Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Researching your Family History at the Museum

One valuable source for researching a family history might surprise you. The word, “museum” might remind you of dinosaur bones and miniature displays of events and places. But museums can be much more than a place to learn about natural and local history on an afternoon trip. Often times, museums also hold information on local people including resources of genealogical value. Museums are institutions where families donate heirlooms, pictures, letters and other genealogical treasures as well as being the keeper of information about the community which can include holdings like census records, local government or business records, and cemetery records. Some museums include libraries that include books, manuscripts, photographs, and periodicals. In addition, museums might feature exhibits that can help you tell the story of your ancestor.

When researching a locality, consult the online yellow pages at or consider checking out museum specific websites such as MuseumsUSA,, Virtual Library Museums Pages,, the American Association of Museums at or the Museum Directory published by National Register Publishing. Also make sure to check out the county page from the U.S. Genweb,, for area museums that have collections of interest to genealogical researchers.

Once you find the name of a museum, check out their website, if they have one, and see if any of their genealogical or local history collections are online or are listed in an online catalog. You may want to call or email the museum and explain your research question and inquire to what information they have that may be of value. Keep your request short and concise, “I am researching the Johns family that came to the area in 1860." Museums and their archives handle a large number of requests and won’t generally do your research for you but will help you answer a question that you may have.

The following is a list of just some of the offerings that museums have for the genealogist.

The San Bernardino County Museum’s, collections include county coroner’s records and cemetery records, for the Agua Mansa Cemetery in Colton, San Bernardino, California. This cemetery database is available online but a call to the archivist will also net you family history information on some of those buried in Agua Mansa.

The Mormon Church’s, Museum of Church History and Art at features exhibits that provides a visitor with the experiences of immigrants, including a replica of a ship bunk. One online exhibit features the tragic story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Company.

The Prairie Museum of Art and History,, in Colby, Thomas, Kansas, provides information on their genealogical and historical resources on their website. These resources include a library, newspapers, photographs, histories and census records.

The Western Reserve Historical Society ( includes a museum and a library that may be useful for those researching Ohio families. Online you can search a 1907 Voter Registration Index for Cleveland, Bible Records Index, Biographical Sketch Name Index, and their library catalog.

Museum of the City of New York,, website includes a database with over 22,000 images of New York City taken between 1890 and 1942. This database is searchable by date, subject or topic.

The Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, part of the Springfield Museums in Springfield, Massachusetts, , includes a genealogy library with, 20,000 genealogy books, 6,000 microfilms, 1.3 million archival documents, diaries, photos, deeds, account books, and land transfer documents. It boasts the largest collection of French Canadian records outside of Quebec.

As you research museums that may be of assistance to you, consider looking at all types of museums that may exist in a county or region. Sometimes a non-traditional local history museum has surprises for the genealogist. The Western Center for Archaeology and Paleontology in Hemet, Riverside, California,, is dedicated to displaying and educating the public about the Ice Age Mammals found in the area that was excavated and became the Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet. One of the exhibits at the museum is of the archaeological findings from the 19th century settlers that lived in the area. An important exhibit for descendants of this one family.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Thanks, Gena. Good suggestions!

Don't forget when you've finished, to cite your research properly. See footnoteMaven's How do you cite a museum exhibit? for a suggested format.

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