Genealogy, public history, and cyber kinship

Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Regina Poertner is the third of these scholars.  To read the two prior posts, see Paul Knevel, Sara Trevisan.

Achim Gercke (1902-1997) was appointed expert on racial matters for the NS Ministry of the Interior in 1933. He was instrumental in implementing the new racial laws ‘for the restitution of the civil  service’, demanding proof of ‘Aryan’ descent as a precondition for employment. Gercke was dismissed in 1935 on suspicion of homosexuality. From 1933, the National Socialist ‘Reich Genealogical Authority’ enlisted the services of professional genealogists to ‘purge’ the state of ‘non-Aryans’. The laws of 1933 and 1935 inaugurated the NS racial policy that was to result in the segregation,deportation, and murder of the Jewish population of Germany and occupied territories. Sources: Image: Wikimedia Commons, supplied by the German Bundesarchiv, Image number 183- 2006-1009-500/CC/BY-SA Further reading:  Eric Ehrenreich, The Nazi Ancestral Proof: Genealogy, racial science, and the final  solution, Indiana University Press 2007.

Achim Gercke (1902-1997) was appointed expert on racial matters for the German National Socialist Ministry of the Interior in 1933. He was instrumental in implementing the new racial laws “for the restitution of the civil
service,” demanding proof of “Aryan” descent as a precondition for employment. Gercke was dismissed in 1935 on suspicion of homosexuality.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

To date, historians’ debates on the impact of new technologies have focused primarily on the challenges to the academic profession, raising important questions about, for example, the future tools and methods of professional historical research, the visualisation and archiving of data, sharing of digital resources and research outputs, and more generally the ways in which the current digital revolution is changing our perception of who we are and what we do. The article by Jerome De Groot broadens this debate to encompass the public as the consumer and producer of a new brand of public history in the making: digital genealogical research has become a lucrative commercial venture–significantly, without clearly demarcated national borders–and is becoming the remit of the amateur historian who simultaneously is the object and author of the “curated self.” Continue reading

Genealogy from below

Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Paul Knevel is the second of these scholars.  We hope you will post your comments to add to this discussion. 

The largest family tree in the world, as claimed by the International Family Museum in Eijsden, the Netherlands.  Image credit: www.internationalmuseumforfamilyhistory.com

The largest family tree in the world, as claimed by the International Family Museum in Eijsden, the Netherlands. Photo credit:  International Museum for Family History

As could be expected by the author of the broad and lucid Consuming History, Jerome de Groot demonstrates in his article in The Public Historian an amazing ability to discuss thoroughly topics and themes that would for others take book-length or even career-length considerations. “Genealogy and Public History” thus not only deals with the various ways that genealogy and family history could be undertaken and imagined by various people and groups but also with such large and profound issues as the impact and construction of “knowledge infrastructures” in a digital age, the silencing character of the archive, the ethical sides of dealing with the dead, the neo-liberalisation of public space generated by commercial websites, “digital labour,” and many other themes and ideas. The result is a clever, multi-layered, insightful, and thought-provoking essay that challenges public historians to rethink today’s digital historical culture and practices, their own role, and the activities of millions of people (see the stunning figures mentioned by De Groot) who are doing genealogy and family history and thus trying to connect themselves with the past. Consequently, it is impossible to address in this short reaction all the topics and themes raised in De Groot’s article. Continue reading

History and tradition: Genealogical practice before 1700

Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of massive amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Sara Trevisan is the first of these scholars. Please consider adding your own comments to the conversation below. 

Fig. 1 The Steward Window (1574), showing Banquo as the root of the family tree. Image credit:   

The Steward Window (1574), showing Banquo as the root of the family tree.  Image credit: J.H. Round, Studies in Peerage and Family History (New York: Longmans: 1901)

In today’s genealogical search, lack of evidence on a family ancestor signifies the impossibility to assess any further their role within the structure of our genealogical tree. Genealogy is to us”‘a gesture to completeness that is continually thwarted by the limitations of the archive,” and thus shows us that knowledge can have an end.1 The search for family origins is therefore destined to remain ever unfulfilled and frustrated due to the epistemology of ‘historical truth” by which it is ultimately guided. Yet, until the second part of the seventeenth century–when the principles of historical method still had not fully taken hold–the “mythical” aspect of family origins was an integral part of genealogical reconstruction. This was especially true for monarchs and noble families. Continue reading

“Why this topic?”: Inspiration and growth through writing history

 The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  Photo credit: Flickr user trini_map

The Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library. Photo credit: trini_map

As I scrolled through my list of unread emails a couple weeks ago, I paused on a subject line that was at once nostalgic and saddening: “A Celebration of the Life of Dr. Vivian O. Windley.” Dr. Windley was a well-respected educator and highly regarded volunteer at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Although we did not know each other personally, some brief remarks that she and another volunteer made to me in 2009 regarding a request for oral history interviews have profoundly influenced my understanding and appreciation of writing history. Continue reading

Public History on the Edge of Nowhere: A working group report

Photo credit: Giannis Angelakis

Photo credit: Giannis Angelakis

Our “Public History on the Edge of Nowhere” working group consisted of individuals from institutions that face issues of isolation due to physical location or a lack of awareness by the surrounding communities. In Nashville at the 2015 National Council on Public History conference, we sought to facilitate a group discussion centered on developing creative solutions for institutions lacking direct access to large populations. Continue reading

Schip-Shaip

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ship Pendant Victoria and Albert

 

 

 

Editor’s note: This piece is part one of a special online section accompanying issue 37(2) of The Public Historian, guest edited by Lisa Junkin Lopez, which focuses on the future of historic house museums. The contributions in this section highlight the voices of artists who engage with historic house museums as sites of research, exhibition, and social practice. In this piece, Rebecca Keller takes us on a wild ride in the form of a fictional professional association’s newsletter, envisioning a provocative future where technology plays a starring role in visitors’ experiences of the past.

Continue reading

Hardball history: Knowing the people’s history requires being on their side

kerr-hardball-history

Project narrator David Campbell explains to the media in August 2002 why he will not leave his encampment, known as Camelot, while the city bulldozers wait to move in. Photo credit: Steve Cagan. Used with permission from the collection of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

On May 30, 1995, wearing an orange construction helmet, I stood behind a makeshift barricade on E. 13th Street in New York City. Hundreds of squatters faced off against larger numbers of riot police who were armed with a tank and supported by snipers on the surrounding buildings. They had come to evict people from five buildings, and as they moved in, we locked arms to prevent them from gaining entrance. One by one they arrested us and dragged us away as the media reported the event live throughout the day. While we lost the buildings and over one hundred people lost their homes, the action paved the way for the remaining squats in the neighborhood to become legally recognized.

We had a sense we were making history, putting our mark on a long tradition of radical activism in the community. It was a history told though stories on park benches; documented in old photographs; archived in personal collections of dog-eared papers, yellowed flyers, and ‘zines; and memorialized with graffiti and punk anthems. The history was sustained by the elders, who had little materially to show from life, but captivated the attention of irreverent younger people who affectionately heard their stories as a boast and a challenge. To make history, we needed to know the history. Knowing the history necessitated knowing the people and knowing the people required being on their side. Continue reading