Genealogy Can (& Should) Be a Mulit-Sensory Experience
Experience genealogy and connect with your ancestors with all of your senses! See what they saw, taste what ate, hear what they heard!
I love to travel, and am fortunate to have traveled quite a bit in my life. I’m up for most any kind of travel. I love long road trips and short trips. I love to experience the outdoors, and I can lose myself in the history of an area and its local museums.
And, of course, you, dear readers, know my love of genealogy! If I can combine the two – genealogy + travel – even better! It’s travel to those out of the way places where my ancestors lived that really excites me.
Currently (as I write this in the fall of 2020) travel is not an option, and I have come to recognize something is missing from my genealogy pursuits:
The EXPERIENCE of connecting with my ancestors and family history – The connecting that goes along with it.
Genealogy at its best is not just searches into old records and long hours on the computer.
Genealogy and family history is a multi-sensory experience!
We as researchers can experience genealogy with all 5 of our senses, and we should! What better way to fully connect to our ancestors and share out hsitory with family and distant relatives.
Experience Genealogy Through the 5 Senses
(Or “Census” because I cannot resist the pun! 😄 )
Let’s explore how we as researchers can connect with our family history through each of our five senses and be better researchers for it.
Genealogy Through the Sense of Sight
Seeing what your ancestors saw is an experience many researchers hope to do at some point. Whether walking the streets of a city such as New York or London or standing on the homeplace in rural Scuffletown, Virginia, seeing the sights your ancestors saw each day is a grounding experience. Heritage travel does not have to be a grand trip across the ocean, but can be short local day trip.
A journey to Scuffletown, VA may not be on everyone’s list of places to see, but as a Haley family descendant, it was on mine. While the house itself no longer stands, I was able to walk around the property, see where the fields used to be and the field that was always left unplanted for the children to play baseball.
Importantly, I was able to drive the area and get a perspective on the distances my ancestors traveled to church, to the neighbors and to off the farm work. That perpective alone was invaluable to genealogy research and understanding my ancestors’ movements.
Being unable to travel will not keep you from experiencing these types of experiences. Virtual travel options are plentiful! Explore an ancestor’s neighborhood with Google Maps is one of the easiest ways to see where your ancestor lived.
Additionally, many town and country tourism boards have created virtual tour options. Explore museums, historic sites and even attend cooking lessons all online! The Visit Czech Repblic site has many options for experiencing your Czech heritage, including virtual tours of museums such as the Jewish Museum of Prague.
Welsh heritage? Visit Wales has a number of virtual tour options to explore the country and your heritage.
Genealogy Through the Sense of Touch
As I write this, my great-great grandmother’s wooden bread bowl sits on my kitchen table. It’s wood is worn smooth and there is a metal plate where someone patched a crack. No longer used for bread making, it is a decorative piece on my table. Touching something my GG grandmother used everyday creates that intangible connection. It also makes me think she had strong arms to do all that kneading!
Perhaps you have a family heirloom quilt in which you can feel the variety of fabrics from outgrown or worn out clothing.
Or perhaps you visit the area your ancestors originate in and experience the weather. Is it sticky hot and humid weather or the cold rain and wind? The weather your ancestors experienced impacted their lives. Weather factored into where they lived, where they migrated to and even their livelihoods. Experiencing and appreciating the weather is another aspect of social history and will benefit your research.
Genealogy Through the Sense of Smell
Our sense of smell is a powerful trigger for memories! Have you ever walked by a store only to catch a whiff of perfume and be instantly reminded of your relative who wore that scent? Or have you recreated an old family recipe or baked a traditional dish.
Thanksgiving is around the corner, and even today, the smell of turkey baking transports me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen in eastern North Carolina (and the memories of shopping the day after!). I choose to forget the smell of the turnip greens cooking.
Next time you are visiting the area where your ancestors lived, stand outside and just breathe. What do you smell? Clean, crisp air or perhaps tobacco curing in the barn? These are the scents your ancestors would have been experiencing, too.
Take the sense of smell a bit further…..
Were your ancestors immigrants from France? I have discovered candles with the scent of cities/towns. French ancestors? Transport yourself to a French coffee shop in Paris with WayPoint Goods‘ Paris Candle. The rosemary and lavendar scents are wonderful. [I recently “sat in a Paris coffee shop” to write. ]
Do you have pioneer ancestors settling in the Rocky Mountains? Try the Denver candle.
