Public History Intern Blog #3: Mitchell Hayden

As a lover of history, I have always appreciated what museums do for the public and have always had a desire to work for one some day, I just never knew if such an opportunity would arise. Luckily, when I was picking out my classes for the Fall 2019 school year, I stumbled across this incredible opportunity to intern at a museum, and achieve college credit at the same time!

Flash forward to December 2019, and I was wrapping up an internship at the Champaign County History Museum, a small organization dedicated to preserving local history in the county. I was part of a team of two other student interns who were in the same program. Together, our responsibilities varied but essentially we were a big part of the museum’s day to day proceedings, such as working the front desk, opening and closing the museum, and keeping the building clean. In addition, the interns served as an aid to the museum board for their long term projects, such as public outreach and dealing with exhibits.Picture2

During my time at this museum, I learned a great deal, not only about local history, but about the purpose of public history, especially in a local context. In my experiences at the museum, I have witnessed many guests with deep personal connections with the county coming in looking for information about a topic that pertains to them, and it is always a pleasure to assist them. I have also made personal connections with some of the museum’s board members and volunteers, many of them are experts on the county history and hearing their own personal stories has been an experience I will not soon forget.

My personal favorite project that I was a part of at this museum was when we transitioned an entire new exhibit room. During this process the museum had to close down in order to get the work done. My favorite part was seeing all the volunteers and board members come together to complete this task. Over a two week span, together we =tore down the current exhibit, one that was dedicated to the University of Illinois’ 150 year anniversary. This exhibit had a lot of important artifacts so we had to make sure to carefully store them so they could keep their historical value. Then, we took the empty room and transformed it into an exhibit about the 1929 Harris Mansion Heist, Champaign County’s first high profile crime. Myself and the other interns helped in various ways throughout this process. Most of our tasks included painting walls, sanding Picture1platforms, and bringing artifacts to and from the museum’s storage unit. I enjoyed this experience the most because of the objects I processed as well as the people I got to work with.

The pictures shown here are from the completed stage of the new Harris Mansion exhibit. Some of the key items include the guns used in the heist and a game used football from the game that occurred on the same day.


Public History Intern Blog #2: Evan Nielson

Welcome back to our blog series by participants in our Internship in Public History program, which continues during Spring 2020.  After a brief hiatus, in the next weeks we will continue with  blog posts from last semester’s students who served as volunteers in public history during Summer or Fall of 2019.  Then we’ll move on to students working on internships now….creatively discovering the possibilities of public history in times when publics are temporarily not convening at museums.  We hope this series entertains you, in good health, wherever you are.  In the second blog entry in the series, Evan Nielson describes his experiences as a public history intern at the Elgin Historical Museum.   Also read, below, our first blog, by Jensen Rehn.IMG_6505Growing up in Bartlett, Illinois, there was always a sort of allure around the nearby city of Elgin, one of the larger suburbs in the area. Its relatively large downtown and many of its homes seem to come straight out of the early twentieth century. I’ve been passionate about history since I was a young kid, so the history behind Elgin always intrigued me. This past April, my good friend’s father, who often works in Elgin, told me about an opening for a summer internship at the Elgin Historical Museum. 

ElginHistoryMuseumFrankly, I had no idea that Elgin had a history museum, but it made total sense that they did. I was immediately interested in this opportunity; it seemed almost too ideal. Less than twenty minutes from my home, and I would get to work and do research related to my major, which can be a rare opportunity for underclassmen in the humanities. I quickly let my academic advisor know about this and he told me that this would not only be a great experience and a resume builder, but I could also receive credit hours for it through the completion of a seminar course in the fall! I enlisted the help of my roommate to shape up my mostly blank resume, and sent it to the museum director. Within a week, I knew I had the position. 

I was excited, but I had a lot of questions. How can I contribute meaningfully on a day to day basis? What will this small-medium size museum be like compared to the larger ones I’m used to seeing? And how many artifacts or documents will they actually have? I had to wait for those answers for more than a month until the spring semester came to a close. I met the staff and toured the museum within a few days of coming home. I was immediately struck by how much I much I didn’t know about Elgin, but considering the town was established 1835, elgin-watchesI really shouldn’t have been that surprised. I didn’t expect Elgin to have a rich pioneer history, but lo and behold, I saw a reproduction covered wagon and log cabin upon walking in.  I had heard that Elgin was quite the impressive town in the early twentieth century, but I wasn’t aware just how important it was at the time. It sported up to date architecture, exciting city life, and a multitude of industries, the most famous being the Elgin National Watch Company and Elgin’s dairy industry. Both of those companies were nationally successful and set the standards for their products at the time. I knew I was just scratching the surface of what all I could learn.

Those earlier questions I had were answered upon my first visit (1. Assist with educational programs, enter new items into the online catalogue, work on upcoming exhibits, etc. 2. The museum is run with the same amount of care, despite the smaller scale and number of personnel on staff. 3. Quite a lot. Many items document Elgin’s most important events and integral aspects, but many give a glimpse into the minute, nuanced stories and details of the city.) but upon pondering these answers, I ran into some questions with less concrete answers. For a city like Elgin that has living pieces of history everywhere, where does a museum fit into that equation? Elginites are very proud of their heritage, 4138-ImageLarge-Elgin-History-Museum-2and many of them have keen knowledge of their town’s past so what kind of new experience can the museum offer? That thought led me to another question: who makes up the majority of the museum’s patrons and why? Is it people who live closeby? If so, have they come before? If not, were they not aware of the museum before? It could be non-locals or travelers as well. If so, what compelled them to seek out a museum like the EHM? Either way, the EHM has so much to offer and could be appealing to all of these groups. Throughout my summer in this internship, I sought to find my own answers.