Digitizing the museum

The Walker Press building at 3 Yeo Street, Paris

The mural painted on the south wall of the Walker Press building on Willow Street symbolizes much of what has been going on at the Paris Museum, not just during the pandemic, but over the past few years.

The stated mission of the Paris Museum and Historical Society is “…to collect, preserve and make accessible the rich cultural heritage of Paris and surrounding area…” Many people may not realize that the Paris Museum is also an archive, housing a deep collection of documents and images going back over 100 years. Our research team has been working remotely through the pandemic fulfilling online research requests. This has been made possible through the museum’s continuing preservation projects.

Years ago, when it became apparent that many of the museum’s oldest paper documents were deteriorating, a microfilm/microfiche project was undertaken. As that technology approached obsolescence, a massive conversion project was carried out to digitize the microfilm/microfiche collection. The museum’s collection of artifacts is systematically catalogued in a searchable database. Photographs are scanned and stored on servers. A current project involves the high-definition computer scanning of over 10,000 photographic negatives. All of these digital files are further safeguarded using cloud backups.

Having the information in the museum’s collection digitized has made it possible to supply research results to people thousands of kilometres away — people who could never visit the museum in person. It has also made it possible for the museum to keep functioning and fulfilling its stated mission, even while the physical museum has been closed to visitors and researchers for much of the past year.

Rick O’Brien

Research is the Backbone of the Museum

The research team at the Paris Museum works so quietly and efficiently that its success caught many members by surprise during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

In just the first quarter of 2021, our researchers brought in $395.00 for PMHS. Last year, they earned a total of $392.50. What’s more, they’ve built a reputation in the community for producing high-quality work. One PMHS member was so pleased with the work done on her family by researcher Marlene Dayman that she sent the museum a $500 donation.

The team consists of Marg Deans, who specializes in genealogy; Steve Pinkett, an expert on land registry, maps and surveys; Marlene Dayman, who combines genealogy and land registry searches; Pat Hasler-Watts, who keeps track of every building in Paris; Wayne Wilkinson, who works independently on neighbourhoods and buildings; and Cathie Murch, who began as a donor of family records dating back to the 1840s and became a good researcher.

There are two researchers-in-training: Brad Bennett and Sharon Morton. Brad is hard at work reorganizing the museum’s voluminous Penmans files. Sharon has also taken on the onerous job of organizing the existing genealogy files.

“We are all equals,” Marg says. “We have different levels of experience, different interests and different ways of researching, but when combined we are great team.”

They work on ongoing projects and requests for information from the public. Some requests come by telephone, but most are sent through the museum’s website.

The four most common requests are:

  • individuals looking for relatives
  • homeowners seeking information about a house or property.
  • people asking about events in Paris
  • developers, lawyers and companies in search of information about a building site.

Occasionally the research team gets an unusual request. Marg remembers a museum in the United States sending PMHS a photo of a Penmans suit underwear and asking when it was manufactured.

As most members know, PMHS has always done research, usually for a nominal fee or no charge. That changed three years ago when the board of directors implemented clear guidelines and fees for the museum’s research.

Under the 2018 rules, a fee of $20 per visit was established for assisted research (an individual comes into the museum seeking to confirm or expand a piece of information), $20 an hour for research done solely by PMHS, $20 for a high-quality digital copy of a photo, map or document for personal or non-profit use and a negotiable fee for research undertaken for commercial purposes. These fees are needed to defray the cost of expensive software – Family Tree Maker and Ancestry.com – needed to answer genealogy requests.

Initially, the research team tended to undercharge clients. Then the COVID pandemic hit. Visitors could no longer come into the museum, forcing the research team to modify the guidelines to suit the times. As a rule of thumb, researchers charge $20 per hour, but the team takes into account both the amount of work involved and practical considerations. “Some requests would cost hundreds of dollars”, Marg explains.

In order to look as professional as possible, the research team puts its work in folders or 3-ring binders with the PMHS logo affixed. The package contains a cover letter saying the work was done by volunteers using the information available at the time and stipulating that PMHS cannot take responsibility for details that come to light later.

