This morning at 3 am I got home from the best family history event I have ever attended.
The Who Do You Think You Are / National History Show ran May 5-7th in London.
The organizers hoped for 15,000 attendees during the three days, and I think they just about hit their goal.
Dick Eastman has a blog post about his first day at the show. He obviously enjoyed the event. I have never felt so much enthusiasm and energy at a family history event. I can’t wait till next year. But next time, I’m sure we’ll have booths for WorldVitalRecords.com and FamilyLink.com.
The first genealogy conference I attended was the 150th anniversary of NEHGS back in 1995 in Boston. I have been to dozens of large and small events since. I have always enjoyed networking, attending classes, and I usually come away with some magazines and books as well from the vendors that are in attendance.
But I have never seen anything like the London National History Show.
There were live events going all the time in the historic National Hall in Olympia. The runaway hit TV show Who Do You Think You Are had celebrities there, and played clips from their TV show. I especially enjoyed Alex Graham’s (executive producer) discussion about how he stumbled into the family history angle for the show (it was originally going to be about telling history through the eyes of a few families) but when he saw Bill (in the original episode) holding a death certificate of a child in his hands, and saw the deep emotion of this moment, for the first time he realized how powerful it is for people to see family documents for the first time, and what powerful television it makes. Initially, he had argued that genealogy is boring and that there would be no traipsing through cemeteries or looking at old family papers. It all changed when he saw Bill with the birth certificate.
Now they have a formula that works, with potentially 3,000 more celebrities on their wish list for future episodes. The series gets about 6 million viewers per week, has switched from BBC2 to BBC1, and is now being licensed to other countries as well, including Canada, France, Germany, and potentially the US. The clips I saw were very engaging.
Of course it’s a simple formula. Any British show that wants to be a smash hit and be exported worldwide just needs to start with the word “Who” and be in the form of a question.
Who’s Line is it Anyway? Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? And now, Who Do You Think You Are? Brilliant. (And I’m saying “brilliant” in my best British accent.)
Speaking of British accents….I tried to call the National Archives to speak to a person there and they had a voice recognition system. I pronounced the person’s name and it said there was no one that matched the name. So I had to use my best English accent, and it actually found the right person. Kind of funny.
This “Who” idea reminds me of another marketing idea I had a few years ago. With the success of the “Chicken Soup” books (what, 90+ million copies sold) and the “For Dummies” series, with hit after hit after hit, I just realized that if I could publish a book called “Chicken Soup for Dummies” that it would be a best-seller in no time.
So back to the Family History Show.
The conference organizers were able to bring together various companies and organizations — not just genealogy lecturers and a few vendors, like we usually have in the states — but media companies (BBC, History Channel, Roots Television), government agencies, dozens of genealogy societies, travel companies, publishers, retailers, software companies, and many others.
There were medieval musicians, bagpipes on occasion, fencing demonstrations, and people in historic military uniforms.
There were theaters in the large open space for discussions and demonstrations by big companies like Ancestry.co.uk, Who Do You Think You Are, the BBC and The History Channel. There were “encounter sessions” on dozens of particular topics and some announcements made by vendors.
There were dozens of computers from FamilySearch.org, The National Archives, and others were visitors took turn searching through the hundreds of millions of records and images to find their ancestors. I found my 7 year old great-great grandfather in an 1851 British Census, living in a household with his grandfather. I felt the emotional impact of finding something out for the first time.
I also bought an authentic 1850 map of Shropshire, where my ancestors lived from a local vendor.
The atmosphere was historic and festive at the same time.
I spoke with a few others who wondered outloud why family history conferences in the states can’t be this exciting and energetic, bringing so many people together in a celebration of our search for heritage.
Obviously, geography makes it harder to pull off a national conference in the US that could get 10-15,000 people together for a family history show. But I don’t think that is the key issue.
I think it is about vision. The people who organize family history conferences would need to reach out, like they did in the UK, and get a variety of groups involved, so that the show would be about genealogy, history, music, culture, celebrity and more.
On the other hand, maybe it can’t be done here unless and until there is a national TV show on family history that is a real hit. I guess we’ll see. It will be fun to see if anyone will be inspired by the London show to try to pull off a really big show here in the states.
What do you think? Can it be done here? What would be the keys?