Historical Artefacts and Jewish Family History Research
This blogpost explores how historical artefacts, inherited heirlooms, old documents and photographs can help you build up a rich picture of your Jewish family ancestry.
In our previous blogpost What Nonna Said RYO #9 we explored family lore and oral history within Jewish family history research, another valuable source of information about past generations.
What Have You Got?
Besides the facts of your family ancestry and the records that you have gathered from historical sources, alongside family oral history there is another source which can provide connection points with the lives of our ancestors. These are the historical artefacts and inherited heirlooms which were once the possessions of your forebears, or old documents and photographs which have been passed down within your family from earlier generations.
These objects and documents can provide new details about family members because of the information which they perhaps contain, but also these former belongings and artefacts have a history of their own which can tell a broader family story of the cultural, economic or social history of your forebears. Questions such as who they belonged to and what location and decade they originated from can be explored. Also who they were created by and why. What was their original use and value or significance to their original owner. What then happened to those artefacts throughout time and to whom they subsequently belonged.
You may not have any such artefacts, however if you ask around within your family you may find that other relatives have items which they may be happy to show you, share photographs of and recount their history. There may be collections of original documentation or historical photograph collections which once belonged to a known or unknown ancestor. There might be objects of value which were bequeathed upon the death of their owner or simple everyday household items or tools of a trade. There may be fragile items which have not stood the test of time well, such as paper or textiles; there may be larger objects even such as furniture or property. Whatever the artefacts, they are certain to have had a particular value, whether monetary or sentimental, for their former and subsequent owners.
From Whence They Came
You may be clear as to the provenance of your artefacts, however from whence they came might be shrouded in family lore or mystery. If there is a known story behind their origins then gather as much information as you can about it. Record this and pursue leads which can give confirmation of any details. Keep a copy of details of provenance with the item if possible and a separate copy securely elsewhere. If such details are not forthcoming from within the family, then consider carefully the provenance of your artefacts from creator to ownership, and in particular how the object came to be with its current owner.
Everything Tells a Backstory
If only every object could tell their story. The life of that artefact will of course never be told in full. But, two aspects you might be able to explore further are the story of the object which has been passed down along with it where this exists, and secondly what can be researched about the item as it stands, independent of any known details. The artefact’s backstory can shed light on historical family life and in reverse your ancestor’s life can also illuminate that object. If you imagine the object as a person which holds answers, ask it many questions and think through different hypothetical answers. This thinking process may lead you to some useful ideas about provenance, purpose and significance.
A Life of its Own
Does the artefact have a life of its own which is distinct from your family’s ownership of it? What of its life between creation and when it became your ancestor’s possession? For example, if it is a manufactured item, what can you find out about its construction or about the company or artisan who made it? Does it typify a style or genre particular to a historical period or place of origin? How does it fit into the cultural and economic history of its country of provenance. If it is a photograph, can historic address books tell you where the photographic studio was situated?
Store and Restore
If you are the owner of heirlooms you may be considering how best to preserve them for their future conservation and safe keeping. There are many sources of specialised advice on the preservation of objects. Guidance on the conservation of artefacts and particularly items which are delicate or at risk of degradation from their environs such as photographs and paper records will help you to store them well. By taking care over the conservation of items there is every hope that they will still be around for generations to come.
Perhaps you have items which are of significant value and should be fully insured. Therefore it may be worth getting your artefacts professionally valued. If the objects, photographs or documents are part of a significant wider historical story perhaps they may be of interest to a museum.
Particularly within 19th and 20th century Jewish family history there is another side to the poignant preservation of belongings which may have travelled with their owners when family members migrated from one country to another, of their own free will but also as a result of enforced displacement caused by war and persecution.
Objects may tell stories of life in the Old Country and migration to the New World. They may be singular reminders of a former life and family members who were left behind or tragically lost. Belongings may have accompanied their owners through traumatic experiences and be reminders and proof of both survival and loss.
The emotive connection between objects and their former owners is evidenced in the stories behind artefacts which Yad Vashem is working to preserve through its Gathering the Fragments campaign to rescue personal items from the Holocaust period. For many donors there is a very strong emotional connection between themselves, their life story and their poignant belongings.
By exploring your own family objects, their back stories and the history of their provenance, not only do you get a glimpse of the former ownership and use of that object, but also of what lies beyond the item itself, what that item symbolised or represented for its owner and the emotions and experiences bound up those artefacts.
Ed., historytrace, 08/01/2016
Historytrace can help you to explore your family history through the artefacts, heirlooms, documents and photographs which have been passed down through your family. We can help you explore their context and backstories so that these family artefacts can be preserved and their significance told for future generations. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family artefacts.
You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Those Old Things RYO #10. Historical Artefacts and Jewish Family History Research”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2015; copyright image: freeimages.com / Witold Barski.
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