Marg estimates that 4 of 10 people who make requests are unwilling to pay even a minimal fee. “Sometimes it stems from the notion that we are part of the municipal government and this is our job.”

“However, in the past 6 months, requesters seem to understand that during COVID, we (museum volunteers) cannot fund raise or do our normal activities to keep our doors open.”

During shutdowns, our researchers work from their homes. Marg and Marlene have remote access to the computer system at the museum. The other members of the team are linked by email and Microsoft Teams. “It usually takes all of us working together to complete a single request.”

The way Marg sees it, the Paris Museum & Historical Society is like a powerful speed boat with dual engines. One is fuelled by volunteers who collect, preserve and display artifacts. The other is fuelled by volunteers who organize, share and create an understanding of what is in the museum’s archives. “Both engines need to be operating for the boat to move.”

Carol Goar

Lively and Informative Annual General Meeting

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

When the third wave of COVID-19 hit Ontario in early March, hearts sank among the small group of volunteers planning the Paris Museum’s Annual General Meeting. They had been hoping to host an in-person AGM on April 18, 2021. After five-and-a-half months of lockdowns, the museum needed a boost. Their last hope expired on March 17 when Ontario Premier Doug Ford imposed an emergency stay-at-home order, extending till late May. That left two choices: postpone the AGM indefinitely or try to hold it online, which would pose possibly technical and practical challenges for PMHS, as this had never been done before.

Under the leadership of President Ursula O’Brien, the board of directors chose to hold the meeting online.

Ursula and then-secretary Carol Goar got to work preparing a package that contained all the documents PMHS members would need:

  • a cover letter explaining that health restrictions prevented PMHS from holding its AGM in person
  • an agenda
  • minutes of the 2020 annual meeting which had to be approved
  • a financial report for 2020 which likewise had to be approved
  • a draft budget for 2021 requiring members’ consent
  • a summary of the museum’s activities and achievements in 2020
  • a ballot to vote for the next board of directors and signal approval or disapproval for proposed changes with a stamped, pre-addressed envelope to make it easier for members to submit their vote ahead of the meeting

The members’ packages were mailed out or hand-delivered on April 15th and 16th. An email was sent before the meeting with instructions on how to use ZOOM, the video conferencing software that the museum was using to allow interactive communication among members.

As the date of the AGM approached, there were still doubts about the attendance and the number of ballots that would be sent in and still worries about technical glitches. But everything went remarkably well thanks to Stephanie Pile and her Zoom expertise. Eighteen members joined the ZOOM meeting and 21 ballots were mailed in.

Ursula welcomed everyone and officially opened the Paris Museum’s 49th Annual General on April 18 at 2:10. The business portion of the meeting was quickly dispatched, leaving plenty of time for the President’s Report, the election and a video presentation by the Curator.

Ursula summarized how the museum had survived — and adapted — during the first two waves of the COVID-19 pandemic and assured members that its hard-working volunteers would press ahead through the third wave. She closed her report with a heartfelt tribute to three dedicated members — Dale Robb, Eric Gibson and Mary Cassar — who had passed away since the last AGM.

Then came the election, ably handled by Brant Councillor Steve Howes, who generously spent the better part of his afternoon at the AGM.

He acknowledged and thanked the two board members — Stephanie Pile and Andrea Nechita — who were stepping down. Stephanie Pile has been with the museum for a number of years serving mainly as Vice President. Stephanie will continue as a consultant for the museum board and continue working at Woodlands Cultural Centre. Andrea Nechita has also been with the museum for a long time and is now pursuing a part-time teaching career along with her position at Woodlands Cultural Centre.

Steve Howes sought and received the membership’s approval for the re-election of three board members — Ursula O’Brien, Carol Goar and Jim Graber — whose terms had expired. Then he introduced the four new members nominated to the board of directors: Tina Lyon, Patti Gladding, Judy Moore and Miranda Siklenka. By a vote of 39 to zero, they were all elected.

The highlight of the meeting was a virtual walking tour of the museum, including the storage area, which most members seldom see, led by Tina Lyon the museum’s curator. She focused on the changes that had been made while the museum was closed, the archives where artifacts are catalogued and stored, and the research room. Thanks to Tina’s effective narration and her team’s skilful filming, the members watched an enjoyable 15-minute video.

