A Visit to the Museum

07 Jan 2013

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, images in newspapers and journals were drawn by hand. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth-century that a halftone process was created for printing images. Unfortunately, during this early period, images tended to be romanticized, especially when dealing with historical imagery. This can leave us with false representations of our ancestors’ lives. Instead of these types of images, museums can be a great resource for you.

When referencing museums, the first thing most people think of is artwork like paintings and sculptures. But modern museums have a wide variety of collections. This is especially true for large museums in big cities. Their collections can include furniture, tools, jewelry, musical instruments, clothing and other textiles, and more.

Visiting a museum can help you get a better image of how your ancestors lived. What kind of furniture might they have had in their homes? How did they dress? What kind of jewelry might they have worn?

Some people make the mistake of thinking that only those items belonging to wealthy families end up in museums. Nothing could be further from the truth. While wealthier families often left items to museums, a good institution also focuses collection development on the accouterments of everyday living for the individuals from all socioeconomic levels.

In fact, if you are lucky enough to have an ancestor who was a silversmith, whitesmith, cabinetmaker, or worked at a similar trade, you might find a treasure trove. Items that were actually created by your ancestor might have ended up in the museum. (For those that don’t know, a whitesmith worked with lighter-colored metals, such as tin and pewter.)

Visiting a museum is not the only thing to do. It is also important to check their catalogs, either online or in person. Most medium-to-large sized museums have far more items in their collections than they could possibly display at one time. For this reason, many institutions lend items from their collection to other institutions.

A couple of years ago I was in Columbus, Ohio, researching for my book on the Franklin family at the Ohio History Center. Before visiting, I checked the online catalog. Among the items I wanted to look at were a bonnet, dress, and shoes worn by a Franklin descendant to the first inaugural of Abraham Lincoln. I was very disappointed to discover that they were on loan to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Most frustrating was that they were on loan through August 31, and I was due to be in Springfield for the FGS conference a couple of weeks after they were due to return to Ohio. While in Springfield I went to the Lincoln Museum and while wandering the exhibits, was pleasantly surprised to discover that the items were still on display there!


Spoon created by Benjamin Tappan of Northampton, Massachusetts, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. His wife was a grand-niece of Benjamin Franklin.


In addition to displaying and loaning out items, many museums are taking advantage of the internet to display items that remain in storage. Catalogs are expanding to include images. So now you can see information about the item, when it was created, a physical description, and a picture, as well as the provenance. Provenance traces the ownership of the item from its creation down to the gift to the museum or purchase by the museum. The provenance could be very helpful to you in your research.

Take advantage of all that museums have to offer you. Start visiting them, in person and online, and see what they can do to help provide context for your family history.