How Do You Make Family History Interesting?
September 30, 2021
I recently had a genealogist write to me about a dilemma that many of us face. He was the organizer of a recent church-sponsored event and wondered how to make family history interesting to the community. He had suggested that maybe asking event participants to tell stories about their ancestors might help, but he wondered what other suggestions I had.
Good question. As the keepers of the family history, we are charged with not only remembering our ancestors but making their stories available and accessible. But this can be a challenging task. After all, not everyone likes history, let alone family history.
The idea of storytelling, which has been stressed in the last decade or so in the family history world, is good. After all, everyone likes a good story. Making family history less about words and numbers on a chart and more illustrative is vital.
I’ve had this issue of making family history interesting come up anytime I’ve been asked to teach family history to a non-family history group such as the Boy Scouts or church groups. How do you get people interested in family history? How do you get your family interested in their family history? (which can be just as challenging.) When I brainstorm how to do this, I think in terms of types of activities, games, art, interviews, food, and technology. Yes, giving a talk is an obvious way to teach family history to those not initiated into our pursuit, but what other ways can you interest people of all ages?
Some ideas I have are:
Games: Cards with an ancestor’s names/bio on them, Family history inspired bingo cards, scavenger hunts.
Art: Large family history wallcharts and markers to color branches, add information and drawings. Family history inspired decorations, photo albums, coloring books made from family photos.
Interviews: Offering the space and equipment to allow people to interview family. Include prepared questions to help get the conversation going. Also, encourage individuals (even children) to tell their stories and document their lives.
Food: Let's face it, we all eat, so sponsor a potluck, food contest, or a bakeoff using ancestral recipes. Teach participants how to create a family cookbook, pass out recipe cards, swap family recipes, and offer cooking lessons with grandma.
Tech Center: Have computers set up and teach how to find a relative in the 1940 census. Make available pedigree charts, family group records, and blank census forms. Hold contests for the most exciting occupation, the most family members in the same household, or the youngest/oldest family member in the 1940 census.
I believe that people like not just to hear stories; they want to see images, interact, and try something new. Engaging in only storytelling can be difficult, so having a variety of activities, whether a community event, a family reunion, or Thanksgiving, can be helpful.
So readers, what do you suggest? I want to hear your ideas about how do you make family history "fun" for the non-genealogist?
Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.
In July at a family reunion of 35, ages 3 to 82, my nephew and I were asked to do a family history presentation. With 70000+ in my tree what do I do? I, the 82 year old, chose a great grandfather from the 19th century who had worked on early railroads, was instrumental in the gas lighting industry, founded a church in Maine where he was organist and choirmaster and as a young man in the 1840's sailed around the southern tip of South America from New York to Monterey, now California, for the Mexican-American War battle of Monterey, hoping to catch the interest of the engineers, musicians, military etc in the group. Of course it helped tremendously to have the technology and artistic skills of the nephew who found era appropriate frames for animated pictures in a 'slide' show. Great grandfather's pictures at appropriate ages were in the bottom area of the frame and he winked a couple of times which some of the audience caught.
But the best part of the reunion was an evening when the 'young' folk could ask any questions they wanted of the 'elders' (I had three brothers there also). We answered frankly even about some very difficult episodes of our lives hoping to help the young people learn how to handle such situations. My older son mentioned he did not know much about his grandfathers who died when he was five. This led to a lengthy description of my father who was the grandson of the great grandfather in my presentation. There was so much interest that questioning the elders was extended to a second evening.
Posted by: Helen Sellin | November 01, 2021 at 08:30 AM
I have used PowerPoint to make "shows" about each family ancestor. I use music within the show that is contemporary with the member, take and show pictures of items that belonged to the member, and place the member in an historical and geographic appropriate setting with maps and reference to contemporary events.
Posted by: Louis Morris | November 01, 2021 at 09:39 AM
I have recently helped a family with information proving the relationship of 3 brothers, each with different last names using newspapers, census records and letters written by family members.