With a final thanks and farewell from Ursula, it was time to adjourn but most of the ZOOM participants weren’t ready to leave.

Councillor Howes offered to stay and take questions about local development issues. A lively discussion followed about the sale of the beautiful Penmarvian Estate on Grand River Street North, the redevelopment of the Walker Press Building on Yeo Street and the struggle to maintain Paris’s small-town charm as newcomers pour in and developers buy up large tracts of land for housing.

It was one of the most interesting and informative Annual General Meetings the museum has held in recent years, defying the skeptics and giving the newly-elected board a model of ingenuity and co-operation.

Carol Goar

Annual General Meeting

Sunday April 18th, 2 pm via Zoom

This year’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) will be different from all others. Due to pandemic restrictions, we will need to conduct the meeting via Zoom. All members will receive a Zoom link by email a few days before the meeting.

The meeting will feature the following:

  • Vote of Board Members
  • Change to the Constitution
  • Membership Updates
  • Virtual Exhibit Tour
  • Members we have lost

In order to be able to vote at the AGM you will need to be a museum member. During the current lockdown membership fees can be paid as follows:

  • Email Transfer – send an email money transfer to membership@theparismuseum.com. Be sure to use ‘parisont’ as the password and include your name, address and type of membership.
  • Regular Mail – send in a cheque for the membership to the museum and be sure to include your name, address and type of membership. Mail the cheque to The Paris Museum, 66 Grand River St. N., Paris ON, N3L 2M2

Membership fees are as follows:

  • Seniors and Students – $25.00
  • Adults – $35.00
  • Family – $45.00

Recent PMHS Activities

Despite complications caused by COVID-19 restrictions, our hard-working museum volunteers have been busy in the community.

In November, PMHS supplied some of the items for the Legion’s Remembrance Day display at Sobeys.

In December, volunteers braved the cold winds to set up an oldtime “Waiting for Santa” display for the very well-attended drive-through Christmas event organized by the Paris Agricultural Society at the fairgrounds.

Greetings!

My first full year as President of the Paris Museum has been interesting and very challenging. In the early part of the year the museum was hard at work making plans for events, fundraisers and our ever popular walking tours. Then COVID-19 changed everything.

To help fight the spread of the pandemic we had to close the museum. After about four months volunteers were allowed in with restrictions and in limited numbers. Finally in October we were able to have visitors to the museum, again with restrictions and limited numbers.

Gift Shop Closure

One of the restrictions from the Brant County Health Unit was that we not sell any items from our gift shop. The gift shop was also difficult to maintain and so it was decided that we would close and dismantle it. Our curator has some very exciting plans to make the former gift shop area into a chronological display of the history of Paris.

Exhibits & Events

It was wonderful to have visitors come and see our exhibits and the many changes that were made by our hardworking volunteers since they were allowed to go back in. Recently, in the month of December we were able to have our first fundraiser of the year, a raffle of the gingerbread replica of the Bawcutt Centre. It was very successful and we hope to be able to have another gingerbread raffle in 2021.

We were also invited to be part of the very popular drive through Christmas display at the Paris Fairgrounds. Thanks to all who made this happen on that cold and windy day!

From the Curator

Our curator reports that we have had 880 artifacts donated this year in 130 accessioned groups. The volunteers are almost completely caught up with cataloguing all the artifacts donated before this year. The Paris Star converted microfilm files are mostly renamed and so will be easier to use. Tina wishes to thank the volunteers for all their hard work during this difficult time.

Research Report

The research department had a slow start to the year but in the past few months numerous requests have come in from as far away as the U.K and United States. Our researchers will be working from home for the month of January and will do their best to keep up with the requests.

Museum Closure

Now again, we face a museum closure. We are more prepared this time. We have subscribed to Zoom so that we can have online meetings and our volunteers are able to access the museum computers from home. Research, accessioning and general administration can now be done remotely.

In 2021 we will continue to improve our online presence with potential virtual exhibits, YouTube videos and hopefully online sales of our maps and books. As we move towards the New Year the Paris Museum Board members wish you a safe and Happy Holiday and all the best in the New Year. Stay safe!

