Great Aunts in the Archives

By Marisa Bourgoin
October 17, 2011
Photograph of three women, likely John Peto's aunts

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Photograph of three women in a tree
Three women in a tree, ca. 1895 / unidentified photographer. John Frederick Peto and Peto family papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

As a reference archivist, I’m well acquainted with the wide variety of projects in art history and related disciplines that our holdings can inform. Every now and then, though, we hear from a different kind of researcher—one for whom the papers of an artist or his or her family carry personal meaning. Family historians—or genealogists—are usually well versed in using a variety of government and other official records to fill out their family trees, but the experience of using manuscript collections, such as those at Archives of American Art, can be new and, hopefully, rewarding. A researcher may know of an artist in the family (somehow it’s often a great aunt), or have a work of art by the relative, and a search for more information leads to the Archives of American Art.

Most of our collections of artists’ papers include at least basic biographical information from the artist, but there are many that also have more detailed material of interest to genealogists, including family trees in the John Henry Bradley Storrs papers, the Winslow Homer family Bible, and other family records, such as genealogies in the Jervis McEntee papers. And, sometimes you find literal family trees, or families in trees. In this case, John Peto’s aunts.

Our oral history collections are another great source of information on artists’ families as many begin with questions about the artist or subject’s parents and upbringing. The interview with Kathleen Curry, the wife of artist John Stewart Curry, includes a wonderful description of her parents’ impromptu courtship and marriage.

I’m always happy to assist researchers in our reading room, but there is a special place in my heart for those who visit to explore letters written by their ancestors, view baby pictures of their grandparents, and round out the history of their families through first-hand accounts of births, marriages, deaths, travels, and careers.


Marisa Bourgoin is the Richard Manoogian Chief of Reference Services


love the way and explanation..

I love investigating my family history. Recently discovered a great forum which helped me to learn about my Scottish ancestors. People are very helpful, and ready to help you with investigation.