Family History LIVE
In October I was in Dublin where I visited the Back to Our Past event that was held at the Royal Dublin Society buildings. This is a huge event, sponsored by Ancestry, attached to an even wider fair presenting a whole range of products and services aimed at retired people (from travel insurance to healthy eating). Back to Our Past runs twice a year, on similar lines to the now ended Who Do You Think You Are? Live event in the UK. These in turn are part of a proliferation of ‘live’ events around particular brands and interest groups like New Scientist Live or Manchester Histories Festival.
The Dublin meeting had a whole programme of lectures on DNA, but also stalls selling old coins, memorabilia, and historical books. There were local history and genealogy groups, large companies like Findmypast, and also small re-enactment societies. It is a potent mix of pastness, self-education, social event and training workshop. Much of the DNA programming was undertaken by the International Society of Genetic Genealogists.
These events are of interest to me for a range of reasons. I’m interested in ‘where’ history happens, what kinds of spaces, and how it is resourced. The events also show the strange interaction of ‘historical’ enquiry – re-enactment, family history, local history – with new scientific techniques.
They are real learning spaces, where interested customers come to discover new ideas, techniques, and services. History here is presented as something that might be supported by networking, conversation, conferring with other interested people and with experts and those with more experience. They are places for hobbyists, experts, and interested participants to come together.
The location in the RDS is important – whilst it is clearly there for practical reasons, the event takes some gravitas from the space whilst being clearly not associated with corporations (despite the sponsorship) or higher education institutions. Similarly, the event in the UK was in the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, placing it as one of a series of major events rather than something emerging from knowledge centres.
The events are also amazing spaces for people to learn and develop their skills. They have a huge number of opportunities to learn, expand their knowledge, buy services, consult with experts.
For me, interested in history being something that is undertaken outside of certain bounds, these events are intriguing. They are sponsored, unlicensed (that is, anyone can turn up and display), with a sliding scale of expertise that is often grounded on experience or position rather than knowledge and learning. They also show that the physical is still important. They showed the importance of genetic genealogy, given as much prominence in the lecture series as mainstream family history. Indeed, in the discussion after talks many family historians spoke excitedly about their DNA results, with many saying they had only been persuaded to engage with this type of thing recently.
The displays also showed the size of the market for DNA testing. There were stalls for the major players – FamilyTreeDNA, AncestryDNA, MyHeritageDNA – as well as smaller providers offering more precise or bespoke services. The complexity of companies that will work with DNA is increasing quickly, as services monetise family history investigation and it becomes standard for all family historians to use DNA testing.
The advertising for these services is in itself interesting for this project – please read about this in the linked blog.