Ursula O’Brien
Chair, The Paris Museum & Historical Society

Win this Gingerbread Replica!

Paris resident and museum member Warren Letson has created a gingerbread replica of the historic Bawcutt Centre in Paris. Warren has generously decided to raffle off this replica and donate the proceeds to the Paris Museum.

Raffle tickets will be sold at Wincey Mills on the following days:

  • Thursday November 26th until Saturday November 28th – 10am to 4pm
  • Thursday December 4th until Saturday December 6th – 10am to 4pm

Come to Wincey Mills and get your chance to win this beautiful gingerbread replica of the Bawcutt Centre.

Paris Museum Gets a Fresh, New Look

Visitors to the newly reopened Paris Museum will be struck by how much has changed since COVID-19 forced us to close the museum last March.

The first two signs that life is different at PMHS are the bottle of hand sanitizer and the row of masks waiting right inside the door. Without a mask, no visitor or volunteer can be permitted in the museum.

The next give-away is the large plexiglass shield at the front desk. It is a large L-shaped wraparound, protecting the receptionist. There is room to slide documents underneath, but only the receptionist is allowed behind the shield.

Don’t be intimidated; all our receptionists are friendly and eager to help you.

Look a little further and you’ll see markings on the floors, ensuring a one-way flow of traffic. During a contagious pandemic, we can’t have visitors going every which way or clustering around one exhibit.

Until further notice, we are asking visitors to make an appointment before they come. This helps us control the number of people in the museum. The Brant County Health Unit has set a limit of ten individuals – volunteers and visitors – at any given time. Without an appointment, drop-ins will have to wait outside the museum until someone leaves if there are already ten people in the museum.

Our archives will be closed to visitors during the pandemic, but researchers will respond to email requests (research@theparismuseum.com) and phone requests (519-442-9295)

Our new hours are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 1 pm to 4 pm. The museum will not open on Saturdays.

All of these adjustments were required by the Brant County Health Unit as a condition of reopening. The bigger and more deliberate changes were orchestrated by our curator, Tina Lyon. During the lockdown, she envisaged a complete reorganization of the public areas of the museum to highlight our cobblestone models, create more space and freshen the exhibits.

She began by circulating three possible floor plans to the board, volunteers and frequent users. All three complied with the Ontario Building Code and fire safety regulations. Participants quickly agreed on one of the plans. In late July the museum was professionally cleaned and disinfected and the county permitted four volunteers inside at any given time. That was when Tina got to work moving wall display cases and shifting everything to a new location.

The result: the focal point of the museum is now our collection of cobblestone models. They are in pristine shape, each building’s name address and a brief history on a brass plaque attached to the casing. The large diorama (a three-dimensional map of historic Paris) which had long occupied the centre of the museum, has been repositioned. It will shortly undergo repairs.

The wall displays contain fresh artifacts. The gift shop is gone and will soon display a wrap-around history of Paris.

Overall, the museum feels brighter, more spacious and more orderly.

What has not changed – and will never change – is the warm welcome we offer our visitors and our willingness to find and make available the information people want.

Please make an appointment, put on a mask and come see the improvements our team has made.

Carol Goar

Why is the Paris Museum still closed?

Local museums are reopening across Ontario. The Brant Museum came out of lockdown on June 30th, the Waterloo Region Museum opened its doors on July 2nd, the Woodstock Museum has been open since July 7th and the Guelph Civic Museum reopened on July 24th. Most have shortened their hours and put COVID-19 restrictions in place, but visitors can view their exhibits and use their archives.

Yet the Paris Museum, in one of the safest communities in the province, remains closed.

What makes us so different?

The principal factor is that the Paris Museum is located in the Syl Apps Community Centre, which has an indoor arena and recreation facilities. This type of facility has remained closed in Brant County.

But don’t let the locked doors deceive you. The life of the museum goes on. Every month, the board of directors meets by phone and videoconference. The museum has been inspected regularly by Steve Pinkett and our archives and documents have likewise been checked by our curator, Tina Lyon. Digital cataloging and bookkeeping are being done by our volunteers from home.

