Archive for April, 2010

Museum Life: Who Do You Think You Are?

April 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Last weekend I was browsing On Demand selections for some mindless downtime. I ran across the show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” that airs on Friday evenings 8/7 Central on NBC. Mindless it was not, and I ended up watching every episode in a mini marathon. If you haven’t seen it, the premise is that in each episode a celebrity embarks upon a journey to research his or her heritage, usually with an unanswered question or mystery about someone in their family tree. The results are funny, tragic, suprising and ultimately life changing for each person.

The show is based on a British documentary show of the same name which has been on for about 7 seasons. The main U.S. partner is, the genealogy site that has some brilliant marketing minds behind it. Their campaign about your family tree starting with a leaf (a connection) on the site makes family research accessible. The show has celebs use the site and show just how easy it is to start looking for your family.

What I especially love is the front and center place occupied by museums and libraries in every episode. From tiny historical societies to the Louvre, we see archivists, curators, librarians and historians working with patrons on camera the way they do every day in their institutions. They bring out the tools of the trade– census records (did you fill yours out?), baptism logs, city directories, photographs, correspondence and even good old microfiche to help piece together the story step by step. It is inspiring to see research pros depicted as interesting people who enjoyed opening the doors to the past. It was equally inspiring to watch celebrities represent the excitement and shock we often see in museums when people learn just how much information is readily available if we just take the time to look.

The celebs featured thus far have been Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker,  Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon , football star Emmitt Smith and Lisa Kudrow who is also an Executive Producer of the show. I won’t give any exact spoilers if you haven’t watched, but what people uncover includes ties to colonial battles, World Wars, the Holocaust, Salem Witch trials, polygamy, a speakeasy, the Gold Rush, rape by a slave owner, Native American ancestry and direct ties to French royalty. In other words, American history.  Dare I say immigrant history? And it each case, you see a side of the famous folks that I find refreshing. They step outside of themselves and learn about sacrifices previous generations made that helped pave the way for the success they have today.

Museums strive every day to make history personal, to justify the preservation of artifacts and archives as tools for all of us to explore our past in order to understand ourselves and the world.  But they can also struggle with linking popular culture and academic pursuits in order to reach broader audiences. This version of reality TV can be a way to inspire research and family dialog while deeply personalizing chapters in our country’s history. If it takes celebrities and television to get more people interested in Museum Life… so be it!

The final episode of Season One is this Friday featuring Spike Lee. I can only imagine who he will find in his tree….

Find Out More!

Watch all of the past episodes online:

Start Your Own Family Tree and get a DNA Test to find ancient cousins:

Who Do You Think You Are on Facebook: