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Adrienne Wallman

Research student

Adrienne Wallman

Bowland College Lancaster University Bailrigg Lancaster LA1 4YT


United Kingdom

Research overview

Beyond the Family Tree

In recent years family history has become increasingly popular. Researchers gather hard data from ‘vital records’ (births, marriages and deaths) and produce more and more detailed family trees.  As an output this is fine, but I want to explore the wider outcomes: does the information gathered change the researcher’s view of their own identity and if so, in what way, and what are the implications and lessons for wider society?

I also want to explore how archives, libraries and museums can use the material culture they hold to preserve, interpret and transmit the complexities of identity.


The sub-title of my research project is: With particular reference to Jewish genealogy, how does family history research help to change and define personal identity?

I began researching the history of my own maternal grandmother, Minnie Kaufman, in 2013. I became increasingly fascinated by the complex twists and turns – I had always been told she was Austrian but soon discovered that she held this nationality because the small town she lived in was then in the province of Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and is now in western Ukraine. Minnie emigrated to Manchester at the beginning of the last century. 

Key Research Questions

The key aim is to investigate if and in what way family history research helps to change and define the personal identities of those carrying out the research and what lessons can be learned from this.

The research will aim to answer the following questions:

What are the effects (both positive and negative) of discovering new and unexpected personal identities?

In what way does genealogical research enable researchers to identify (positively and negatively) with people of other cultures/ethnic groups/religions?

In what way can the outcomes of genealogical research be passed onto the next generation?

In what way can the outcomes of genealogical research be used to foster understanding within wider society of the complexity of national, religious and cultural identity?

How can we use personal (his)tories in a way that resonates beyond ourselves?

How can cultural institutions (museums, libraries, archives etc.) use the material within their collections to contribute to the telling of the story of identity?


My thesis examines the actual and potential impact of Jewish genealogy, both on the people doing the research and on current debates on identity and immigration. Using oral history as the main methodology, it explores the nature of Jewish immigration, relationships with place, real and metaphorical journeys of discovery, the complexity of Jewish identity, and memory and commemoration. The thesis is in two parts. The first part focuses on the impact on the individual while the second part considers ways in which the outcomes of Jewish genealogical research can inform national curriculum- based learning programmes in museums and archives.

While genealogy has become extremely popular in recent years, and celebrity-focussed programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? continue to give the impression that researching and discovering one’s ancestral roots is a straightforward activity with instant results, it is rare for ordinary people who do genealogical research to be given the opportunity to talk in detail about the impact their painstaking, often frustrating but ultimately rewarding work has on their own and their families’ lives. Using interviews with a wide range of people who are currently actively involved in Jewish genealogy, as well as extracts from unpublished personal life histories and memoirs and the results of my own research into the history of my maternal grandmother, my thesis seeks to challenge the dismissal of genealogists as amateur ‘roots seekers’ and attempts to place their stories within a wider historical context.

Meanwhile developments in the museum and educational sectors offer exciting opportunities for dissemination of the results of the thesis. Jewish museums are starting to re-think their role in wider society and are keen to place the stories they tell within broader national and international narratives of identity and migration, while specific museums of migration offer alternative spaces for the Jewish story. The topic of migration is also being given more prominence in the new national curriculum.

I am using oral history as the main method of primary research.

My supervisor is Dr Corinna Peniston-Bird.


Career Details

I completed my first degree in Japanese and History of Art at Newnham College, Cambridge forty years ago. Since then I have worked primarily in the museums, heritage and community arts sectors. Posts include Keeper of Art at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Director of Manchester Jewish Museum and Heritage Manager for Allerdale Borough Council. I also spent ten years at BBC School Television helping to make documentaries for teenagers on personal and social education, political education and development studies.

Current Teaching

Other Interests and Hobbies

I practise yoga, I have a dog and I grow food (although sadly I have just given up my allotment)