‘Who do you think you are’ – the BBC’s flagship genealogy programme is now back on our screens for it’s 17th series. The winning format has sparked an entire industry around our fascination with our heritage, at times attracting audiences of up to six million. It has travelled to every continent and has been reproduced in 18 different countries. Last night’s episode with Jodie Whittaker was a great example of just how gripping the journey can be. It did however, bring up some interesting questions about the process of researching the complexity of family life.
Some years back, I was doing some picture research at the National Archives at Kew Gardens. I found it nearly impossible to gain access to a screen to look up an index – for the number of people huddled around them, looking at Census returns, notepads and genealogy guidebooks at the ready. As I sat there patiently, observing and waiting my turn, I wondered just how many of those people had documented the stories of surviving relatives, before attempting to uncover the stories of their ancestors amongst the reams of microfilm and barely legible entries.
I wondered also, how they were getting on with it? The ordinary people without access to the teams of researchers and social historians available to the celebrities on our screens. What checks and balances were people putting in place to ensure that the information they were collecting was accurate? Maybe they just find it an interesting exercise, and don’t put too much stake on what they find.. or do they?
The captivation of ‘Who do you think you are?’ is in a journey which is not so much about what they find, but how what they find differs from who they are now. It changes how we see them and how they see themselves; the hardship or riches of previous generations, when contextualised in its social history can be, as illustrated in last night’s episode – an emotional and sometimes challenging experience.
I fully support the use of official documents as a historical research tool and believe it is a fascinating exercise – to be used with caution. The classic criticism of official documents is that they fit society into a box which does not always represent social reality. How many times have you had to fill in a form and thought that none of the boxes adequately explain or represent you (but you choose one anyway). So consider this problem and apply it to the complexity of family life, relationships and the institution of marriage – and you have a web of officially altered reality, on which you are basing who you think you are.
This is not to say that the oral tradition always has the correct version – take the family myth that Jodie’s great uncle was killed at the WW1 battle of Verdun and so her grandma acquired her middle name ‘Verdun’ in his memory – this was found not to be true (he wasn’t killed there, and Verdun happened to be a fashionable middle name in those days). My intrigue with that myth is in how it developed – at which point had members of the family elaborated a different story, and why?
All of these realities make up who we think we are, they tell of different versions all of which make up our narrative. Our stories, and the stories of people before us (as with the official documents) may not be objective – but they have shaped us. We are a result of the accounts that have been told to us and that we tell ourselves – they will tell us who we are, explain our values and give us an insight that no team of researchers at the BBC or microfilm will ever come close to.
As I sat waiting my turn at the National Archives and as I read about the hundreds of thousands of people that regularly log into read the census returns online – I really hope that the people huddled around computers and microfilm all over the country have taken the time to document their own stories or those of people around them.
Don’t let me stop your genealogical research – but be sure to combine it with the documented conversations with anyone you might be lucky enough to still have access to – it will probably surprise you more than any census return, and it will certainly tell you much more about who you are.