Names, Dates and Places: Preserving our Heritage for Future Generations, by Kirsteen McLay-Knopp

Valda FY

Last night my husband and I went out to my mother-in-law’s place.  Valda, my mother-in-law, has recently lost a great deal of her sight and she had a large box of unlabeled photographs, spanning generations, which she wanted us to attach names, places and dates to, as much as she was able to tell us, before her sight deteriorates to a point where she is unable to see the pictures.  We managed to get through about a third of the photographs in the box, so there will have to be a couple more sessions.

Valda 1

Dawn aged 3, Owen aged 7 and Valda (my mother-in-law) aged 5 years, Tuapeka Mouth, South Otago, Aoteraroa/ New Zealand, 1943

I really love the photograph above, it was one of the ones we labelled last night.  The girl on the right is Valda, my mother-in-law, and the other two children are her siblings.  This photo was unlabeled, but Valda’s sharp memory filled in the details.  I am going to frame this one and put it where our four children can regularly see it: children thrive on a sense of connection across generations, as well as an understanding that all adults, even grandparents, were once children, that a common point of humanity is that we all pass through “forever years,” our childhood years, which are so vital in shaping the men and women we become.  I love that Valda’s face, in this picture, is very recognisably her, we can see 76 year old Valda in 5 year old Valda and vice versa.  One of my sons (aged 8) recently asked me  why people all “have their own face?”.  I said that otherwise we’d get everyone mixed up, if we all looked the same.  This is true across generations too, just as it is also fascinating to observe family resemblances.

So I urge everyone out there to do the following things:

  1. If there’s an older relative in your whanau/ family who has lots of unlabelled photographs, team up with him or her and write down as much as you can of the stories behind the pictures.  It’s really worth the investment of time and you learn so much.
  2. Wherever possible, make NAMES, DATES and PLACES the priority.  Sometimes dates have to be “guesstimated” from the ages of children in the photographs… a guess at a date is far better than no date at all.  You can put, for example, c. 1943 if you’re not sure of the date exactly.    The “c” means “circa”, around.
  3. Don’t ever throw out photos, especially those with people in them, even if you’re unsure who the people are.  Once they’re gone that’s it.  If you don’t know who someone is, put a question mark or “unknown”.  Sometimes these things are discovered years later and in unexpected ways.
  4. If you find storing lots of old photographs or albums difficult (the biggest problem is usually space) take them to your local archives and records office (preferably once you have labelled them as much as possible).  This ensures that they will be kept safely in archive boxes (and avoids the risks of such things as fires or floods in private homes) and also, as the roots of the family tree spread out, it means anyone who wishes to can access their tipuna/ ancestors… so those who have particular interest in the family history are free to follow it.
  5. With photos from the pre-digital era, it’s often good to scan them or copy them or otherwise back them up.  There should never be only one copy of any picture.  This, again, also gives options to different branches of the family if people wish to display older family photographs, anyone who wishes to can.
  6. In the present:  time passes quickly and we always think we will remember things… and then don’t.  If you print out any photographs, label them with (again) names, dates and places.  If you have pictures stored on your computer, store them in files with dates and places, for example, “Christmas Holidays 2014,, South Otago”.  It’s always better to provide too much information, if you’re unsure, than to leave a blank.

Children (and people generally) are interested in their ancestors and history at different times in their lives and some will always have more interest than others.  It is important to leave a clear legacy: often it only takes a moment to scribble down a date. It’s all part of providing our children with the rich tapestry of how they came to be here, now.

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