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June 17, 2011

Museums - A Hidden Genealogical Treasure Trove

Lorine & Kathleen, Guelph Civic Museum
Last week I spent the afternoon at the Guelph Civic Museum. Kathleen Wall, the Assistant Curator,  had previously found many of my ancestors' names listed in the Museum's indexes - my parents, grandparents and other assorted cousins, uncles, aunts, grand uncles and so on.  So I made a trip to Guelph with my husband to take a look at what Kathleen found.

Kathleen was waiting at a long table when we arrived. There was a large box opened at her side and she was looking through a book. Two extra pairs of white gloves lay on the table for hubby and I to wear and Kathleen turned another book over to me.

The two books Kathleen had ready were the Acta Nostra Yearbooks for Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute which both my parents attended. Several aunts and uncles as well as my grandmother's and grandfather's brothers also went there. So the odds were that I'd find something in them that related to an ancestor - and perhaps even a photograph!

Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner
I was armed with my trusty Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner which readers of this blog know I love. It's invaluable - light weight and easy to use, the perfect tool for scanning images of documents or yearbook pages or just about anything I might find in the Museum.

Happy Genealogist
I sat down and slowly went through the 1933 yearbook while Kathleen looked through 1929. My first find was mention of my mother winning an award for typing in the 1933 GCVI yearbook! Kathleen found several photos and mentions of my grandmother's brother Len Peer in 1929 and other years.

A lot of the museum holdings are indexed which makes searching a bit easier. So in the case of some of the yearbooks, Kathleen knew that my mother's name was somewhere in that 1933 book. We just didn't know what page so it did require careful scrutiny to find.

I found out quite a bit that afternoon. I learned from a 1929 GCVI Yearbook that my father had graduated from High School and was working at Holman Luggage. I never knew that. A 1927 Yearbook gave a little light-hearted description of my dad which I really enjoyed reading. My father died when I was 14 so my memories of him are limited and the yearbooks enabled me to get a better sense of him as a teenager.

1909 Guelph Fire Department

Joseph McGinnis 1909
One of the most exciting items that we found was a photograph of my grandfather McGinnis! Kathleen found a "J. McGinnis" listed on her computerized index so we took a look. And there he was - my grandfather Joseph McGinnis in an official photograph of the Guelph Fire Department in 1909. I was stunned. No one had ever mentioned that my grandfather was a firefighter.

And as he died long before I was born, I never knew him. In fact  only one photo of him taken circa 1916 existed in the family, so seeing him 7 years earlier was a thrill. Kathleen was a font of knowledge about Guelph - its buildings, its history, and she informed us that 1909 was the first year that the Fire Department became an official paid organization. Prior to that time it was a volunteer department. Imagine! My grandfather was one of the first paid Firefighters in Guelph! I'm thrilled to know this.

We looked at many items during the next 3 hours. The Museum is moving to a new location so I could not see all the physical objects they hold which have some relation to my family, but I was able to view many on their computer. Kathleen kindly printed out several interesting documents and photos for me and I'll go back in September when they are settled in their new location.

Here is my advice if you decide to hunt for ancestors at a local museum:

1. Email or phone the museum to ask about their services and fees.

2. Provide a brief list of the names (with dates) of ancestors who you are searching.

3. If the museum has information or documents, ask if you can reserve a time to visit and view the holdings that relate to your ancestors. Perhaps you will be as lucky as me and find a Kathleen who is willing to assist you.

4. Show up on time if you have a pre-arranged appointment.

5. Take your genealogy notes (preferably on a laptop, iPhone or iPad), paper, pencil, pen and your Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner if the Museum allows it. Ask first!  I was able to scan many items of interest at the Museum.

6. Thank the museum staff and leave a generous donation even if they have a set fee for research services.  Most museums need money to continue acquisitions and hire staff. Usually their research fees are minimal so please leave a  donation above and beyond any charges.  Kathleen gave us quite a bit of her time, and was enormously helpful. I felt it was well worth $100.00 so that is the amount I gave. As well my husband dropped some bills into the donation jar at the front door. It was money well spent

Kathleen has continued to send me photos and information via email and I am one overjoyed genealogist!


The Grandmother Here said...

What fun! Even when it's close relatives there are new facts to find. You are an inspiration to the rest of us.

WhitePineLane said...

How exciting! You've inspired me to try a few local museums. Fingers crossed I'll have just some of the luck you did!

Cheri Hopkins said...

Another nice article and you are so right that many museums are wonderful and often overlooked for genealogy. Our new museum has added a great new "Heritage Room" just for genealogists and it is full of all kinds of records and a helpful staff. Donations are their lifeblood too, so I hope everyone leaves something in those little boxes at every museum you visit. Cheri Hopkins, Alliance, Nebraska (Knight Museum & Sandhills Center)