You’ve searched Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, gone to the library and maybe even taken a DNA test to discover your family’s immigrant origins. But for a genealogist, just knowing the country or region is rarely enough.
To find records in your family’s homeland, you need their town or village. And you probably want to understand how your ancestors lived, what they did for work, what they wore and ate.
Heritage museums give you a look at that culture’s history and people. Many have research centers (an overlooked genealogy resource!) with records such as foreign-language newspapers, maps, photos, histories and more. Staff often can help with research and translation.
Whether your ancestors hail from Germany, Ireland, Eastern Europe, Japan, Africa, Mexico or elsewhere, there’s probably a museum for that—including Family Tree Magazine‘s roundup of 11 Must-Visit Heritage Museums.
National Hispanic Cultural Center library, Albuquerque
These tips will help you do your best genealogy research at a heritage museum:
- Scan the museum website to understand its library holdings and geographic focus. The National Hispanic Cultural Center library in Albuquerque, NM, for example, is a great research destination for those with deep Southwest roots. It has more than 12,500 titles, and an archive with rare books, photos, maps and manuscripts.
- Search the online catalog (if there is one) for materials you’ll want to use.
- Call ahead to verify hours and any fees (including acceptable forms of payment), ask about special services such as translation or research consultations. Make an appointment with research center staff if needed.
- Check the museum’s events calendar in case you want to time your visit for a family history workshop or cultural festival (such as Historic Huguenot Street‘s annual Gathering).
- Find out about research room rules. For example, you may need to request materials ahead of time so they can be pulled for you, or use only pencils for note-taking.
- School yourself in the basics of history and genealogy for the heritage group of interest (Family Tree Magazine heritage research guides can help). You won’t have to spend as much of your visit getting up to speed.
- Bring a pedigree chart with as much information as you know. Summarize what you’ve learned about immigrant relatives, even if all you have is stories. “If your family talks about your great-grandfather who always went to the river to catch fish, that can be a clue to a geographic area,” says Karile Vaitikute of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago.
- Bring good-quality, full-color copies or high-resolution digital images of any records needing translation.
- Consider becoming a museum member or making a donation, especially if the research center charges minimal fees. Send a thank-you note to acknowledge help you received.
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i Tokioka Heritage Resource Center, Honolulu
To find museums focusing on your family’s heritage, search online for the country or ethnicity plus the words heritage, history or cultural and museum. Add the name of a city or town to narrow results to places in that area.