Genealogy Through the Sense of Taste
Taste is perhaps my favorite sense to use to experience and connect with my ancestors! Our culinary heritage provides insight into our ancestors’ ethnic background, and allows us to experience the foods they ate. My daughter is a foodie/blogger who created an entire project in college around her English roots! We even started a food memory blog together! The “food gene” is strong in our family.
Creating a dish or entire meal based on the foods of your heritage provides another way to find the connection to your ancestors. Finding recipes for dishes from your ancestors’ homeland is easy. A simple Google search is really all you need.
Have traced your ancestors back to Wales? A quick Google search for “traditional Welsh foods” provides you with recipes for the traditional Welshcakes and Welsh Rarebit. Apparently, welsh rarebit is a fancy and hearty cheese toast. Anyone else hungry, yet?! My Welsh genes are craving this.
Bara Brith (speckled bread) and Welsh Cawl (a soup of lamb, leeks and potatoes) have also been added to my list of Welsh foods to make.
Another option for exploring a country’s traditional foods is to seek out local shops. Perhaps your ancestors’ homeland is known for specialty cheeses or a unique candy. Visit the shops on your next visit or check out what you can order online.
Genealogy Through the Sense of Hearing
The first thing that probably came to mind when thinking experiencing your family through sound is music!
Seek out traditional music of your ancestors to listen to while having a meal or better yet, researching more genealogy. Along with listening to the traditional music, experience their culture and music through the traditional dances. Nobody does it better than Michaela Mallozi of PBS’s Bare Feet.
Music is the obvious choice for experiencing the sounds of your ancestors, but also, listen to the language and dialects by watching a movie or TV show from the country. Just don’t forget to turm the subtitles on! Netflix has a number of movie and TV show options spanning the globe. I’ve watched British shows, Spanish shows, Indian shows, and shows from southeast Asia just to name a few. You’ll be surprised at the variety of options.
Now It’s Your Turn: Experience Genealogy With All Of Your Senses
I challenge you to pick and activity or two to begin experiencing your genealogy research beyond the records. Beyond the computer. If you have children or grandchildren, using their 5 senses will engage them and pique their own interest in family history while making some wonderful memories with you, too.
Have a great suggestion for experiencing your genealogy? I’d love to hear about it over in the Are You My Cousin? Facebook group!
Sara N Martin
Very good article! Just today I was thinking of setting up a search on eBay for old postcards of my ancestor’s hometowns, just to see what they were like. A Google search works, but having something to touch is important. Also making food from my grandma’s cookbooks.
So glad you enjoyed it!
I really enjoyed this article. I have always been interested in genealogy and in the five senses but never thought of putting them together. Great idea ~ thank you Lisa. Always enjoy your posts.
So glad you enjoyed it!
Robert A. Rowe
I have been enjoying your “… Cousins” site for several years. My sister, cousins, neices and nephews have been “bugging” me to write a family history. I find that to be overwhealing at my age of 90. But I was inspired by a recent book by Philip Otterness, BECOMING GERMAN. Cornell University Press. In this book he describes how Palatine residents in what was not yet Germany became “Germans” as they were identified as such when they migrated to England on their way to America in 1710. I decided to write my research project on my own Becoming German by following my own German surname Rau ancestry and discover how it became Rowe. If I had learned that my surname was German when I was growing up I would have rejected it. I was born in 1930 and Hitler started his power move in 1931 so there was little about being German to be proud of then. Now I find that my Rau ancestors were very brave and displayed strengths of which I am proud.
Robert A. Rowe
I often look through my grandmother’s cookbooks and my husband’s grandmother’s cookbooks. I am very fortunate to have them as well as others from my mother-in-law. We enjoy baking cookies and making Christmas Cake every year from these books. I keep a picture of my cousins’ grandmother beside a special gingersnap recipe of hers that I make every year. These special people are gone, but the memories of them are brought back when we enjoy the smells and tastes that come from these great recipes for food made with love that they passed down.
Thank you for all the great hints through the years and please have a very safe and happy holiday.
Growing up when we would visit my grandparents, the smells were such a part of the environment. They had a candy factory (Ferrera’s) a couple blocks away and we could always tell what type of candy they were making – Red Hots, Lemon Drops, etc. by the aroma in the air! My grandparents never drove, so we would always take walks to the grocery store with Grandpa and the last time I went back, although they’ve been gone for some time, driving around the places we walked, it was as if they were still there.
Ooo….a candy factory! I’m sure those smells transport you right back. The smell of heirloom roses takes me back to my grandfather’s rose garden.