Protecting history for future generations
Today in my role as an archivist protecting our town’s history, I sat looking at a sepia photo from 1913 which depicted a girls’ hockey team. There’s something sobering about such images, not least because it was an era in which people rarely smiled for official photos. Yet perhaps the severity of expression ends there, because part of my job includes creating oral histories from those older generations who hold the key to the context in those pictures; and these people are not severe or straight laced. They’re hilariously funny and have memories which bring those old sepia photos into full colour escapades. The stuff in their head is essential for an understanding of history and we’re losing it; watching it trickle away like water down a plug hole as though its diminishing influence isn’t a reality for us.
New Zealand history is both controversial and filled with confusion. The white people have one view and many aspects are rightly not shared by Maori. For each battle fought in the Waikato Wars there is one winner, but historians rarely agree on who that actually was. Living in an area of such tribal significance and with a vested interest in history, it seemed a no-brainer for me to study a course through Te Wananga o Aotearoa and it’s one of the best things I ever did. It offered a perspective I wouldn’t have got otherwise. It’s been useful in my role as an archivist but essential in my work as an author, helping me portray particularly the Du Roses with any level of authenticity. I know the significance of the blood spilled on the land on which my house now stands, even while I abhor the need for it. I relate to the spiritual vibes given off by the mountain range which towers above me and understand what it whispers to me about its creator.
I’m surrounded by the story of my forebears and so are you. They’re clamouring to be heard and yet we rarely stop to listen. It breaks my heart to see the face of a gentle man in a tattered photo with his shirt buttoned tightly around his neck and his hair immaculately placed; only to remember the cold and factual killed in action telegram presented to his wife less than two years later and which I came across by chance, still mottled by her tears which spread the ink.
Each historical artifact represents a moment, a fragment of something which gives us context and meaning even as individuals. We’re ridiculously quick to forget that we’re all just passing through, trying in our own way to forge a legacy of memories and reassure ourselves we won’t be forgotten.
I never tired of my grandparents’ stories but I know other children and adults who didn’t feel the same way about their folk. I see it still when an elderly man sits in front of me and speaks for an hour about the old Hamilton, the city occupied by less than ten thousand people, the Hamilton in which he knew most of them and they knew him. His wife rolls her eyes at me in apology and his adult children look embarrassed.
Me? I can’t get enough. I could listen all day. I’ve switched to a voice recorder because scribbling notes is a distraction. I want it all; everything in his head. I want to smell the dust of the unpaved high street in my nostrils and hear the sound of the train rolling into Frankton station; his memories offer me entry into that other world I missed, scrolling before me like a film reel.
Genealogy programmes on TV are so popular, garnering great ratings as viewers watch John Doe or a celebrity search for their heritage, seeking roots they feel so keenly that a clear breakthrough often invokes intense emotion. Yet someone in the same town will be ignoring the information stored in the head of a grandfather who won’t be around forever. He could have told them more than church records scrawled by a stranger or a government census filled in under duress.
When their relative was alive, everyone avoided mention of the dreaded biscuit tin filled with old faces, but once they’re dead it becomes like the holy grail and everyone wants it. It assumes the importance of a treasure map to something better and yet the best thing about those tattered memories was the context in the owner’s head which would have brought it alive. That biscuit tin becomes the bone of contention like a horrid game of capture the flag. One family member grabs it for ‘safekeeping.’ They’ve no idea what to do with it and have no plans to better its circumstances by archiving the contents, digitising them for everyone else in the family or ensuring their longevity. No, they keep that tin ‘safe’, unopened after the initial victory sort-through and everyone mutters behind their hands.
In this digital age, why are we losing our history? There’s really no excuse. Photographs can be scanned onto disks, USB sticks and hard drives. With very little effort they can be shared without the collection being broken apart. They should be because they contain the history of every stake-holding member of a family or organisation, but they won’t be. The verbal memories will be exaggerated or changed to fit the teller and everyone will remember things from the biscuit tin which either weren’t really there or weren’t what they thought. It’s very sad and I’ve seen more family rifts over this kind of thing as an archivist than I care to dwell on.
Listen to your elders. Document their memories and help them catalogue their photos and artifacts. It can be as simple as a cardboard index file. Archiving doesn’t have to be an expense borne by one family member. Yes, there are expensive acid free wallets but you know what? Oven bags are acid free.
Store photographs flat in individual oven bags and place into a cardboard box. Obviously acid free archival boxes are best because they’re waxed against damp and moisture but I’ve seen suitable boxes on sale for as little as NZ$5 at a storage unit. Biscuit tins are actually the worst place possible for old photographs because the inner temperature varies too vastly depending on location. If they’re kept in a humid environment they’ll rust and cause irreparable damage.
If you’re fortunate enough to have your family’s founders still around then please, please, please talk to them. Gather their memories. Record their thoughts about each photo on ordinary paper in a lead pencil (not ink or ball point) and ask them to name the occupants of each picture. Slip the paper into the oven bag and don’t use staples or paper clips.
Surprisingly Amazon sell oven bags too which was a surprise to me when I did a quick search but so do all supermarkets.
Look again at your precious family artifacts.
Once these things are gone, they’re gone forever.
A photo with no names and no context becomes an insignificant piece of sepia paper.
And if you’re the keeper of the biscuit tin, then that’s the responsibility you’ve claimed so fulfill it. Scan every single photo and make a copy available to the rest of your family. Get together and swap memories, name the faces and compile your family history. These precious artifacts are meant to unite, not divide.
It’s no good to anyone if it’s hidden away or worse, lost to the next generation.
Treasure the memories of your forebears.
Respect your history. No excuses.
K T Bowes is an archivist and novelist. Many of her books contain spatterings of history bent for her own ends. She’s an Amazon bestseller so check out her other pages for the series she offers and if you’re interested, join her mailing list to get a free ecopy of A Trail of Lies.
All of her first in series novels are free as ebooks.