In mid-July, the museum was professionally cleaned and disinfected. Since July 22nd, masked and gloved volunteers – a maximum of four at any given time – have been allowed to enter the museum.

Our researchers have resumed work, our filers and cataloguers are busy, our technology is being updated, our front desk handles administrative matters and inquiries and our chair, Ursula O’Brien, answers members’ questions by email, Facebook and the museum’s website.

Although we have not been able to hold fundraisers or renew memberships, our budget remains intact. We received a grant from The County of Brant to help us survive the pandemic and fortunately our expenditures – heating, air conditioning, bank fees – have been minimal.

There have been losses. We were not able to mourn the deaths of two of our long-serving members — Dale Robb on March 18th and Eric Gibson on June 4th. We very much miss our museum friends.

Our volunteers come in five days a week and we are closed on Saturday. We are looking forward to having visitors back when possible and hope that everyone stays well and healthy in the meantime.

We remain heartened by the will of our volunteers to ride out this crisis and emerge vibrant and strong.

Carol Goar

Farewell Eric. We Miss You

Those who knew Eric Gibson — one of the most dedicated researchers and finest storytellers at the Paris Museum and Historical Society — were saddened to hear of his death on Thursday, June 4th.

Eric was in his mid-80s. He had gone to the hospital for gall bladder surgery and his heart stopped. Unfortunately the medical team could not revive him.

All of us at the museum send our condolences to Linda Charlton and extend our sympathy to Eric’s family and friends.

There will be no funeral because of the coronavirus pandemic. But tributes and memories are pouring in from fellow volunteers, co-workers and his friends.

“Eric was a Wednesday afternoon regular, such a hard worker” recalled Marlene Dayman. “I will miss his afternoon greetings with his wonderful Welsh lilt.”

“I will remember Eric quietly and diligently beavering away at the desk, preserving our wonderful pictures of Paris past” said former PMHS president Cate Breaugh. “He was very self-effacing, but had a sharp sense of humour that I looked forward to. I enjoyed our little chats now and then.”

Marg Deans remembers Eric’s fun side. “Eric was my co-conspirator in breaking the ‘no food in the archives’ rule.  It was a bit of naughtiness we all enjoyed. Welsh cakes are a pan-fried cookie fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg. Sometimes Eric would make them and sometimes I would. The Wednesday team would gather around mugs of tea and just enjoy our friendship.”

“His calm and serene nature helped me through a few times when I was trying to go too many ways at once,” said curator Tina Lyon.

“Rest in peace, Eric,” said Sharon and Sean Murphy. “We will truly miss you.” They described him as a “real gentleman” with a sunny disposition who was willing to help wherever he could.

“A very humble and gracious man” said Bob Hasler simply.

Eric, an aeronautical engineer, was born in South Wales. He moved to England to work as a designer of aircraft engines. In 1964 he was recruited by Canadian aerospace manufacturer Pratt and Whitney.

One of his great regrets was that he emigrated 11 years too late to be part of the crack team of designers and engineers that conceived and built the Avro Arrow, the fastest, most advanced supersonic jet of its time.

But he studied the legendary aircraft, pored over drawings and technical specifications and learned how history, politics and cost overruns conspired to kill the Avro Arrow in 1959. His lecture on the storied interceptor jet at the Paris Museum in 2018 was one of our best attended and most appreciated.

When he retired in Mississauga, Eric turned to quieter pursuits: philately, local history, reading and freelance writing. He published two books: Mississauga Moments, a collection of stories of the history of Mississauga and More Mississauga Moments in the same vein.

How did he end up in Paris? Eric answered that question with one word in a conversation with this writer: “Love”.

He came to town on a visit, met Linda Charlton and was smitten. After a few more visits, he pulled up stakes and moved to Paris. Shortly afterward, he became a member of PMHS, then a regular Wednesday afternoon volunteer and an expert in scanning military photos and taking meticulous pictures of newly-accessioned donations.

Sometimes as he sat at the scanner, intent on work, people thought Eric was too busy for chatter or socializing. But when he broke for tea he shared tales of his travels and droll observations about life.

Eric made his mark in many fields and disciplines. The Paris Museum is lucky that our research room was one of them.

Carol Goar

Obituary for Eric William Gibson