Image is everything: top tips for bringing your family tree to life


01 October 2019
In his blog for Family Tree, Paul Chiddicks takes us on a visual tour of the various ways in which you can illustrate your family history research, using images and artefacts to draw other family members into the story of their ancestors.

Everywhere we go today, we are surrounded by visual images. Whether it’s your smartphone, tablet, TV, billboard advertising or social media sites, we are literally bombarded by colours and images. So where does this connect to your Family Tree,  you might ask?

Having attended the recent wonderful Family Tree Live exhibition at Alexandra Palace last year, I was immediately struck by the different ways in which we can present our family history research visually. From graphics and design, to the amount of different ways in which you can display your tree or memorabilia. Vibrant colour and wonderful imagery was everywhere you went, from displays, to lectures, from software to wallcharts, and of course DNA painting.

I had not really considered the visual side much before this. We obviously collect treasured photographs and memorabilia, but there is so much more we can do, to bring our family trees to life and here’s why. 

I once took a twenty-page family history report that I had been working on for ages, to an elderly aunt. I was so proud of what I had produced but she glanced at it briefly, passed a compliment and continued watching TV. The report meant a lot to me, but to anybody else, it was after all, just twenty pages of plain text.

There are so many different ways in which we can express our family history, so let’s take a look at the different ways in which we can bring our trees to life.

Bringing your family tree to life

We have already touched on photographs, but how you display them and present them can be so different. Are your photos in an album clearly labelled? Are they on the shelf at home in an old shoe box? Consider looking at the different ways that you can frame and present your photos on a wall (space and costs permitting of course). A few examples of what you can achieve with a blank wall are shown here.

Remember that photographs on the wall are a great way to start a family history discussion when family come to visit. This is also a great way to encourage the next generation of “genies” to take an interest in their family. Capture the younger generation’s interest early, show them Great Uncle Tom’s World War I picture on the wall and start to tell them a little piece of his story, maybe introduce some maps of the World War I battlefields to create a more visual image of the scene.

If you are a twitter follower, you might have seen recently, a perfect example of presenting Great War memorabilia from twitter user @GenealogyJude here she has displayed her grandfather’s World War I and World War II Naval medals, in addition to his picture, which looks so wonderful framed.

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DNA imagery

For those of you who are avid DNA fans and have taken a DNA test, have you explored the wonderful world of DNA painting? What a fantastic way to both present your DNA tree matches visually, and help you map your DNA links into an organised way. This clearly enables you to immediately visualise a match or potential match from your DNA. Find out more and learn more about the wonderful world of DNA painting here with the legend of DNA painting, Jonny Perl. 

Have you considered wall charts or fan charts? Take a look online at the wonderful options there are to bring a colourful tree to your wall. If you attended Family Tree Live you might well have seen the very colourful and visual images from the Twiggli Family Trees stand. These are a perfect way to visualise your tree. You can find Twiggli Trees on twitter @TwiggliTrees

Exploring artefacts

It doesn’t have to stop at just pictures and images, artefacts and objects generate both interest and discussion amongst family members, from relatives who supposedly have no interest in family history. Spark their interest and bring your tree to life by using your family heirlooms. A wonderful tip comes from speaker Marian Burk Wood who suggests that at family gatherings you should just bring a few items out, for family members to look at.

Use just three or four at a time and you will be surprised at the amount of interest this can generate. I have said it before and I will say it again, you can’t beat touching history.

My father-in-law found this letter opener on a Lincolnshire beach and we believe it was made from an old shell casing, but it always prompts a general discussion amongst the family, sparked by that old saying “during the war”.

There are lots of ways in which we can visualise our family history and enrich our own personal stories, by using objects as well as family tree reports. The interest in The Crack The Code stand at Family Tree Live was all visual, there was something “physical” to touch, explore and talk about, which is what family history is all about. Without a story to tell we are left with just “cold data”, which is no fun for anyone.

So look at the various ways in which you can enrich your tree with both vibrant colour and physical object.  Look at different ways in which you can display your heirlooms, rather than just keeping them locked away. Encourage younger members of your tree to get involved; these “little genies” are the future, so capture their imagination early. Be inspired by some of the ideas and images that you see here and please share with me your wonderful family story in vibrant colour!

Below is my most treasured heirloom, the ‘button stick’ of my great uncle John Daniels that was kindly given to me by his wife after he sadly passed away.

Remember, image is Everything…

Follow Paul on Twitter and his blog.

Researching the names: Chiddicks in Essex; Daniels in Dublin; Keyes in Prittlewell; Wootton in Herefordshire and London; Jack in Scotland.


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