Stories in Sepia

‘History’ at High School bored me. Learning about old kings on the other side of the world felt so removed from my young life that I quickly grew to loathe history classes. The teacher did not help to bring life or relevance to the content….yawn!

But as an adult my interest in history has developed from reading books like: Into the blue: boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before by Tony Horwitz (also known as Blue Latitudes); Beethoven’s hair; an extraordinary historical odyssey and a scientific mystery solved by Russell Martin; and other books where historical stories and facts are given further relevance and detail through a contemporary lens.

Delving into my own family history over many years has drawn me in and I am now intrigued by the many lives that were lived before – people who are now dead and buried. A grim description; but yesterday I discovered a podcast titled Dead and Buried that “showcases underground history and true crime from the streets of Melbourne.” It is part of the Melbourne Ear Buds Network.

“Dead & Buried is a podcast about Melbourne history for people who don’t yet realise they like Melbourne history.”

This podcast series is well presented and edited by Lee Hooper, Phoebe Wilkens, Carly Godden, and Robin Waters. The additional comments by others provide credibility, depth and interest to the stories. I am really enjoying listening to these vignettes of days gone by and hope they release series two soon.

My own family history has grown in recent months with the help of the My Heritage software and the Ancestry Library Edition database. The My Heritage app is easy to use and free to a point. Putting in your own family tree is very easy and then ‘matches’ are found to link with others who have provided research in linking trees. Some of this requires payment, but the wealth of information that can be seen is amazing and has enriched my own research and legacy scrapbook.

Photos in particular can be seen and while it is important to make sure the photo is correctly assigned to the right person, these images are real treasure. Unfortunately I did find two photos of my paternal grandparents incorrectly assigned to others in the previous generation who happened to have the same first names. I tried to contact the person who placed the images into Ancestry but it went to a broken link. Most probably the person does not use the account anymore. It is a shame to see this kind of error published as fact, especially when I know it is incorrect. Once checked and validated though these sepia images are gorgeous and give beautiful illustration to my family history.

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From left: Standing; Euphemia, Margaret, Alexander, Jeanie, Helen, Catherine. Seated; Lily, Jeanie (Granny), Daisy (possibly taken at Penshurst Victoria)

Some years ago I had been shown an enlarged photo of a family wedding in Penshurst Victoria. It is a beautiful scene, with the stern matriarch sitting centre surrounded by family, with the women wearing gorgeous ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ style dresses. I had always wanted a copy of this image but it eluded me, until recently. I found a labelled version amongst some old files of my parents. So I had it all this time without realising. The stern matriarch Jeanie Fleming Smith sitting in the centre is my great great grandmother if my family research is correct. Jeanie is my great grandmother I believe. I will need to refer back to my tree to confirm the details and find a date.

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Beyond the story

Janelle McCulloch wrote the book, Beyond the rock: the life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock. While it is a biography about the life of Joan Lindsay, it is also an inquiry into the writing of Joan’s mysterious novel Picnic at hanging rock.

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I invited Janelle to be a guest speaker at our library and she gave an energetic and riveting talk about this topic to an audience of spellbound people. From the moment she entered the room, Janelle was talking, and she didn’t pause for an hour and probably could have continued. People were slow to leave, wanting more.

As a perennial mystery embedded in Australian culture, the mystery behind the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock, tantalizes us with the need to be solved. In Joan’s original unpublished forward to the novel:

            “…the story is entirely true.”

Janelle teased us who were in the room with the possibility of another book that does indeed reveal the truth. Her journalistic nose having uncovered parts of the story that, according to people who lived and live around Hanging Rock, “everyone knew”. We all responded with enthusiastic urging that she must indeed write it. How often does that happen to authors who are not J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or George R. R. Martin?

The process of journalistic research is of great interest to me, as I love doing that myself. I know the addiction of a good detective hunt. Genealogists know this well. Janelle prompted us to get to work as:

            “Everyone has a story that needs to be told.

So feeling enthused and having procrastinated long enough about getting my own family story curated, I started. I had already created a storyboard of sorts using PowerPoint. So I purchased a large sketchbook and a scrapbooking kit. I set up a space where I have all the photos nearby in boxes and photo albums and on file.

It is apparent from the moment I begin where the gaps are, so many photos missing. Do they even exist? Does someone have the ones I need? I phoned my husbands aunt not remembering how old she must be. We had a nice conversation and she agreed to look to see what she had. Yesterday I received an envelope with some gorgeous old photos of my mother-in-law and her sister, and their mother, and my husband’s parents. And there was an image of my husband’s late eldest brother as a 3 year old. His family didn’t have photos of themselves or their children; unlike my own father who was a bit of a photography geek.

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As thrilled, as I am to receive these photos, there are still gaps. I have not found a photo of my husband’s maternal grandfather – Arthur William Duncalfe. Using the library member’s subscription to Ancestry, I have found the certificates online that give the details of his birth and death, but no photos. I have even located a passport photo of his father Arthur Gregory Duncalfe as he emigrated from the USA to Australia.

So as I restock the glue sticks and refill the printer ink, the hunt continues.

