Highlights from the International Family History Symposium

Posted by Kristen Hyde on October 19, 2017 in AncestryDNA

The International Family History symposium was a year in the making. Both of us have long explored the intersection between family history and public history (further reading here). We worked closely with Ancestry – who were generous sponsors and enabled some terrific work to be done. We were able to bring brilliant scholars from around the world to speak on this exciting subject.

This short blog outlines what happened on the day itself, with some images from the workshop discussion. There is a blog about methodology here and more information on the projects can be found on the Double-Helix History website , on Twitter at @doublehelixhistory, and at the Macquarie Centre for Applied History. We will be editing a series of guest blogs by the various contributors described below, to be published here on the Ancestry site over the next weeks. There are also films of sessions that will be edited and circulated.

When we organised this event we hoped to discover what new knowledge might be created if we brought together scholars from diverse disciplines from all over the world to talk about their work and experiences with different communities of researchers. We were really pleased with the registration – showing that well over 100 people registered from around Manchester, the North-West region, and further afield in the UK (with various requests for information from Belgium, the USA, and Australia). They watched and responded to talks by scholars from around the world – from or discussing experiences in Brazil, Australia, Denmark, India, Colombia, Mexico, the USA, Iceland, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and Ireland. These papers were given by scholars from across the disciplines – from sociology, literature, history, politics, social psychology and social anthropology. Research into family history is a very complicated and diverse matter!

Our audience of excited family historians arrived well before the library opened. There were many people from the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society, but also from all around the city and area. Shortly after 9am the Performance Space at Manchester Central Library was packed. People were well and truly prepared for a full day of talks by academics working on family history from around the world. The audience, seated at round tables, with giant posters and marker pens at the ready, was primed for active discussions about International Family History. We outline the various talks below – with images of some of the written responses put together by the audience in discussion sessions after each talk. The picture below shows the author Alison Light talking with some of the participants during one of these discussion sessions.

The talks began with Ashley Barnwell a sociologist based at the University of Melbourne with her paper entitled ‘Keeping the Family’s Secrets: Gender and Inherited Storytelling Practices’. Her focus was on the unique strategic amnesia about the past that plays out in family secrets in post-colonial Australia. We learned that family secret keeping is gendered. 81% of her 403 self-selecting Australian survey respondents in 2016 were female, averaging 60 years of age. They told her that illegitimacy was a key family secret guarded by women while other secrets such as convict ancestry were coded male. Many of her family historians had discovered their family secrets through public documents rather than from their own family member.

Next up was Ewa Jurczyk-Romanowska from the University of Wroclaw in Poland. We learned about the Polish diaspora – Polonia – and the ways in which values can be transferred between families of genealogists around the world and the ways in which fractured families are reconstructed using family history. Ewa suggested that family history can be used to make seniors feel needed and to contribute towards social inclusion by encouraging communication between different generations.

Indira Chowdhury is based at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore and champion of public history and oral history in India. Indira showed the ways in which she has used family history to analyse the complicated history and contrasting oral and archival accounts of post-partition India.

In our second session entitled ‘New places and spaces and times’ Andre Freixo (above) an expert on historiography and historical theory from the Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto in Brazil told us that family history was not popular in his home country. He told us about the complicated celebration and re-enactment of 500 years of Brazil’s history and what drives us to the past – the ethics of ‘temporal’ discourses.

Henriette Roued-Cunliffe an expert on digital humanities from the University of Copenhagen showed us the ways in which she uses social media to engage with family historians at the city archives in Copenhagen. She is interested in the ways in which family historians organise themselves on the Internet and engage in ‘helpful information behaviour’ around heritage material. She says that we need to pay attention to the diverse ways in which the archives can talk to their different audiences.

Carolina Jonsson Malm (above) from Malmö University shared another success story in the archives, this time in Sweden where a focus on inclusion, participation and active knowledge production within the community has transformed archival offices. Malmo’s archives have become much greater integrated into the community and more responsive to the huge numbers of family historians utilizing there services. As a result, there has been an enormous increase in families and younger people using the city archives. Family history played an essential role in changing the archival paradigm.

After lunch we had two further sessions. The first was on the relationship between local, national, and international definitions about family, and the relationship of the family to ‘history’.

Paul Knevel from the University of Amsterdam spoke about the various ways that genealogy had been televised in the Netherlands and around the world. In particular he pointed out how incredibly efficient, successful and useful the globally famous TV show Who Do You Think You Are? is. He went through various examples of ‘failed’ television series as a way of showing the seemingly effortless success of WDYTYA?. This entertaining talk pointed out that family history was not really appropriate for a game-show or for for prime-time entertainment style programming, making WTYDYA?’s success even more impressive. Many among the audience sprang to the task we set them of working out a family history game-show (in development soon, maybe…?!).

Marcelo Abreu, our second speaker from Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto, is an expert on Afro-Brazilian heritage, and he spoke urgently about how we need to consider an historical set of contexts for contemporary definitions of identity and race. Marcelo’s talk was one of several that pointed out the political dimensions of family history in particular contexts around the world. He showed us how genealogy cannot be thought of as an ethically or politically neutral activity, and this prompted a great deal of interesting discussion amongst the audience.

The final session considered DNA, and the ways in which genetic science was impacting our understanding of family history and the past. Three speakers addressed different ways that DNA science is changing and challenging our understanding of identity, of the past, and of family history.

Marc Scully from Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, began this session by looking at the ways in which contemporary groups thought about their DNA heritage. He reported from a project looking at how some groups of men in certain regions considered their ‘Viking’ identity, and how genetic science might challenge this. In particular Marc talked about the common understanding of genetics and ways that social groups behaved as a consequence of this. Picking up on the theme of popular understanding of science, Peter Wade from the University of Manchester discussed the way that discourses of race and DNA were being used in Colombia and Mexico, often by scientists themselves, to promote discussions about issues ranging from obesity to national identity. Sarah Abel from the University of Iceland (below) spoke about the ways in which DNA testing is troubling ideas of identity in relation to the past. In particular she discussed how genetic testing for family history both helps and hinders discussions about contemporary identity. In particular she was interested in the popular understanding that DNA is completely accurate.

So, a very wide-ranging and thought-provoking set of talks. What was even better in some ways were the conversations and discussions that were had on each table in the ‘response’ time after each session. Family historians, genealogists, members of the MLFHS and other family history groups, ordinary members of the public, academics and library staff talked energetically about the issues that were raised by each speaker, and sought to think about how their understanding of family history might change (or not!). We have had lots of responses online and via email from those who attended – the workshop was successful in many things but mostly in opening up thinking, expanding horizons, and creating new relationships.

This was a guest post, written by Jerome de Groot and Tanya Evans. 

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