Resources: Museum Websites

There’s been a number of recent posts in the last month or so written by genea-bloggers linking to various websites on the Internet that readers may not necessarily think of, at first thought, as genealogy resources. For instance, Tim of Genealogy Reviews Online did a series on state historical societies, Randy at Genea-musings linked to a list of the WPA’s Historical Records Survey for California, Jimmy of Online Education Database posted his “250+ Killer Digital Archives and Databases,” while back in February, I wrote about my discovery of a Global List of Repositories. Along the way, Denise from Family Matters has been busily bookmarking many of these sites at the Genealogy Research Resources group at Diigo, for our convenience and reference.

The thing is, most of the rich data we need to flesh out our family trees is not–and may never be–found online. Instead, it can be found in libraries, courthouses, archives, and repositories. That’s why knowing where and how to find these holdings is invaluable. Many of these institutions do have websites, although what content they may have online pales in comparison to what they have on location. The content on the websites of archives, repositories, and the like is often not found using search engines such as Google or Yahoo!, and thus is considered part of the deep web of the Internet. This means you have to browse through the website and find the rich treasures hidden inside, whether they are images of photographs, newspapers, letters, or other documents, or tables and lists full of data that may help your further your family tree or understanding of the local history of your ancestral homes. Even for those websites that do not have actual content, just being able to access a mailing address, e-mail address, phone number, and perhaps the titles of their collections is a an aid to finding what you need. Many of these institutions will perform lookups in their holdings for reasonable fees.

Just this past week, I had a couple of serendipitous finds on museum websites, while looking for background information for a couple of posts I was writing. The first was the Muskegon County (Michigan) Museum, which turned up when I did a Google search for a World War I memorial mentioned in a letter my great-grandfather received from his father. While my search really didn’t yield the information I was looking for, I did notice on the home page of the museum’s website that they had 500 compiled and digitized images online as part of a joint project with the Hackley Public Library. I browsed through the images and realized at once that many of them will enhance my family’s own history. For instance, in the Transportation collection, there is a 1918 photograph of a hearse in front of Balbirnie’s Mortuary on Second Street in Muskegon. My great-grandfather, Bryan, met my great-grandmother, Marie, while driving the hearse for her Grandfather Wilkinson’s funeral in Whitehall in 1917. Bryan lived in Muskegon Heights, and while I don’t know for sure which mortuary he worked for, he very well could have driven this vehicle, or at least a similar one. There’s also a photo of a group of fourth-graders assembled on the front steps of the Whitehall school in 1900 or 1901. These children would have been about a year older than Marie’s oldest brother, George, and some of them may well have been his playmates. As I browsed through the collections of photos, I got a sense of “home” that I had not before experienced, as though I had been able to travel through time and see the houses, businesses, churches, vehicles, and parks that my Robbinses, Lewises, Wilkinsons, and Sayerses had seen and visited!

A few days later, I came across a collection of podcasts that my own local museum, the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC), has available for download from its website. I had been writing a post on my society’s blog about the local Oral History Association, which archives and indexes its collection at the MAC. Besides many photographs, papers, records, and diaries of local historical interest in the museum’s archives collection, there are currently five podcasts of lectures, photos, and a tour of the museum’s collections available. I had hoped to find some of the oral history interviews available as well, but although I was disappointed in that regard, the other discoveries were worthwhile.

Last spring I stopped by the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum to leave some fliers advertising my next online genealogy class, and in turn, pick up some of theirs to distribute to my future students. The curator told me of the wealth of photos and records they had on hand of the Valley’s farm and orchard history; resources which they have been happy to copy and send to descendants of the area’s original settlers and farmers, many of whom now live out-of-area, at their request.

What does your local museum have to offer? What resources do the museums in your ancestral locations contain? Do their websites have content that would be useful to you, a long-distance researcher? Remember that museums are often repositories for local historical–and sometimes genealogical or ethnic–societies. I have found Virtual Library museums pages (global) and, more specifically, Museums in the USA, to be useful links for finding museum websites. You can also Google your ancestral location and add the word museum: “muskegon county” museum .

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