My Family History

Surrounded by piles of photos, prints and digital, and indebted with family facts and stories, I struggle to shape it into a sensible narrative.

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Curating the family history is a challenging exercise and yet I am enthusiastic to weave it together for prosperity and for anyone who might someday wonder.

This is something that has interested me for many years and I have been on some previous fact finding missions that revealed things we didn’t know. I love to find out about our origins and the lives of our ancestors. I can name three ships that brought different branches of the family to Australia: The Hampshire, The Shand, and The Niagara. I love to see the photos of ancestors to spot the family resemblances that crop up unexpectedly.

Not a ‘scrap-booker’ by nature I think that ultimately a hand crafted personal creative book would be a beautiful result. In the meantime I have begun to do a simple storyboard using PowerPoint to set out my narrative. There are obvious important gaps that need to be filled somehow.

So I think about others in the family who have compiled remarkable genealogies that are relevant and interesting to my story. One of my father’s cousins has passed away now and I wonder where that wealth of knowledge is now. Another cousin of my husbands father must be very old now if not also passed away – where is her lovely story and impressive pedigree charts now? Another – my cousin is contactable, but that branch of the family story is well documented already, so not as pressing.

Some of the old photos are gorgeous but without captions the identities are a mystery. ‘A picture tells a thousand words’ but also presents many questions; such a who, where, when, why.

This historic photo for example is of the family of Smiths who lived in Portland Victoria Australia. One of the boys is my paternal grandfather.

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Family members who knew them previously identified the others in the photo. A scribble on the back of a print states that this photo was taken in 1920 in Portland, just prior to the family being ‘separated’. The father and mother of this family are not in the photograph because they had both passed away. I know the story and it is a tragic tale that I will include in my personal family history when the time comes.

Meanwhile my investigations continue and I try to wrangle this precious pile of pictures into something interesting and useful.

Happy snaps

I have just studied the subject Creating and Preserving Digital Content through Charles Sturt University for the successful completion of the Master of Information Studies. And it has got me thinking….

All of those family photos held in a variety of forms in a variety of containers need some sorting. There are old printed photographs in photo albums and in boxes. There are digital photographs that reside in cameras, phones, devices, SD cards, CD’s, and computers. There are digital copies of photos sitting in random digital file folders on computers. And we keep producing more each day adding to the digital heap.

So now I know how to go about organising all of this stuff, I need the time to actually sit down and apply myself to the mammoth task of sorting it out.

Once I comprehend the enormity of the task I begin to ask myself – why? For what purpose? Who cares? How many photographs of wind-swept beach scenes are too many?

Then there is the question of the integrity of the captured image: if a filter is applied to an image from a Smartphone app then this should be noted in the metadata or description. But that adds another level of tedium to the task, and yet if it is not done then what does that say about the authenticity of the resulting image. Is it then art or photography? Or both?

The notion of transience emerges too when considering the purpose of such an exercise. With ease and speed of connected social media channels through smart devices, a photo shared across networks among friends and family is enjoyed for the moment, in the context of that moment, and then swept into the ever-moving stream of data creation. Sure it is still ‘there’ somewhere in the digital ether, waiting to be retrieved for future embarrassment; like a baby photo shown by smirking parents at their child’s 21st birthday party. Other than for nostalgic amusement, is there value in spending so much time and effort in sorting out the family photos for ‘the future’?

I can hear the archivists and historians stirring on their leather chairs, leaning forward, fingers cracking, ready to post a heart-felt reply. I welcome it because I need a good reason to justify this effort.

The term ‘digital dark age’ was used in Creating and Preserving Digital Content to illustrate a possible scenario where data is lost through poor preservation techniques. I get it. I wrote an essay about it, elaborately describing the scenes from the original movie version of The Time Machine, where the vacuous stares of the future Eloi people are the result of lost knowledge from crumbling pages in books left to decay.

I appreciate the words of former Prime Minister Harold Holt at the Stone Ceremony March in 1966:

We cannot understand the present or plan for the future without the knowledge of the past.

danielle_susan_margaret_alice_1984And yet significant family portraits containing four females spanning four generations might be worthy of preservation for sharing amongst immediate and future family members, but how many “selfie’s” must we have to delete before we gain a representative portrait of one individual.

My thoughts are a jumble between process, content, and value. The process is complex and needs to be worked out to establish some kind of system that works and fulfills preservation standards. The content contains so many variables and raises questions about authenticity. The value is difficult to judge because it is not easy to project into the minds of some future person and decide if this image is worth the effort of the time invested in preserving it.

This article about one family’s preservation project describes some of these issues with a heart-warming narrative and a positive outcome, but concluding that it is “never done.”

My aim is to begin. I have the relevant information about how to approach the task. I have a large external hard-drive. I will gather the photos in all forms. I will start sorting, naming, describing, storing, backing-up, and hopefully one day in the future I will have some kind of result that’s purpose will be apparent.

In the words of Francis Kilvert, as quoted from this article: Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist by Richard Cox:

Why do I keep this voluminous journal? I can hardly tell. Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it almost seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some record such as this.

Cox, R. J. (2009). Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist. Digital Curation: Practice, Promises & Prospects. pp. 102-109. http://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/2692/