Genealogy has grown in popularity over the last two decades. For most people, it is a nice way to get in touch with their family history. Some are only looking for facts and figures; who was the father of my great-great-grandfather? Did one of my forefathers spend time in prison or was my family member a war hero? Others use family history to explore places and countries; where did my grandfather grow up? Can I still find our ancestral homestead? In what church did my great-grandmother get married and does her grave still exist? Once these people get on the road, they become roots tourists.
The increasing group of ancestral travellers has a great interest in cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible. These family historians visit parks and houses, museums and churches. They see traditional costumes, listen to folk music and eat homemade dishes. Genealogy has introduced them to a specific part of cultural heritage, a part that is connected with their own identity and therefore is extra meaningful.
In 2016 and 2018 I spoke at the annual conference of Interpret Europe, an organisation that “encourages dialogue and partnership between associations and universities, providers and professionals.” The most important task for Interpret Europe is to help “more than 800 members from more than 50 countries share their expertise in making natural and cultural heritage more meaningful to people.”
My talks focused on the link between my work as a professional genealogist and that of heritage interpreters who often work in museums, historical buildings or national parks. For me it is obvious, genealogy helps people understand their past, it contributes to the process of shaping one’s identity. Knowledge about our family history provides answers to life questions, such as “Who am I and where do I belong?” Once we know our ancestors, we know our self. Once we know with what families, cultural communities or ethnicity groups we are connected, we know where we belong.
Where most heritage interpreters need to develop (educational) activities for bigger audiences, I usually deal with only one person, a couple or maybe a small family. That is why I call it ‘heritage interpretation on a micro level.’ It is one of the most rewarding parts of my work. Every heritage trip I see how emotional people get when they walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. After a few hours with me in a Dutch village somewhere, they all confess that this was the highlight of their trip to Europe. I am sure they would have had a lovely time if they visited the area as ‘traditional’ tourists and saw the canals, the medieval cathedrals or the world-famous museums. But for them that one house, that one church or that one piece of land, was far more impressive. It triggered their emotions. One of my clients once wrote, “I know our journey will be all the more meaningful for us both due to your hard work. […] When I shared the information and the images with my father, he shed a tear. A rarity, indeed.”
When I read a comment like that, I know once more that genealogy and cultural heritage are a valuable addition to each other!
Written by John Boeren.