Classically Inclined

January 9, 2015

Research: The Family Archive Project

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 3:22 pm
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I mentioned back in June that I was working on some grant applications coming out of an AHRC Early Career sandpit event around Easter, and then in my round-up post of 2014 I promised to blog about the project which was successful in that funding bid. So here is that post!

The project in question is formally titled “The Family Archive Project: Exploring Family Identities, Memories and Stories Through Curated Personal Possessions.” It came together after one of the round table discussions at the AHRC sandpit, where four of us discovered we all worked with ideas of family and memory in our research, and all shared some broadly similar research interests that might intersect in interesting ways in an interdisciplinary project. Some shared questions that came up during that very early phase of brainstorming were about how one defines a family archive; who gets to be in charge of a family archive; and how family archives cope with traumatic or difficult events. For instance, we all know stories of families who write a disreputable aunt or uncle out of the history, and novelists make plenty of hay out of the habit at the start of the twentieth centuries of babies being bought up thinking their grandmother was their mother and their mother was their sister. Roman families have different problems to cope with (like ordering your son or daughter killed, for instance), but there are still traumatic events that need to be handled and processed.

The project now has several goals for the next year. It wants to think about what a family archive looks like and how it changes over time – what an Edwardian would have made of the idea would have been very different to what we make of it, particularly in the age of digital photography and practically endless storage, not to mention the move away from paper documents. It wants to think about the function of these archives, and how families engage or disengage with their contents. That question of who owns the archive and curates it is still important, and we also want to explore how ownership is passed down the generations; does an archive have to stay together, or can it be spread across family members, or even embodied in oral repetition at family gatherings? We also want to think about how family archives balance the very personal stories they have to tell with the public events going on at the same time; for instance, an individual family archive (in whatever form) and official government archives will tell two very different stories about the First World War.

As part of this work, we’re very excited to be liaising with a number of partner organisations who are interested in exploring these questions with us and with the communities that they work with. We hope that this will give us a snapshot of some ways that family archives are taking shape today, and that the insights we gain from collaborating together will be useful for archivists in more institutional contexts too. To balance that out, we’re looking at a number of historical case studies to give us a sense of perspective and development, so we can see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same in the way that people think about family archives. Of course, this is all very small-scale sampling, so this is in the nature of an exploratory project to see what we come up with and what else we might do with these ideas and partnerships.

I see my particular contribution to the project in offering a historical perspective on the way that Roman families think about their personal archive. Of course, the word ‘archive’ is anachronistic for the Romans – they had a totally different way of conceptualising how we might store materials to, say, a family in the Victorian era or later. However, what I’m hoping to do by drawing on my knowledge of a society which didn’t rely so heavily on documentation and had no concept of photography is broaden the ways in which we might define an ‘archive’, and thus help expand how we think about the management of family history within a particular family. My interest in this has come out of my work with exempla (which I really should write about on here), and I’ve very much enjoyed the Ancient History seminar at the Institute of Classical Studies this term, which focused on libraries and archives [link to PDF]. However, that seminar has highlighted how little we classicists seem to talk about ‘family’ archives, as has my recent trawl (still underway) of the L’annee Philologique database in search of helpful bibliography. I have a research day planned next week at the British Library, and I’m looking forward to getting my teeth properly stuck into this aspect of the project.

Stay tuned for more updates as the project progresses, and in the meantime, keep an eye on the project blog, where other team members will be writing about their case studies in more detail over the next month.

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