Preserving The Past: How AncientFaces Documents the History of Memories
This Isn't Your Typical Genealogy Database
Living, Breathing History
History textbooks often read like aerial overviews of the past—distant details and dry statistics that don’t allow us to look history dead in the eyes. You can be told 10 million soldiers died in WWI, but you can’t begin to understand the horror of that war unless you cower in the trenches beside a muddy solider, praying you don’t inhale blistering lungfuls of mustard gas. You can be told which bands performed at Woodstock, but it doesn’t set the same atmosphere as weaving through throngs of hippies while the Grateful Dead rocks out to Turn On Your Lovelight.
Seeing as a time machine is out of the question, memories are the closest you’ll come to witnessing bygone eras. That’s where AncientFaces comes in. Not only does this genealogy database compile people’s legacies into engaging bios, but it coaxes black-and-white photos tucked in old shoeboxes in the closet or stowed in steamer trunks in the attic out of hiding.
“Memories unite & bind us, they tell stories about the people from our past, influence our decisions, are our heritage and our legacy for the future,” explains cofounder Daniel Pinna, who formed the company with his mom Kathy Pinna. AncientFaces keeps those memories alive. “All that’s remembered of you shouldn’t be a document that's stored by the government. Come on, guys, the government. They have problems! They’re the record keepers? It doesn't make any sense.”
The Storytelling Instinct
To witness humanity’s hunger to preserve the past, look no further than the storytelling tradition of family gatherings around the world. It's the universal instinct of grandparents everywhere. "It mattered to them, that something of them was left," Kathy notes. "We're all making history. We're all impacting the world... And we have an obligation to those people." It's the reason she has worked tirelessly to expand the site since its creation in 2000—even when her battle with cancer required two surgeries and radiation treatment. "The most days I took off in that period was two days," she recalls.
“There's urgency to share now,” Daniel agrees. To illustrate, he points to a San Francisco WWII reunion he attended with his grandfather back in 1999 (before AncientFaces existed). He watched as these veterans’ memories—long submerged from PTSD or the passing of time—began bubbling to the surface. “It was nuts to be a part of that… When they saw each other, all of a sudden, their faces changed and they’re sharing stories... I got a glimpse into that time.”
He pauses before sharing that it’s folks like these veterans that makes him wish his company gained traction sooner. “I failed because it's been 20 years and that generation is dead. They're gone. I didn't have a product like AncientFaces where they could write these stories… When I found out last year that both my parents had cancer, I'm like, ‘Forget this. I'm not gonna let another generation do this.’ ”
Today, AncientFaces contains over a million images. Its 285,000+ members have shared tales of family and friends, mailmen and mentors, classmates and coworkers. Some of the diehards track down black-and-white photos abandoned at antique stores with the dedication of archeologists hunting for forgotten artifacts—just so they can post them on the site and reunite them with their rightful owners.
“Every family has at least one genealogist,” Daniel says. “It's the world's second most popular hobby!” In fact, the idea for AncientFaces was inspired by Pam, genealogy junkie and sister to Kathy, who researches her friends’ family trees in her spare time.
Not Just Another Genealogy Site
Daniel and Kathy also find encouragement and inspiration through a ceaseless flow of thank you emails. People tell them about unexpected connections they’ve made through the site—adopted adults tracking down their biological families, family members learning new facets of late relatives, individuals discovering half-siblings they never knew about.
“When we share our memories, we find out the world is a much smaller place than we think—and that's where the magic happens,” Daniel says. Kathy agrees, adding “Everybody’s important to someone.”
For all these reasons, this mother-son duo refuses to go the paid membership route of AncestryDNA or 23andMe. “It shouldn't be reserved for people that have money and then hidden behind a paywall,” Daniel asserts.
AncientFaces also differs from other genealogy platforms in that it offers more than a generational outline. “Family trees are kind of boring,” Daniel shrugs, explaining many companies only include names of relatives, birth dates, death dates, and marriage records. “To some people, the genealogy sleuths, the detectives, it’s a fun puzzle.” But to the rest of us? Not so much. “It'll tell you where you came from. But it doesn't really tell a story or paint a picture. It’s very clinical… They’re based off of just the facts—not the color, not the life.”
Preserving the Past Well into the Future
AncientFaces understands that memories are the human element that breathes history to life. So as Daniel and Kathy continue to document the history of memories, their company is bound for a bright future.