Posted by: Kathe G. Hall | November 01, 2021 at 12:02 PM
"Large family history wallcharts and markers..." My family reunion had a large roll of paper (newspaper paper roll) across the room. Our most common ancestor was posted at the top. Under that were their children. All of the family present at the reunion filled in their relationship to these people and added their children who were not in attendance. Afterwards, we had group pictures of these as well as individual family pictures. It went over well with everyone present. A photo album of the original family member was available for browsing through. Empty family group forms were also made available as well as a sign in with address and phone numbers. (also name of parents, just in case it is needed by those who set up the family reunion.) Our reunion was also posted in the local newspaper with a large group pic.
Cheryl (Muselman) Collyer
Posted by: Cheryl Colyer | November 01, 2021 at 12:02 PM
Using Legacy's Bingo Card game function I once created a Bingo game for a family reunion. It was a big hit! Everyone loved it.
For another family reunion (same family, different reunion) I made name badges using Legacy's name badge function. Everyone thought having the 3-generation tree printed right on the badges was pretty nifty!
Posted by: Jim Sweet | November 01, 2021 at 12:38 PM
Like many I will be interested to hear other answers and ideas. Putting them into practice is a further challenge!
How about interviewing a young person and their grandparent etc but with equal emphasis on both - re types of music, how they might be in touch with their sweetheart - what they might call the one they are courting , favourite toy etc - ie as much interest from older on what younger is saying as vice versa?
Presenting in character as an ancestor?
Evoke all the senses, what it was like to spend a day in the shoes of an ancestor or walk to work using modern colour photos(no copyright issues) and how it might have been.
Gory details and stories often draw people in! Medical details eg no insulin or asthma inhalers, topical eg epidemics.
Changes - can you imagine no telephone or laptop! No washing machine or running water, no microwave, Asda or Ocado
Use of modern technologies - podcasts etc to present. Bulletin boards, bite-sized info not lectures.
Use of questions rather than didactic facts. When do you think microwave ovens became commonplace? What tasks would a victorian housewife have needed to do each day?
Posted by: HelenS | November 01, 2021 at 03:36 PM
Thanks for the info all great ideas --- here are a couple of ways that we have used to get our other
family members interested in their family history..
my niece started a PRIVATE family group site on facebook--where family members who joined could share stories, pictures etc--most of the time , the info they share is current pictures ( from their kids sports activities etc) or birthday greetings etc BUT every once in a while,one of the nieces or nephews will share an old photo that I have never seen and then someone else will comment that this photo was taken on a trip that they made before I was born and that dad would stop and fish at some of the places along the way-- a sibling posted a list of cars Dad owned ( year make and model)-- the 1st one being one that he actually built at abt age 14 from parts brought home from junk yard-cost $15--2nd last car while driving it home 50 miles, the windshield wipers went out on the brand new car in the middle of a snow storm--all trivial facts not known by most of us but still interesting....
At another point one of the nieces posted a reply to something that was posted --in the reply she said-- that is why her dad ( my brother) named his first born son Wm because of his brother Wm who died at child birth-- I was WHAT is my niece talking abt, so I called my brother and he told me the whole story abt our brother Wm who was born and died 2 years before I was born...
Then I started an email group ( I don't trust facebook even if it is a PRIVATE group) for those who are interested in family history--yes I give them the dry facts but for those who don't care for just the dry facts, I will do a separate email highlighting the info from the facts and give it a catchy subject line such as gg-grandma Mary was a real estate tycoon--women buying real estate is NOT a big deal right?? UNLESS it is a MARRIED woman in the 1860-1870 time frame with her name as the purchaser NOT the hubby as was typically in that time frame---one of those real estate also told us that Mary married a 2nd time ( after she was divorced from the 1st hubby)which we didn't know and can't find a record of the marriage--it did not give us the 1st name of the 2nd hubby BUT told us that he had either died or they were divorced before the next census--
anyway the point is as I send out the info and try to make the dry facts interesting, someone will respond and tell us something else we didn't know like my uncle was studying to be a lawyer but had to give it up due to the depression and War--or that another family member contracted Malaria while in the service ( NEVER left the United States) and suffered off and on the rest of his life from Malaria
Posted by: Nancy Kess | November 01, 2021 at 04:28 PM