Making Connections: The History Begins at Home Initiative

I think it’s safe to say that we are all longing for meaningful connections these days. Connecting is one of the joys of being human. Ironically, today we have more technology available to help us connect than any time in history, but I think we still feel isolated a lot of the time. Even more so now as the global pandemic continues. I think this is what struck me most when I learned about History Begins at Home – a UK initiative spearheaded by Gary Tuson, Norfolk County Archivist and Chair of the Archives Wellbeing Network. It felt like such a wonderful way to foster connections between family, friends, and anyone willing to put in the time to have a conversation. It’s as simple as that. A conversation. But sometimes the simplest things are the most meaningful.

One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was working with my grandfather to self-publish his memoirs and it all started with a conversation. We had hours of chats about his past and I wouldn’t trade those conversations for anything. They helped me to see beyond my perception of my grandfather centered on my own lived experience, and instead to connect with James Lonie, the complete person who lived a full life before I was in the picture.

Start the Conversation

History Begins at Home is designed to stimulate the types of conversations I found so rewarding with my grandfather. What struck me most about the project is its simplicity of purpose. “History Begins at Home is all about helping you connect with family and friends through conversation about the past.” It’s a simple goal, but it can have significant impacts on well-being.

When I found out about History Begins at Home, I got in touch with Gary to ask if he would be willing to answer some questions. In the spirit of the project, he suggested we have a Zoom chat. We had a lovely conversation and I found out more about the project.

Project Origins

Gary serves as the Chair of the Archives for Wellbeing Network, which promotes the idea that “using archives can improve the wellbeing of people with mental health problems…This network will help archives develop these wellbeing projects as well as helping build skills in the sector so that this work can be sustained.” (Source: Networks for Change Fund, The National Archives) Gary’s work in this area grew out of the Change Minds project, which uses patient records from the 19th century to engage people living with mental health conditions.

The goals of the History Begins at Home project are to encourage people to connect (the most important goal); to capture stories in some meaningful way (he is an archivist after all); and to share stories, which will help the cycle of connection to continue. The project provides worksheets with questions to ask to get the conversation started and space to record the answers. The conversation challenges are grouped into a range of themes like toys, food, fashion, and hobbies.

Conversation Challenge Worksheet – Toys                                                                      (Source: https://www.historybeginsathome.org/)

History Begins at Home was built around the Five Ways to Well-being, which were developed by the New Economics Foundation. They have been adopted by organizations all around the world. The five ways below help people to build resilience, boost well-being, and lower the risk of developing mental health problems.

  1. Connect
  2. Be Active
  3. Take Notice
  4. Keep Learning
  5. Give
(Source: https://shop.mentalhealth.org.nz/product/79-five-ways-to-wellbeing-postcard-english)

History Begins at Home helps people to connect to one another, to take action and to take notice, to keep learning by engaging in meaningful conversations, and to give time to family, friends, and neighbours. As Gary explained to me, at the end of the day, it’s also just a fun thing to do. It’s nice to have a good conversation.

Who is the intended audience for the project?

History Begins at Home is targeted at children (including grown-up children) and grandchildren. To start, the hope is that people will connect with their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, but it’s not just about connecting to family. Gary hopes that the project will also encourage people to have these conversations with their friends and neighbours. Making the connection doesn’t have to rely on advanced technology – History Begins at Home suggests just picking up the phone. It’s about the lowest barrier to entry I can think of.

He hopes that the project will move beyond the echo chamber of the archives world because although it may have been developed by archivists, it is not really an archives project. Gary hopes that the project might result in more interest in the archives, but the intention is simply to stimulate conversations to build connections and enhance well-being. If people are inspired to learn more and decide to visit an archives to fill in the historical memory gaps, then that will be icing on the cake.

How will you be getting the word out?

The campaign was launched earlier this year with press releases but the bulk of the publicity for the project is from social media. The project has a Facebook page and Gary is working to promote the project more widely through Twitter (a new experience for him). He is also actively promoting the project through webinars with FindMyPast (coming up August 21st) as well as engaging local media with the hope that the project will get national attention.

Gary has had success putting out feelers through contacts on professional listservs (which is how I found out about the project) and has engaged a volunteer group as part of a continuing professional development opportunity for newly qualified archival professionals. This group is helping to find contacts, connect with potential partners, and raise awareness of the project.

The intention is to do another big media push in the fall once more stories have been shared through social media (#HistoryBeginsAtHome). There won’t be quantitative evidence of success by that point, but Gary is looking forward to sharing qualitative impressions of how the project is progressing.

What do you hope results from the project?

Gary hopes that the project can contribute to well-being outcomes and improve the quality of people’s lives by forging connections with others. For him, it is all about inter-generational dialogue and he hopes that people will see the benefits of connecting to the past and want to learn more. Ultimately, History Begins at Home is not about pushing a message. It is simply about making space to make meaningful connections with those around you.

Do you have any advice for archivists or other heritage professionals who might want to pursue a similar project?

Gary stressed that it is important to have patience as you build projects like this. He talked about the importance of opportunism and taking all the help you can get. Ultimately, his advice was to concentrate on the benefits because that’s really what it’s all about.

I can personally attest to the benefits of these types of conversations. The chats I had with my grandfather were deeply meaningful to both me and him and the feelings I have about the experience will stay with me forever. I know that my grandfather won’t always be around (he’s 98 after all) but I know that the connection I have with him will last. I hope that History Begins at Home will help others find the meaningful connection I have so cherished.

A big thank you to Gary Tuson for taking the time to make a connection with me. I encourage anyone reading this to check out the website, download one of the worksheets, and get chatting!

 

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