Family heirlooms and their stories

image Here’s my postscript to this brief article: Make records of family heirlooms. In response to a reader question about what kind of info to write down about family heirlooms,’s Sheila Burns says yes, write it down - both the object’s description, and additional details about its use in the family. [via GenWeekly] Don’t just write it, record it! Heirlooms are wonderful story triggers for family interviews. If you’re stuck for a starting place, or a way to get more stories from family members, ask questions about objects and heirlooms.

Each of the questions Burns poses about the object are wonderful triggers for a recorded interview.

Identify, photograph and maintain records of your treasures. Describe the history and condition of each object. Who owned it? Who made, purchased or used the object. Where did the person live? How was the item used? What did the item mean to your family?

Good interviews use lots of open-ended questions, the kind that lead to telling a story, rather than a simple “yes” or “no.” Each of these question starts with those wonderful words that elicit stories—Who? Where? How? What?

I can almost hear the story as it unwinds from one of those questions.

Burns talks about taking the story and attaching it to the item. Once you create an audio or video interview, that’s harder. But you can put the story with an image of the object, at least.

That pocket watch you see in this image? Tucked into the leather pouch for the watch is a slip of paper, with a scrawl of my mother’s handwriting: Cyrus Bennet Fogler’s mother’s watch. In other words, my great-great grandmother’s watch, which came to my from my Great Aunt Frances. I’ll need to go back to my Mom to see if there are any stories about the watch, other than who it belonged to.

Related: Interviewing using photo albums. Similar to heirlooms, photo albums are a collection of objects—photographs—that have their own stories (if you capture them.) Elsewhere, I discuss photo album interviews after witnessing my boyfriend and his Dad,  and in a guest post at Footnote Maven’s Shades of the Departed site.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on April 07, 2010 in • InterviewingMemorabilia
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