11.00 Genealogy, Archives and Uses of the Past
For centuries, genealogy has been a model for historical investigation, associated with antiquarianism and dynastic models. It is a practice long associated with heraldry, dynasty, marriage negotiation, pedigree, and the organization of family. However, in the past two or three decades, genealogy has boomed and is now a global phenomenon with a massive amateur audience. In fact, today, amateur historians produce more history than professional historians. Furthermore, genealogy has become something that is both produced and consumed (through digital and physical archives, media, popular culture, etc.). Internationally syndicated television programs such as Who Do You Think You Are? demonstrate the thriving popularity of the phenomena. In his article, “On Genealogy” (2015), Jerome de Groot suggests that genealogy in many ways can be described as “a democratization of access to the past.” As a result of the new digital technology and the improved accessibility of public records, anyone with time and inclination can conduct genealogical research. People whose lives and fates are not part of the traditional academic historiography can now be uncovered.
The premise of this paper is that genealogy is an immensely influential activity in terms of how individuals imagine, use, and engage with the past. It informs popular conceptions of the past, of time, and of the way history is undertaken as a research activity. This paper explores how genealogy changes the notions of the past, but also how it changes how the past is processed, presented, and performed. Therefore, it will broaden our understanding of how genealogy as a historical practice changes the way archives work, or could be working, with their collections, databases, and audiences.
Also, the paper will develop our understanding of the ways that family, nationality, roots, and belonging are imagined and articulated. It enables an investigation of gender, ethnicity, and race in relation to kinship, and the way that personal connections and family ties impact on historical understanding. And what does the search for long dead ancestors, distant relatives, or lost family members really mean? Can genealogy be understood as an act of self-exploration and self-realization, as a way to insert oneself into history? What are the existential dimensions of genealogy and searching for one’s roots? What are the dangers?
When scrutinizing the underlying assumption, researching one’s family roots is not just an innocent and innocuous act. In his thesis, Ancestors, Avotaynu, Roots: An Inquiry to American Genealogy Discourse (2010), Michael S. Sweeney is calling this “the genealogical assumption,” which is the notion that who you are is tied to who your ancestors were. It is not difficult to see why this kind of biological essentialism is problematic.
All this needs to be taken into consideration when working with genealogy and family historians, as an archivist, educator, historian, or cultural heritage expert. We need to initiate a discussion on how genealogy affects historical consciousness, identity, and cultural assumptions.