless they were part of the aristocracy. Thanks for visiting and commenting Sukanya.


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