The other day I read about a 17th Century map found shoved up a chimney in North East Scotland. It was in a ball shape and had perhaps been stuffed in the chimney to stop draughts coming down. The heap of dusty fragments was painstakingly re-constructed and conserved at the National Library of Scotland – each delicate piece heap by heap. There’s more here on page 15, and I watched a video about it here during which the point was also made that all maps are fiction and decisions have to be made as to what gets put in and what left out, which pretty much seems to me like a family album.
We’ve never had a tradition of family albums in my family so I just inherited more old photographs and letters to add to ones I already had. I know who the people are in most of them. I even know about them from stories told me, but how much truth did these stories hold? There are facts and there is truth and the two don’t necessarily coincide. People tell stories in the belief that they are true and I still hold to the belief that there is truth to be found. The same can be applied to photographs and documents – are they indexical, how far do they represent reality?
Museums and other archive collections are now paying much more attention to family archives of ordinary people. During my own research I have, for example, accessed the Sheffield City Council Archives and also archives concerned with experiences during World War Two. I have my own memories of that time – not many because I was very small then. And so I circle round and round following the labyrinth of history – my history as experienced and told to me by those who knew me then and also their histories of my most recent ancestors as told to me. I have become a living archive. As I write this I’m imagining myself as something similar to the goddess Kali with many arms and hands holding those photographs and letters that date back up to a hundred years ago. Not long in the general scheme of things but a part of the ground that supports my sense of identity, my perception of my place in the World.
In my mind I had a vast archive but have realised that that’s because I had also attached all the stories about my grandparents and great grandparents and built myself the equivalent of sitting by the fireside with them. Around fifteen years ago I decided to research my family background and build a family tree to add to this memory bank I was now conserving. I accessed census, birth, death information etc via Ancestry.co.uk but soon got stuck. I discovered that one paternal great-grandfather was born in Huntingdon Workhouse – father unknown – and his mother subsequently married a young man by the surname of Chattell. Was he really the biological father but his family had disapproved of the liaison – hence the Workhouse? The couple moved North to Sheffield – added to the family – identities changed. Chattell became Chattle – the identity of the first child changed from step-son to son and his surname from Wesley to Chattle. I had spent most of my life believing I was a Chattle and now it seemed I might not be at all. I can’t say I was shocked because it didn’t really matter (I’ve had the surname Banks for much longer than I had the previous one) although I was curious.
The maternal side was even more puzzling. There is no father’s name listed on my grandfather’s birth certificate. The story was that his mother had been married to a Mr Davison, had several children with him and then went off with another man and had several more children. My grandfather’s next brother in age emigrated to Canada as an adult, changing his name to Noble because he said that was what their surname should be. I’ve spent considerable time recently back researching on the internet so there’s more, but I wouldn’t want to bore my readers. Does giving oneself a different name change self-concept? I changed my name when I got married – it was the tradition then and it took me quite some time to get used to that, but that went alongside taking on a different role – that of being ‘a wife’, with the role of ‘mother’ soon to be added. ‘Naming’ can often be quite a profound process. I do keep thinking of Fontcuberta and his chapter on “Fugitive Identities” – ‘fragmented identities in motion …. Like a flowing ever on, never staying in one place’ (2014:92). The digital world does enable people to take on other identities, changing avatars, but how different is that really from the past – it’s the same process but developed in a different way.
I’ve referred to Census information etc but how far can that be relied upon to reveal truth and what can these old photographs of mine really tell me?
I’m sifting through the old documents, trying to piece them together to make them speak to me, but I’m thinking I might end up creating a new map instead of re-constructing an old one. I’ll add more notes on archives and family photographs later.
Fontcuberta, J (2014) Pandora’s Camera, UK, Mack