‘Anticipatory Ancestry: why relational pasts matter’

Published on: Author: Megan Leave a comment

On 8 March, 2016, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies welcomed Nyree Finlay (Glasgow) to discuss ‘Anticipatory Ancestry: why relational pasts matter.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Nyree began by explaining that the aims of this lecture were to contextualize the venture into Ancestral Studies that she and Nicole Meehan are currently exploring, give a broad overview of why this is an interesting field at the moment, and to situate ancestral studies in the context of media interest, online resources, and ancestral tourism. She stated that she believed that Ancestral Studies has the potential to be a productive interdisciplinary field for all involved in the Centre’s activities. Each discipline can provide perspectives and theoretical approaches that can be recalibrated to address questions of who we are.

8 March Blog Image

Nyree defined Ancestral Studies as primarily addressing issues of identity (both biological and social), engaging with cultural heritage and the associated questions of who we are, and exploring past generations and their experiences, especially focusing on the landscape, language, and material culture. There have been a number of publications engaging with the idea of an ancestral past, although the majority of these are aimed towards a popular audience. When discussing relational pasts, one runs into issues around evolution, the creation of constructs of identity, and nationalism. Despite these issues, there is a growing interest and media coverage concerning ancestry, most recently in the case of the discovery of Richard III’s remains and his reburial and in the case of DNA studies, especially those concerning traits we may have retained from our Neanderthal ancestors.

Services relating to ancestral studies have become increasingly commercialised. This includes tools like National Geographic’s Genographic Project and search engines geared towards creating family trees and exploring one’s personal family history. The increasing availability of these records online has lead to a growing area of recreational research and a significant number of citizen scientists who transcribe these sources. Websites, such as Google Trends, can be utilized to track interest in different aspects of ancestral studies and can help researchers better understand their audience.

Nyree pointed out that there is a lack of academic involvement in ancestral studies in Scotland, except perhaps for the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies. There is clearly an opportunity to develop our collective contribution to ancestral tourism. In Scotland, projects such as Homecoming and the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry are already drawing on this interest in ancestral tourism. She argued that we should be incorporating pathways and training for graduates so that they can gain skill-sets to participate in and direct activities such as these. There are a multitude of ways in which we can package our archaeological, historical, and language products for this community. A prime example of this is the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. The museum places a celebrated and ancestral figures in a particular location and incorporates the material culture, history, literature, and landscape together to produce a comprehensive perspective on a prominent figure in Scottish history. Nyree concluded by stating that we, as researchers, are ideally placed to ferment this new teaching and research activity which has the potential to foster collaborative partnerships to shape and claim ancestral studies.

A great deal of discussion took place after Nyree’s presentation, including how this can benefit the disciplines within the Centre; the connotations and issues that arise from the use of the term “ancestry”, especially when one might not be related directly, and what other terms might be used to better suit this area of research; DNA testing and how one’s perceived identity may not reflect genetic phenotype, and what that means for identity; how far one can go back in time and still call individuals ancestors; challenges that arise when ethnicity and race are brought into the discussion; and deeper political agendas that might cause problems in interpretation. It was proposed at the end of the lecture that a conference exploring these issues and the research applications of ancestral studies may be beneficial in the future.

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues on 15 March 2016 with Rob Maslen (Glasgow) to discuss ‘”The Political Imagination”: Irish Fantasy Writers and the Easter Rising’ This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm.

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