Is your family collection a monster? Are you scared of meeting your forebears face to face? By Ann Attwood, Collections Care Development Officer

‘Forebears’ it seems to me is the perfect word!! I have experienced first-hand the terror they can strike into your heart! I’ve helped look after archive collections for over 30 years now, but when it came to my own family collection, it was a whole new ball game  A daunting prospect!

The responsibility for preserving the evidence of past generations of my family for the benefit of current and future generations weighed on my shoulders more heavily than all of Gloucestershire’s Archives ever had! Suddenly it was personal!!

Read more: Is your family collection a monster? Are you scared of meeting your forebears face to face? By Ann Attwood, Collections Care Development Officer

A whole new set of emotions that I hadn’t experienced in the day job came with the task – anxiety, and a huge sense of personal obligation – it was down to me and me alone! How would I handle this? I felt despair even at the prospect of sorting it all! So many photos and papers of different types, what would be the best way to look after them using my own resources? Housed in different bags and boxes and albums – not all of archival quality – some of it sorted by my father before, using whatever he thought a logical order at the time, and some in a complete muddle. Some things damaged, some in poor condition having been rescued from a flood 20 years ago, and new bits being added to it all the time by my mother who kept finding more! The sense of overwhelm was seriously overwhelming! 

I was surprised to find I felt quite resentful of it. That I was worrying about it, getting cross with others for not doing their bit. It started to feel like this lurking presence at the back of the cupboard, was almost threatening me. Challenging me as someone who has spent their whole career in the heritage sector looking after library, archive, and photo collections, to square up and take it on – to prove myself! So, I decided I had to act – how could I not!! I needed to tame the monster and put it on a lead so to speak, so it would obediently and happily become my friend and ally!   

And then I realised, this was actually a huge opportunity for me, not only to tame the beast and get it off my back, to get rid of all those negative emotions, all the built-up resentment and all the anxiety, but to tap into a whole new world of possibilities as well. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to access my past, my people, my family stories and important places, in a way that involved my mother too, giving us the chance for some meaningful time together, strengthening and building our relationship (not always the easiest with mum!), and at the same time adding value to the collection through her knowledge of people and events, and her memories of the last 90 years. I had to do it, and I had to do it now before it was too late.

The exciting thing is that not only is it a window into the past, but also solid evidence that I can touch and hold in the here and now, of the actuality of it. A new understanding of what I emerged from, what shaped my existence before I was born, what influenced my mother’s life, my father’s life and massively impacted mine – and I could explore all that right now, with my mother as a guide, making a much better relationship for us than we have had for years. What therapy, what new perspectives, what healing might come with that too? And at no extra cost!!

And my mum and I, we have a new purpose together, a shared mission. It’s amazing and quite unexpected. Fascinating, full of discovery, wonder, appreciation, and inspiration – on so many levels. I have been discovering (still am – it’s an ongoing journey!) new perspectives on what has shaped my thought processes, my unconscious beliefs – the family philosophy and culture, the ‘truths’ passed down through the generations, the characters and the individuals who shaped their worlds and mine as a result. Really fascinating – and it’s becoming quite addictive! Rather than not wanting to do it – I now want to do it more!

So, build a new relationship with your forebears and you will get so much out of it, I promise! If you have a monster in your cupboard that needs taming, don’t waste another moment, cos you know what? This is a gift, a super valuable, unique asset that you have, all there waiting for you. And there are even more things it makes possible that you may not see when you start out – like the curiosity it inspires, it could set you off finding out more about something or someone, exploring your family history further, using it to inspire some creative writing – who knows where it might take you. 

For me, I can use what I have learned along the way to help and inspire others on their journey of discovery, I can help other people to care for their collections better too, and to access all the other benefits that they might get from it. And you know what? We have a FREE training day on preserving family photographs (or any other photograph collection) on 8 September at the Heritage Hub in Gloucester. We will be sharing top tips for handling photographs and preventing damage, on how to identify different types, how to recognise deterioration, and what to do to keep things in good condition. How to be sure to source good archival storage products, and how to work out what is best for your situation. We’d love to see you there, and to share and swap notes with you. It could be the beginning of so much. This is such a great opportunity isn’t it?

You could sign up here but be quick if you want to be sure of a place – the training day is limited to 12 people because there will be lots of things laid out to see and it includes ‘hands-on’ activities.

An old photograph of a woman holding a baby

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