Heritage is a personal story

Confession: I have never really understood people’s obsession with researching their family history. This may sound odd coming from someone whose background is in heritage studies. After all, the benefits family researchers describe – a strengthened sense of identity, connection, empathy, even resilience – to this day form the backbone of many national and international heritage (protection) policies and they emerge over and over again as key criteria in making something heritage to begin with.

Nevertheless, I have always located family history more in the realm of history than heritage, what with the meticulous combing through archives for names and dates. It also seemed too narrowly focused on one tiny slice of humanity’s history, namely a family. Isn’t heritage so much larger than that?

In truth, I’m still not entirely sure on that particular question. But when I recently joined my colleague and friend Adam Ditchburn on one leg of his journey of family research, I was struck by how much of what he did shared commonalities with heritage as a process and a performance.

Quick reminder: the concept of heritage as a process is based on the rejection of the formerly prevalent notion of heritage as a given, inherent in its materiality, and passed from one generation to the next [1]. Instead, understanding heritage as a process emphasises its emotional dimension and selectivity. It means that heritage can change, not the least because it serves a purpose in our present and for our future(s) [2]. Performance becomes an important, if not the most important element of this notion of heritage: going to and being at a site, engaging in certain actions alone or with others (re-)creates and strengthens the heritage. Our bodies and intentions interact with all other heritage elements, material as well as immaterial, animate as well as inanimate [3]. Through this interplay, heritage emerges.

Adam and I met up in a region where Adam’s great-great-great grandfather came from. The local history museum unfortunately was closed, so instead we wandered the streets, talking about what facts Adam had already collected on his great-great-great grandparents’ extended families. Some key information for now remains unknown but Adam had already filled the gaps with some ideas of his own about what might have happened to his ancestors. This bridged the hard facts with a story of human experiences and emotions. It was in those stories that I felt his connection to these people became the strongest and most meaningful. Of course, no-one knows whether these stories approximate the truth. Yet this was precisely the selective, emotional process of heritage-making that emerges in other contexts as well. From well-informed possibilities, Adam had created a narrative that made sense to him and which gave human depth to the people he was finding in the documents.

In sharing this narrative with me, he also invited me to offer my own suggestions for what might potentially have happened. Thus I became engaged in his heritage, although arguably it has little to do with me personally. What I connected with was the humanness of an experience that we might all have lived through back then. At the same time, through us sharing our ideas, Adam’s heritage-making became a social action. I’m not going to go as far as calling the two of us an imagined community, but you get the idea. The fact that these stories were unsubstantiated and possibly transient, for they will change if and when new facts appear, did nothing to weaken their power.

Subsequently, we also did a bit of detective work to identify the most likely village referred to somewhat obscurely in the official records. Apart from the fact that I unexpectedly got infected by the excitement of piecing together the clues, it also drove home again the importance of place, or perhaps more precisely the importance of the authentic place. Having some sense of certainty that the village we ended up visiting was the right one made a difference to our experience of it. Here was reason to believe that his great-great-great grandfather had walked these same streets, particularly in the old part of the settlement.

Our action of walking slowly through the village reminded me of responses in my own visitor research particularly at Varusschlacht, but also at Battle Abbey. People talked about their desire to specifically move through the space, walking or cycling, as a more immediate experience of connecting with the sense of place and what had taken place there. I felt the same way on our walk: on the surface, there wasn’t that much to see, and to be honest, the place was deserted which was a bit disturbing. But it was necessary to walk it, to feel the distance, to be in the environment as a whole, to experience it with all our senses. It gave it meaning. Looking out over the sea was looking out over what Adam’s great-great-great grandfather might have seen. As Adam had shared previously about another visit to a place of family importance, here, too, we felt like we connected across time through this material reality.  

When I departed after a few days, I felt I had been on a truly emotional journey. I have come to appreciate that archival research is only one aspect of family research. The other, possibly greater part is what Adam is doing: travelling to other places and making connections. I am glad I was able to ‘observe’ such heritage in the making, and to gain a first-hand understanding of how family research does lead to more than ‘just’ a family tree.


[1] See for example the excellent anthology by Smith, G.S. et al, (2010). Heritage Values in Contemporary Society. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press for different perspectives on this.

[2] On heritage as having a purpose for the future I still find Zetterstrom-Sharp’s 2014 article Heritage as future-making: aspiration and common destiny in Sierra Leone in the International Journal of Heritage Studies 21(6), pp. 1-19 really illustrative.

[3] I recommend reading Harrison, R. (2013). Heritage. Critical Approaches. London and New York: Routledge 2013 on this concept, if you haven’t already.

One thought on “Heritage is a personal story

  1. Thank you for this Nicole, it’s actually very interesting to read the experience we shared from your point of view, these weeks later. I was really grateful for your company and support on this leg of the journey. Next stop? Watch this space 😊

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