Unconventional Heirlooms

Inadvertently, my research began at a young age. While I didn’t see it as research at the time, I’ve always had a fascination with how heirlooms could represent so much more than just a singular relationship. They encapsulate generations of history, extending through multiple familial lines. These treasured objects serve as a way to represent complicated stories, emotions, and relationships.

Heirlooms also provide an opportunity to physically archive important memories. Connecting memories to physical objects allow us to relive moments and experiences that we value.
However, physical archives can be susceptible to deterioration, aging, and misplacement. While I knew that I wanted this research project to focus on heirlooms in non-familial settings, I also wanted to be aware of how I documented these case studies.

After the series of interviews that were conducted, I restructured my goals around the project to be thoughtful of the archive I was beginning to create, even subconsciously. By utilizing this website as a platform to share the photographs and interviews, an opportunity was presented to create a long-lasting digital record. In a way, this project has become one collaborative heirloom between the participants and myself.



My research initially began by surveying, conducting polls, and sending out questionnaires. By surveying close friends, I was able to uncover if they shared an heirloom with another friend. When asking people if they had heirlooms within their friendships, I would often get unconfident answers, or plainly, “no”. These answers might have come from the association with the word ‘heir’, or additionally, the assumption of what a traditional heirloom is. The original etymology of heirlooms translates from ‘heir’ meaning a person legally entitled to a property after death, and ‘loom’ in this context meaning a tool.
The word ‘heir’ is traditionally used for people that are related by blood. Stereotypically, heirlooms have been seen as valuable jewelry, objects associated with decor, and utility-based objects (Türe & Ger, 2016). These stereotypes of how heirlooms have been traditionally seen are exclusive to those who do not have access to their family history, are not connected with their family, or do not have the financial means to own such valuable objects. Another definition of heirlooms from the Merriam-Webster dictionary feels closer to how I’ve been researching them, “something of special value handed down from one generation to another” (Merriam-Webster, 2020).
The part of Merriam-Webster’s definition that feels applicable to my research is the focus on special value (or meaning)—rather than who is entitled to own it. However, this definition is still restricted to traditional family models. From my research, the meaning of the object comes from who you share it with, regardless of whether or not you’re related to them (Kramer, 2011). When you share an object with someone who is important in your life, it connects you further with them, as well as serves as a reminder and testament to your connection (Abumrad & Krulwich, 2019). If the importance of the definition lies in sharing the object rather than who you’re sharing it with, then in the case of my research, I discovered that I needed to quantify the word I was using.

Considering all of this, I adopted the term Unconventional Heirlooms into my research. This finding allowed more room in discussing this topic with others, as it is not restricted to past assumptions and stereotypes.


Interview Structure

After establishing my terminology, I began my primary research of conducting interviews. The structure consisted of eight one-on-one interviews with pairs of people in various types of relationships. I asked each person the same set of questions about their friend, partner, or roommate, and then compared the answers. These interviews were conducted separately in order to compare and analyze each persons’ answers. The questions focused on establishing the history of the pairs’ relationship, how they would archive important memories and milestones, and what objects were shared and valued between each pair. The goal of these interviews was to uncover what physically manifested from these relationships.
From these interviews, I have two major findings. The first is based on how each pair discussed their relationships and what meaningful things materialized over the years; this has proven that heirlooms do exist in non-traditional settings.
Each person felt, in different ways, that there were valuable things to materialize from their relationship that helped in reflecting their interests and reminding them of their bond. One of the questions that was posed in the interview was, “If you could pick one object to symbolize your relationship, what would it be?”. People often met this question with slight frustration, as it seems like an impossible task to boil down a relationship into one object. However, each person has cited something from their relationship that felt meaningful to share with the other person, and that strengthens their relationship when they interact with it to this day. These two components, of sharing something that symbolizes the meaning in their relationship and it still be relevant to their relationship today, are how I’ve identified Unconventional Heirlooms existing in relationships, as they are applicable requirements for traditional heirlooms as well.



My final finding from my research categorizes the types of Unconventional Heirlooms that were found through these interviews. By categorizing the types of Unconventional Heirlooms that exist in various relationships, I am able to further define what constitutes Unconventional Heirlooms. The three types of Unconventional Heirlooms that were found through my interviews are Utility, Sentimental, and Non-Tangible.



Utility-based objects are those that were originally bought to fulfill a specific purpose but have acquired meaning over time. In my interview with Mia and Courn, best friends from high school and current roommates, they started a design and craft business together that sold dog bandanas. They bought a sewing machine together in order to run their business, and while it was originally used for professional purposes only, it became an object with a lot of meaning for both of them. The sewing machine felt “very symbolic for them”, as it represented their history of starting projects together and their shared skill of picking up the slack for one another. With new opportunities on the rise, they put a hold on their craft and design-based business, and now their sewing machine serves as a symbol of that time together.
Sentimental-based objects are those that do not serve a specific purpose besides being meaningful to its’ owners. For example, in my interview with Kevin and Mike, best friends from preschool and current roommates, Kevin cited something that felt symbolic of their relationship was a joke gift for their friend’s 18th birthday. Referencing a John Waters’ movie quote, they made a makeshift dildo from a banana and glued dried macaroni to it. While this object did not serve a specific utility (hopefully), they kept it for a period due to its sentimental value and representation of their shared goofy sense of humor, with Kevin stating, “We are very different and opinionated but we do know how to make each other laugh”.
Non-tangible Unconventional Heirlooms are non-physical things of importance that bond and connect people and are often materialized through other mediums. In my interview with Kate and Craig, best friends, and partners for the past 30 years, they expressed how many of their experiences together were symbolic to them. Additionally, they said specific songs were also symbolic of their relationship. Craig noted specifically, “Kate was always DJing, so she had archives of music, and playlists of all those times [together]...Those also have been kind of objects and holders of our shared history”. Experiences and songs are both non-physical Unconventional Heirlooms, but they do materialize in other forms, some being digital photography and phone apps.