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 – 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