Heirlooms & their universal characteristics.


Heirlooms- 'the word has acquired a popular meaning of items of special, endearing value, handed down from one generation to the next’

The receiver of this kind of object is a custodian, in the sense that they do not individually own the object, they only borrow them.

To understand the qualities of an heirloom, ethnography provides an obvious approach.

A Spanish man partially settled between the UK and China, a German friend and a family member who is an immigrant settled in the UK, had the most compelling stories from my ethnographic research. They are all custodians; they shared their heirlooms and memories that they convey.

The diversity of the interviewee was purposeful, since it helps with an understanding of what heirlooms mean to custodians from different cultures, and to locate universal characteristics.

 Smoking pipe inherited by John Villar

 Smoking pipe inherited by John Villar

Technical pen set inherited by Anton Bob Kraus 

Technical pen set inherited by Anton Bob Kraus 

Betel leaf and areca nut crushing utensil inherited by Dr Girish R. Boggaram

Betel leaf and areca nut crushing utensil inherited by Dr Girish R. Boggaram


Ethnographic Insights


My heirloom vs an heirloom

Girish is my cousin. We lived together in a joint family. I was four years old when my grandfather passed away, but my parents had told me a lot about him. As soon as I saw the utensil, I knew it belonged to my grandfather; Girish referred to the utensil as the way my grandfather did. The utensil carried cues for me to relate it to the other linked events that I was told about. It was, a missing piece of a link to a story I partially knew. This allowed me to reconstruct the story, of who my grandfather was, as it embodies his personality.

 But, When I was talking to John and Anton about their heirlooms they were simply antique objects to me. Here the story or the object did not carry any emotional presence or familiarity to me. When an heirloom is inherited it comes with baggage of cues that make it valuable for conveying the identity of a person. These are objects in which I am the meaning. It is not the object that matters; it is the emotional presence.


Validation as value

Another characteristic that brings value to an heirloom, is that they go through constant validation check. I suppose that hundreds of times my grandfather would have cleaned his room and disposed of unnecessary objects. The very reason they survived for a long time was because of the choice made to preserve them.


My personal reflections on the universal characteristics of heirlooms are

  • That an object’s authenticity rests in the emotional presence and not in the object
  • How we infer events from the condition of an object in the manner of a detective interpreting clue in order to recollect a memory.
  • Heirlooms also gave me a sense of the choices made by ancestors in their everyday lives.

Hyper connectivity & digital identity


Increasingly digital technologies have become part of our everyday living.

How has the intervention of digital technologies, changed the way we acquire memories? What are the characteristics of these possessions? How can we bequeath digital information as an heirloom?


We are embracing three different kinds of digital possessions.

  • Personal digital possessions
  • Possessions on social networks
  • Possessions of monetary value

Personal possessions are digital assets that are well within a user’s control, on their hard drive or other storage device.

Personal digital assets are largely archived in multiple locations for fear of losing them, mostly on devices like flash drives, CDs and DVDs for passing them on. Even digitla preservation department suggest the same. However, these formats are becoming increasingly obsolete and will eventually become inaccessible in a retrospective sense.


Possessions on social networks are a new kind of opportunity for recording our lives.

This is similar to our analogue dairies but have a different order. Dairies were very personal, but social network assets are equally held by our friends, they cannot only see but also add more layers of memory to them.

Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 14.48.10.png

But Possessions on social networks are short lived, social networks change their user interface over time to fall in line with the trends. The related cues of the content will change from the day I preserved the memory to the day myself or my family choose to look back. Here, my past is painted and remodelled by time.


Another example to show that social networks are short lived is, Google wants to stop their Google reader services due to a decline in users. This may be the situation with many services that we embrace today.


These are just trendy services that we take for granted as lasting for a long period of time


If I choose to opt out of these services or delete my account for various reasons, I cannot preserve my possessions in its original form. Archived assets do not contain all the layers of memories. User interface, metadata, annotations, locations tags are the cues that help us recollect the moment by showing familiarity, The soul of my possession is lost.

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Digital possessions of monetary value

We also own personal possessions like music and eBooks, which are usually purchased. There might be a need to bequeath them.


Current methods for handing down monetary assets are enabled by legacylocker.com, Which allow users to upload usernames, passwords and release instructions to assigned beneficiaries after a time delay pre-set by the user.

This also raises a question of, why would anyone want to hand down all their digital contents to one family member? Is handing down a password a legal way to bequeath a possession?

Legacy locker

After visiting the ‘terms of use’ for most of today’s predominant services, Users accept that they will not share their passwords and usernames. Users also agree to not transfer their accounts to anyone. Services are providing access, not ownership, and access is non - transferrable.


Case Study 1


Mr. Bruce Willis was rumored to sue apple to ensure he can ethically bequeath his $40,000 worth of iTunes library equally to his children.


Bruce on news

Case Study 2


The Court of Justice of the European Union faced a similar case regarding the transfer of rights of digital assets. 

The court concluded the case saying: the right to access a digital asset for an unlimited period is equal to selling that copy to the customer. Therefore, even if the license agreement prohibits a further transfer, the right holder can no longer oppose the resale of that copy.


After the ruling, there are new services like redigi.com, which now allow transfer of access rights of used digital music and books. 


If a user can resell their digital asset, why not bequeath them? But without a service that can ethically help preserving and bequeathing of digital assets, users can only follow unethical methods.


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