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Conserving Ancestors

By Daniel Hubbard | October 14, 2012

A few weeks ago I was looking at a photograph with a client. It isn’t your ordinary snapshot. It measures about one foot by three feet. It is also about one hundred years old. It also had a problem. It has been rolled up in a cardboard tube for decades and is now both a photograph and a very brittle, tightly coiled spring. It is not easy to look at and there is always the fear that it will crack.

I asked a museum curator I know if there was anything that could be done to conserve it and added that I had taken step 1 with it. Step 1 being do nothing if you aren’t sure what you should do. She let me know that step 1 was correct and that step 2 would be to take it to an art conservator who has equipment for flattening.

Significance

Ancestors aren’t normally something one thinks of conserving. We have plenty and to get twice as many, we just need to go back another generation. Conserving them also sounds as if it implies that they can be used up. That doesn’t really fit either. Obviously, “conserve” can mean other things as well. A conservator does not prevent a work of art from being “used up.” Instead a conservator works to repair and preserve something.

As genealogists we work to “repair” our ancestry. Identities have been lost and forgotten and we try to recover them and add information to them. We also try to preserve what we find. Ideally, we preserve it in a way that others can understand but we at least usually leave behind a box, filing cabinet or hard drive full of information that someone else could, in principle, understand with some effort.

This week I heard a wonderful quote. It was not meant to be about family history but every time I read it, I think “that’s it”—

…conservation is about negotiating the transition from past to future in such a way as to secure the transfer of maximum significance.

Solving a genealogical puzzle or discovering a story is always a great feeling. It means that a good deal of work brought results. Still, it is a much better feeling when the person who had the puzzle or learns of the story feels the significance of it.

Last week I found documents to confirm a family recollection. That recollection was probably more significant than it might be otherwise because it was the only recollection. There were no stories preserved, only one preserved statement. Confirming it meant something. It meant that something true of one person’s past had actually been handed down under difficult circumstances and remembered over a century later. It meant that the one connection to that past had hung on.

A modern person’s sense of significance gives a link from revelations about past to implications in the present. Presumably that sense of significance carries on into the future as well, which brings me to my closing quote—

In conclusion we would suggest that conservation has as much to do with conserving the future as with conserving the past. It is not, however, simply about preserving the potential for future exuberance, but about preserving the future as a realisation of the potential of the past.

Quotes taken from The Ethics of Conservation by Alan Holland and Kate Rawles.

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Topics: Genealogy, Memory, Myth and Meaning | No Comments »

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