Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What does Heritage mean to You?

How will you be celebrating Heritage Day in South Africa today?

Perhaps because I’m a family historian I find heritage lurking in the minutiae of my ancestors’ lives, those heirlooms and memorabilia which are tangible links to the individuals whose DNA I carry.

For me, a Voortrekker woman’s kappie (sunbonnet) with its wondrously delicate, complicated stitchery, preserved behind glass in some museum, is more resonant, provokes more emotion, than a vast circle of bronze ox wagons standing silently on lonely veld, or the forbidding brick edifice of the Voortrekkermonument. 

On this Heritage Day, take a photograph of a small but vital item in your family history collection: a letter signed by your ancestor, a diary page, a medal (not forgetting its all-important engraved inscription on the rim), an obscure ambrotype in its frame, a handmade lace fichu miraculously preserved in tissue paper, a group photo – while you’re at it add the names of as many of the people as you can identify and ask other family members for help with those to whom you cannot put a name. Nothing worse than unidentified group pics.

My great grandfather’s service papers, giving details of his career in the British army up to his discharge at the end of the 1870s, mean more to me than monuments and scattered white stones on the field at Isandhlwana. Indeed, does that battle-scarred place, heavy with history and blood, require anything more than the mountain itself to mark the honour and courage of those British and Zulu soldiers who fell in its shadow? In this instance, the mountain, intrinsically part of our ‘natural’ heritage (like all mountains, trees, flora and fauna), takes on a separate, significant role emerging as ‘cultural’ heritage. 
Take a photograph of Isandhlwana or any geographical feature – or, if you prefer, a listed building, a plaque, a statue - of heritage import in your area and submit it to Wiki Loves Monuments – the annual competition closes today. Google it. While you’re on those pages have a look at other people’s submitted photographs showing what heritage means to them. It is a staggering and enlightening collection.

As family historians we find heritage speaking to us from gravestone inscriptions, where fortunate enough to find these have avoided vandalism or greed and still retain their lead letters – so many have been picked out of their granite beds, destroying vital information and defacing the memorial. Sometimes even the graves themselves are opened, in the vain hope of finding treasure trove within, but in the process unnecessarily disturbing ancestors whose bones lie there. 

Whose ancestors they may be is immaterial: they are, like the Unknown Soldier, representative of ALL ancestors and deserving of respect. Let us NOT vandalise any graves this Heritage Day! Take a photograph of a family tombstone – or ANY memorial inscriptions accessible to you and perhaps vital to other family historians; share them by putting the photos online through eGGSA’s gravestone volunteer project. Google it.

On Heritage Day spend some time tidying and consolidating your family history files, making sure they are backed up and also ensuring that, should you be run over by a bus tomorrow, someone else would be able to pick up the torch and continue your work with a reasonable understanding of the material you have collated so neatly! Tempus fugit. Start/Finish writing that family narrative! Publish or Perish!

And while you stand around the traditional Heritage Day braai with loved ones and other relatives, talk about your shared ancestors, spread the word, engender some interest in the topic among the younger generation (they are the ones who will pick up that torch of yours later), show them some of your jealously hoarded memorabilia, tell ancestral anecdotes which will remain in their memories and be retold on other Heritage Days. Phone or email a distant relative, visit a lonely one – make their day: they all have stories to tell, photographs and information to share.

These are just some of the hundreds of things you could do to mark this Heritage Day – make it special, productive and enjoyable rather than just another blank day in the calendar before, inevitably, work obtrudes and the Present once again gets in the way of the Past.

Happy Heritage Hunting.

Hamilton Family Group at Genoa, Stevenston, Ayrshiren


GeniAus said...

What a super idea. We don't have a Heritage day in Australia but we have History Week and Family History Month. Your ideas would be a super activity for those times.

Mole said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jill. Pleased you liked my suggestions. They are all quite simple activities. Sometimes we get too hung up navigating complicated software programmes or building charts online etc and neglect the nitty-gritty stuff that started off our interest when we were newbies. best wishes, Mole