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