Congratulations, you’ve embarked on your first research project for a museum. Either you’re a volunteer, an intern, or are actually lucky enough to be making some money doing this. So… where do you start?
First, throw out all the expectations you have in your head about this thing. When I started on my very first project, the only experience I had (that even came close to this type of endeavor) was writing my capstones and my Honors project (essentially all fancy terms for a thesis, of which I had to write three). While I thought the experience of having to write two capstone projects- including eight, yes eight, drafts of my English capstone- in one semester had prepared me, I was quite wrong. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised that that English capstone didn’t drive me to an anxiety attack. Or insanity.
Start off by laying yourself some kind of foundation, especially if you have no idea where to start. For instance, my first research project took place at the Elfreth’s Alley Museum in Philadelphia, which is the oldest continuously inhabited street in the nation- people have been living there since at least 1702, and the oldest home on the street dates from the mid-1720s. When I started volunteering there during the summer after I graduated from college, I started my project by laying out a timeline of the people who had lived on the street, which of the homes they had lived in, and what their occupation was. Initially, the project was supposed to involve the stories of the people who had lived on the street, but I didn’t have anywhere to begin if I didn’t know who had lived there. The museum was closed on Mondays, so for months I spent my Mondays sitting in front of a computer or a projector, looking at census records for the street. Eventually I had a complete list of residents stretching one hundred and fifty years.
Much of the reason Elfreth’s Alley is notable is that it has always been home to regular, everyday, working class people; the 1790 census saw residents who were mostly artisans- dressmakers, chairmakers, and bakers- and sailors, because up until the middle of the 20th century (when I-95 was built), the street ran all the way down to the Delaware River. Due to the street’s closeness to the river, in the nineteenth century it was home to a large community of immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany, who worked in factories, as firefighters, and as police officers.
While we ended up moving away from stories of residents to focus more on the individual museum house, the timeline I put together was still useful when we had people come to the museum looking to see the house their ancestors had lived in; it was easy to just punch the name into my list and come up with the name, occupation, and house number of a specific person.
Don’t be surprised if the records you find at your museum are all over the place. Which isn’t to say that every museum has an awful record-keeping practice, of course, but that sometimes, if there have been a lot of people in and out researching information and looking at files, things can start to get a little crazy.
In a file sent to me when I first started volunteering, some well-meaning former volunteer had attempted to put together a list of residents as according to the 1860 census. At the time, a German family with eight children was living in the museum house. They were all there on the list, but one of the children’s names was listed as “illegible.” Now, given that the older children were named Constantina, Bertram, and Matilda, and one of the younger children was named Washington (yes, like the president), I thought this child’s name had to be something entirely outlandish if the volunteer could decipher “Constantina” and “Bertram” but was befuddled by the name of the fourth child in the family. Sitting in front of a computer at the archives a couple of days later, I finally found the family and scrolled down the list of children: Constantina, Bertram, Matilda, and… Amelia. There she was, Amelia, plain as day, born March 1850 and age 10 at the time of the census.
Research projects like this can bounce around, so be prepared to take on some tangents. You’ll probably sit in plenty of meetings where your colleagues will toss out lists of ideas as long as your arm, while you’re sitting there thinking, uh, exactly how many people do you guys think are conducting research on this project? While it can be overwhelming, look at it this way: While most of the ideas your colleagues come up with are probably great, a lot of them aren’t actually going to come to fruition for some reason or another. Perhaps you’ve gone down that path already and the idea came to nothing, maybe the idea just isn’t compatible with the rest of the project. Whatever the reason is, the likelihood is that you probably aren’t going to end up researching many of the ideas your colleagues come up with.
That said, there may come a point where you find that you actually do have to keep track of the tangents your colleagues come up with because some ideas that actually make sense as an addition to your project. Alternatively, someone in your group might think it is a good idea for all of these ideas to be recorded somewhere, even if it’s just to keep a list of ideas that have been tossed around already.
Remember that the other people you are working with are there to help you, too. Don’t be ashamed to ask somebody for help–it is always better to ask, even if you feel foolish doing it, than to do a task wrong and have to do it again. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask for direction if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Asking, “Okay, and exactly what am I supposed to do with that information once I find it?” or “Okay, now what?” will often get you the answer you need- what to with the answers to that question you’ve been assigned to research, or what you might research next if you feel you’ve hit a wall with a previous topic and aren’t sure where to go next.
Finally, in the midst of the insanity that can be your first big post-school project, remember to have fun with it and to learn as much as you can! While in some cases you may not be getting paid to do it, how often are you going to get to spend all the time you like with census records from the 1800s and wonderfully old-smelling books, whether it be in your museum’s own records room or in libraries and research centers? The information you dig up and decipher might even change the understanding of the facts you thought you knew about your project.
Sarah Fife is a graduate of the College of Saint Elizabeth, where she studied English, History, and Journalism, including writing for the school’s newspaper and editing the literary magazine. In addition to blogging, she has worked for various historical sites in the Philadelphia area.