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By Stewart Emmens on

Revealing Our Ancestors' Lives

One way or another we are a nation obsessed with history – be it through the books we read, the TV we watch, our hobbies or the historic houses we visit. 

Here at the Science Museum, we’re actively pursuing closer engagements with people who ‘do history for fun’.  One area of this public history that I’m especially interested in is family history. 

The internet has revolutionised access to genealogical data – once the preserve of those able to spend days trawling through paper records. Beyond the raw data of births and deaths, objects can provide much colour, context and sometimes strong emotional connections to lives long gone – themes that I have touched on in previous posts.

Workers in clothing department
Working lives - women garment workers in 1925 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

Our object collections, images and paper archives – and those of our sister museums at York and Bradford – can provide evocative insights into our ancestors’ lives, helping us imagine lost environments and shedding light onto professions, workplaces and everyday routines. 

File-cutters tools
Tools of the trade - late 1800s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These crude tools would once have been very familiar to the many workers who hand cut metal files – one of the most hazardous trades of the 19th century. Despite mechanisation, Victorian Britain’s industrial wealth relied on a huge population of manual workers, often labouring in terrible conditions.

Trolley vacuum cleaner
A familiar object in an unfamiliar form (Science Museum / Science & Society)

More upper class ancestors – or those in domestic service – may have appreciated this cutting edge technology. This trolley vacuum cleaner dates from 1906. These novel devices were so popular that society hostesses would hold parties to demonstrate their new gadget.

'Good night' angel
'Good night' angel - 19th century (National Media Museum / Science & Society)

And finally, just because there was no TV, radio or web didn’t mean our ancestors lacked entertainment. This slightly risqué glass projection slide would have signalled the end of a magic lantern show. Now lost to time, our collections can allow us glimpses of this once common leisure pursuit as well as of many other facets of our ancestor’s lives.