How museum experiences can help you have tough conversations about family history


It doesn’t matter if you’re a historian, a genealogist, or an armchair history buff: when it comes to digging into your own family’s history, all researchers eventually slam headfirst into the Wall of Family Silence.

The Wall of Family Silence is that almost impenetrable barrier our own family members put up when we start asking questions about the experiences of our own people. And that wall–as formidable as any concreted, razor-wired, electrified barrier–will shut you down when you ask questions.

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh, there’s really nothing to tell. My life isn’t that interesting.”

“It’s not your business.”

“I don’t remember.”

The Wall of Family Silence.


Years ago, a professor acquaintance and I were discussing the challenges of gathering family stories from immigrant family members.

“I just don’t know much about what life was like for my grandparents or great-grandparents,” I remember saying.

“You have to remember,” this acquaintance said, “that most of our immigrant ancestors didn’t give up everything they had because life was good and they were happy. Some of those memories are hard to talk about.”

The Wall of Family Silence.


Fast forward to 15 years later, when I am working in a local history museum and we’re developing an exhibit on World War I.

Our museum’s exhibit featured real helmets and uniforms visitors could try on. That steel helmet is even heavier than it looks.

I was visiting my maternal grandparents while this exhibit was going up, and I was telling them about how small the uniforms were, and how we learned many men from our county were rejected from service because they were malnourished.

Now, my grandparents weren’t old enough to experience the Great War. But they were around for the drawn-out aftermath and World War II, and they were experiencing it from present-day Croatia.

I was telling them about all of this to pass the time, to tell them about what I’m doing. But what I didn’t know is that telling them about my experience with the World War I exhibit was like leaning a ladder over the Wall of Family Silence.

My grandparents began to tell me stories about what it was like for them to grow up in a country in the middle of the mess. They told me about how it impacted their education, their opportunities, and the potential dangers. They told me about my paternal grandmother’s husband, who was tortured to death.

They told me a lot of things I had never heard before.

They never saw the exhibit. But my talking about the hard things our local people experienced during World War I was like giving my grandparents permission to talk about the hard things they experienced before and during World War II.

 


This summer, we installed an exhibit on the Home Front experience during World War II. I was telling my dad about it over dinner one evening.

“There was a POW camp in Ottawa,” I said. “A lot of those guys worked on farms and built good relationships with people in Franklin County.”

“My grandfather was a POW during World War I,” my dad said. “He and my uncle and a bunch of guys from our village were there with Tito. But Tito was just another guy back then, not the president of Yugoslavia.”

Another rope tossed over the Wall of Family Silence.


The ordinary and extraordinary experiences of our ancestors shaped the people who shaped us. All of our families have stories to tell. Some of those stories are hard to tell, and some of those memories are buried deep. Sometimes it’s hard to get family members to open up about their lives.

And that’s where a museum or historic site can be a magical place. Artifacts, photographs, exhibits, buildings–they stir memories. They acknowledge those personal stories are important. They create context.

They offer a safe conduit for a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle to say,

“I remember this.”

“When I was a little kid…”

“This happened to me, too.”

“My grandmother once told me about the time when…”

“Did you know that when your dad was a little boy, he…”

Any museum might have an artifact or exhibit that will create a spontaneous account of family history. There are also many Kansas museums that delve into tougher topics. Here are a few to consider:

Miners Hall Museum, Franklin, Kansas

This museum focuses on the history of coal mining, immigrant families, and the rights of laborers. I visited a few years ago and even though my own family never lived in southeast Kansas, I could see elements of my family in their stories.

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas

When you walk in the front doors, you’ll see a sign that says, “Where Hard Conversations Happen.” This site looks at both the history of school desegregation and the fight for equality. I keep trying to blog about my experiences there, but I realize I’m still processing my visit, which was emotional and inspiring.

Strawberry Hill Museum, Kansas City, Kansas

Housed in a former church-run orphanage, this museum explores the history of the orphanage (created to care for children orphaned during the 1918 flu epidemic) and the history of the immigrant communities in the Kansas City area.

POW Camp Concordia Museum, Concordia, Kansas

Once a POW camp for German prisoners captured during WWII, this camp is an opportunity to understand a different side of the war experience. It’s on my list of places to visit.

Pawnee Indian Museum, Republic County, Kansas

This museum offers the story of the lives of the Pawnee. It’s an opportunity to learn how the Pawnee lived and how settlers of European descent altered their futures. It is one of my favorite Kansas museums.

Share your story! What museum or historic site experiences inspired your family members to share personal history?

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6 thoughts on “How museum experiences can help you have tough conversations about family history

  1. texasmoments

    I have a request for a topic for you to research sometime.
    As you turn off the main highway towards Burlington there is a road called “Milo Trail”. I don’t remember exactly where it is (guess I should “google” map it) but I’m interested in how long it has been there and where it got its name.
    My parents were both born in the Waverly area (well, sort of). Mom was actually born in Xenia, Kansas but moved to Waverly when she was 1 or 2, her Grandmother already lived there. Dad was born in Prairie View. Consequently, every other summer was spent in middle and eastern Kansas even though I grew up states away. Anyway – – – Dad’s name is Milo. He says there is no connection that he knows of. Just a coincidence that tweaks my imagination.
    If you do some stories on road names, maybe you could include Milo Trail.
    In the meantime, I enjoyed reading Shadow on the Hill. It was fun seeing family and friend names there and gave me topics of conversation to probe my folks with.
    Tamela Baker

    Reply
    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      Yup, this is worth a blog post at some point. But a quick explanation: Except for a very few super old roads, most roads in rural Kansas didn’t have names at all. Postal workers delivered along Rural Route 1 and Rural Route 2. When the 911 system was implemented, counties had decide how to make their roads because it’s easier to send an ambulance to “12453 Pine Terrace” than to “the old Miller place, two miles north of where the Smith barn used to be.” Some counties kept it simple and used A through Z for, say, north and south running roads and numbers for east-west roads.

      Coffey County’s north-south roads are alphabetical and are agricultural themed. Fauna. Kafir. Iris. And Milo…not the name, but the grain! If you look at a map of Coffey County, you’ll see the pattern.

      Thank you for reading my book!

      Reply
      1. Tamela Baker

        I hadn’t noticed the other street names. Being a farmers daughter (we grew milo too along with citrus orchards and several row crops!) I should have thought of that. Kansan’s are just so pragmatic! 😉

  2. janemtucker.com

    What a great point of view on our local historical museums! I appreciate your suggestions at the end of the article. I haven’t been to any of those museums–and I’ve toured a lot of Kansas!

    Reply
  3. Tamela Baker

    Another thought – since several generations of my family moved to Texas from Kansas, our contact with those relatives was biennial but apparently more in depth that it was for my cousins who continued to live in Kansas. It has been frustrating to hear, upon an elders passing, that their kids have thrown out, or in some cases, at least donated to a museum, pieces I cherished & for which I knew the stories. I had always assumed they did too and would cherish and keep those pieces for sharing stories with future generation. Perhaps our infrequent visits led to a need for topics to discuss since we were part of their every day life, so photos and mementos would be brought out & stories shared. I have often wished I could retrieve some of those items from the museums. I know for a fact that they have all ended up on shelves in storage and most have since had it’s history lost so that those who might pull it out and look at it will never know the history they illustrate. – – just sayin; – –

    Reply

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