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Photographic Memory

Documentation is such an important part of museum work, but it is also an important aspect of one's family history. In a day and age where everything is at your fingertips, it's hard to take the time to document what you know about a single object. Taking the time with photographs is probably one of the most important!

Besides being snapshots in time, photographs lose their family significance, their history, and the memories they held once those with the memories have passed.

Here's some steps to help you document your family's photographs:

1. Ask relatives what they know about an image

Older family members have an institutional memory of those that have moved, may have passed away, or specifics about when a photograph was taken. They are your biggest ally in determining more about your family photographs!

2. Identify the people, places, and date of the photograph

Even if you begin printing out the photographs taken from your phone, instagram account, or from some other form today, it's a good habit to identify the people and places on the backs of the photos right then. In 10 years, you may not know someone pictured, and without that immediate identification, you may never know.

In the museum world, this sort of documentation early on is extremely helpful in connecting people and objects to the community, and certainly creates a more enjoyable and relatable story!

Additionally, continually storing your photographs digitally - in a cloud, on a disc, or even on your phone can be catastrophic if a server goes down, your computer becomes corrupt, or for any number of other reasons. Physical photographs are the only way to keep those memories and events from disappearing.

The image above, taken from the Historical Society of Western Virginia's permanent collection, illustrates the 1918 Roanoke High School basketball team. At some point, someone wrote the last names on the reverse of the photograph, helping to identify those in the photograph.


Don't know who might be in the photo, and neither does anyone else? Here's how to identify key factors that may lead you to determining the time, place, and maybe even the people in it:

1. Look for family pieces.

In the past, families would pass down furniture or important keepsakes.

2. Identify the clothing.

Fashion has changed drastically throughout the last century. Women's silhouettes and the style of their clothing are indicators to when the photograph might have been taken. Additionally, how is their hair styled? What sorts of hats or accessories do the individuals in the photos hold?

3. Identify the type of paper the photo is printed on.

Photographic styles and how they were printed also changed drastically since their inception in the 1840s.

Stay tuned for a post on dating specific photographs. Until then, check out the New York Public Library's chronological listing of photographic processes and when they were most commonly used.

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