Welcome to the first in a series of blogposts by participants in our Internship in Public History program! Ten students who served as volunteers in public history during Summer or Fall of 2019 earned credit for their internship experiences by participating in a workshop featuring readings, blog writing and a panel presentation on their experiences. In the first of our blog series, Jensen Rehn describes her motivation for and experience as an intern at the Abraham Lincoln Lincoln Presidential Library during the summer.
History has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I gravitated towards my grandparents at family gatherings to hear stories from their childhoods.
In fact, on a shelf in my apartment, I still have a floral print notebook from 2010 where I wrote down stories my PapPap and Grandpa Rehn told me about growing up during the Second World War.
When I applied for a research and collections internship at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, I anticipated focusing on the nineteenth century. However, during my first few days in Springfield, I helped install “In This Great Struggle: The Greatest Generation Remembers WWII.” Rather than focusing on famous figures, this exhibit revolved around everyday experiences during the 1940s. Seeing correspondence between a young soldier and his wife reminded me of letters my PapPap received from his older brother who served in Europe.
Although most people associate the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum with the sixteenth president, “In This Great Struggle” highlighted other strengths of the collection. Building upon a sizable amount of 1940s propaganda posters, the exhibit took on a life of its own once oral history interviews recorded with Dr. Mark DePue entered the equation. Visitors to the finished exhibit could watch oral history interviews with individuals who lived through World War Two and whose items filled many of the gallery’s cases.
In order to prepare for opening day on the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, the museum’s registrar and exhibit designers taught me about exhibit installation through participation. I helped photograph items we received on loan from other institutions, vacuum sealed labels, and even spent an afternoon positioning items in the “Communication” and “Sweethearts” cases. The exhibit included amazing artifacts such as a still functioning 1942 U.S. Army motorcycle, Kenneth Hagan’s forged French identity papers, and a commemorative collar for Duke, a dog who died on Iwo Jima. However, I loved the sound booth in the back of the gallery where visitors could record their own memories. This area exemplified the exhibit’s intention to expand the experiences included in the story of World War Two.
Later on in the summer, I helped plan an exhibit about the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Whereas working on “In This Great Struggle” exposed me to the final stages of exhibit installation, I got to help brainstorm the design and layout of the Stowe display. Researching Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup and southern pro-slavery reactions fulfilled my expectations for the type of research my internship would entail. Nonetheless, I am thankful for the unexpected opportunity to reconnect with the type of stories that initially ignited my passion for the past by helping with “In This Great Struggle.”